Spoelstra, 46, guided the Heat to the biggest turnaround in league history, going from 11-30 in the first half of the season to 30-11 in the second half. Miami is the only team in league history to finish .500 after being 19 games under at some point during that season. He did this without one player on the roster ever being named an All-Star and with the Heat leading the league with 328 player games lost to injury or illness.
The Heat tied with the Bulls for the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference but failed to make the playoffs, the final spot going to Chicago because of a tie-breaker.
Spoelstra has never been named Coach of the Year, finishing runner-up to Denver’s George Karl in 2012-13 after leading Miami to 66 wins. Pat Riley remains the only Heat coach to win the award when he was named the league’s top coach in 1996-97.
D’Antoni, 65, led the Rockets to the third best record in the NBA (55-27) and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference in his first season in Houston. D’Antoni improved Houston’s win total by 14 games and put James Harden in position to become a legitimate MVP candidate.
Popovich completed his 21st season as head coach of the Spurs. He led San Antonio to a 61-21 record, second best in the West. He has been named Coach of the Year three times, 2003-03, 2011-12 and 2013-14.
MIAMI – The most stunning turnaround of this NBA season has the Miami Heat squarely in the playoff picture.
The Heat (25-32) returned from a six-day All-Star break Wednesday after turning around a season in which they had won 27 percent of their games in the first half of the season to winning 14-of-16 and climbing within two games of the playoffs.
“We know what’s at stake,” guard Dion Waiters said Wednesday. “We just got to continue to stay locked in. I think everybody went somewhere for the break or did something. Some guys stayed back and got their work in, so it shows how important this thing is to us. I was working at home. Man, this is where the real season begins at.”
But can the Heat push hard enough to get there? While Miami is on the upswing, the metrics say otherwise.
“We earned the right to at least be in the discussion right now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said before the Heat parted for the break.
ESPN projects the Heat to finish 37-45, which means going 12-13 the rest of the way. It also believes the eighth-seed in the East will have 40 wins.
Of course, the metrics said the Patriots had a 2 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl midway through the third quarter.
So there’s that.
“Guys are hungry,” center Hassan Whiteside said. “We didn’t lose sight of the main focus. We’re coming in and going for that playoff spot.”
Miami enters the final two months in a race with Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Charlotte for the final two playoff spots, meaning the Heat are not just eyeing the eighth seed but has No. 7 in their sights.
Chicago is seventh a game in front of Detroit. Milwaukee is a game behind Detroit, Miami two games behind the Pistons and Charlotte 2.5. The Heat are three games behind the Bulls.
And the difference between No. 7 and 8 would be significant with the eighth seed likely facing defending champion Cleveland and LeBron James in the opening round as opposed to Boston.
PlayoffStatus.com gives Miami an 8 percent chance of finishing seventh and a 4 percent chance of moving up to No. 6.
Both project the same eight teams to advance in the East, but in different orders. ESPN has Detroit, Chicago and Indiana all finishing with 40 wins and the Pistons grabbing the No. 6 seed followed by the Bulls and Pacers. Indiana currently is one game ahead of the Bulls in the sixth spot, four ahead of the Heat.
PlayoffStatus.com has the current positions holding until the end of the season.
The computers do not like the Heat’s closing schedule. Although Miami is done with the top seven teams in the West; among the five teams competing for the final two spots Miami has the fewest games remaining against team under .500 (13) and the most against the top four teams in the East with nine. No other team has more than six.
Miami, though, does have more home games remaining (14) and its only game outside of the Eastern Time Zone is Feb. 27 at Dallas.
Milwaukee and Charlotte each have to play a five-game road trip out West.
Chicago and Detroit have the easiest road schedule with four games away from home against winnings teams – the Bulls though have a difficult stretch of home games against five of the top six teams in the West.
As for head-to-head games against the other four teams, Miami plays Charlotte at home and the Pistons and Hornets on the road. The Bulls also have three games against the other four teams while the Bucks have four, the Pistons five and the Hornets six.
Now that New Orleans has traded loose change, a bag of Nikes and Buddy Hield for one of the most talented (and unstable) players in the league, what should the Heat have offered Sacramento for DeMarcus Cousins?
We put that question to our Heat followers and the responses were interesting. Some believe the 6-foot-11 multi-talented Cousins would be worth any two players on the roster while others want no part of a player whose emotional outbursts and short fuse have made him a major distraction.
And then there is the question about whether the Heat even were interested in acquiring Cousins. The Kings are getting hammered for the deal, which included Hield, a couple of throw-ins, a 1-3 protected first round pick and a second round pick. But Cousins is toxic and who knows how many teams truly wanted to bring him into their locker room.
