AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — You have to go back to Dec. 20, 1988 for the first time the Heat played at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Heat lost to the Pistons that night 116-100 to fall to 1-20 in their inaugural season. A lot has changed since then and more change is coming, as the Pistons next season are moving from the suburbs to downtown Detroit to play in the new Little Caesars Arena.
Can’t think of one reason why the Miami Heat should still be flirting with a playoff spot.
There’s only one active Miami player who even ranks in the top 10 of any significant individual category. That would be Hassan Whiteside, who leads the NBA in rebounding with an average of 14.1 per game, but nobody else on the team is even in the top 50.
As for scoring, which is kind of important in a basketball game, Goran Dragic is tied for 31st in the league at 20.2 points per game. The Heat, overall, ranks 24th.
You know the rest. Chris Bosh hasn’t played at all, and won’t. The team was 11-30 midway through the season, which is like being midway to the landfill in a garbage truck. Erik Spoelstra has been coaching his brains out with