If Miami did, our Twitter GMs have plenty of suggestions:
@tommy_aether: Any combination of anything on the roster
Anything? I guess that means Cousins would have been worth Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow or Josh Richardson? Or if the Kings preferred and expiring contract, Dion Waiters?
@RjSonbeek: Winslow, Richardson, Tyler Johnson and a future first.
Interestingly those who did not like this package were more upset that Johnson was part of it then Winslow and Richardson.
Then there is the Hassan Whiteside debate.
Streetlegend18: whiteside in an instant!
@nmgopman: don’t know that i would…can’t imagine Hassan and Boogie being able to play together, and I wouldn’t give up Hassan
@Ms_Mambo Nothing. We don’t need to add a second knucklehead.
The Pelicans are gambling that Cousins and 6-10 Anthony Davis can co-exist. Although they look different – Cousins is 270 pounds compared to Davis at 253 – they do have similar games in that both are not afraid to launch from deep, especially Cousins who has gone crazy this season with 4.9 3-point attempts per game.
Whiteside is completely different center, one who plants in the low post. Still, with both players still dealing with maturity issues that combination certainly would have been a challenge to the Heat, coach Erik Spoelstra and the players. That, and exposing Boogie to South Beach may not have been the smartest idea.
And remember, the Kings once had both players in their organization.
The Heat are in a precarious position. A month ago, dealing James Johnson or Dion Waiters, or even Goran Dragic, would have been considered for the purpose of strengthening their attempt to rebuild this summer. Johnson and Waiters will be free agents anyway and considering Miami was sitting there with the second worst record in the league, getting something in return, likely a draft pick, would have made sense. Same with Dragic, which would have had the extra benefit of clearing another $17 million of cap space this summer.
But that plan was altered when the Heat (25-32) won 14-of-16 games entering the break, went from the team with the second-worst record in the league to the 13th and from 9.5 games out of a playoff spot to 2.
Still, Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg will not sit idly by as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches. But they are in a difficult spot of making a deal that could give this team a little push toward the playoffs but without sacrificing any long-term flexibility.
In other words, Miami is not going to make a trade for the sole purpose of helping this team. If a deal is made in the next couple of days it will be with the future as the primary focus but not tossing in the towel on this season, either.
With that plan, here are a few options for the Heat.
Wilson Chandler, 6-8 small forward, Denver: Chandler is unhappy in Denver despite career-highs of 15.4 points and 6.7 rebounds. Chandler is a solid defender who is shooting 45.8 percent from the floor but isn’t anything special from long distance at 33.8 percent on 3s.
At 29, he’s been in the league nine years. The Nuggets have a nice young core and may be willing to deal some of their veterans like Chandler or Danilo Gallinari.
Trading for Chandler likely would cost the Heat James Johnson as part of the package. But more pressing would be Chandler’s contract, which is $11.2 million this year and has $25 million remaining on its last two years. First, the Heat would have to like him enough and believe he is an important piece for the future to lose some of that cap space and Miami would insist Josh McRoberts be part of any deal that includes eating into its cap space to mitigate losing some of that flexibility.
Terrance Jones, 6-9 power forward, New Orleans: The Pelicans are actively shopping Jones, according to reports, after acquiring Cousins. Jones signed a one-year deal with New Orleans for just more than $1 million last summer after being released by Houston. He is averaging 11.5 points and 5.9 rebounds. And although Oklahoma City appears to have emerged as a leader for Jones, the Heat are among the teams linked to the 25-year-old from Kentucky.
Dealing for Jones would take some creativity. A one-for-one deal would be difficult because of the salaries. Considering the Pelicans need perimeter help the only matches would be Josh Richardson and Rodney McGruder. Richardson is out of the question and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has praised McGruder for what he brings the team beyond the box score. Still, nobody is off limits.
Jones would be a nice fit at power forward where Luke Babbitt has been starting. Jones is a career 50 percent shooter from the field but under 30 percent on 3s. And for those thinking about it, although Babbitt’s salary matches up with Jones’, he was acquired from New Orleans last summer prohibiting Miami to trade him back to the Pelicans this season.
Trevor Booker, 6-8, power forward, Brooklyn: Perhaps the best fit at power forward – and perhaps longest shot to acquire – would be Booker. At, 29, he is having his best season after signing a two-year, $18.4 million contract with the Nets last summer, averaging 10.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. And Booker would fit right in for another reason, he has a reputation as one of the hardest-working players in the league.
Sounds like someone Brooklyn could use, but the Nets clearly are starting over and this process will continue for several more years, so why not try to move some of the veterans for either a young player or picks (which would prohibit the Heat considering they cannot trade their first round selection this year). Ideally, the Heat could do the deal for McRoberts, but that is wishful thinking seeing he, too, has one more year remaining, although at about $3.3 million less than Booker. The Nets need young players, the Heat have a few, but may not be willing to part with the ones necessary to make this work.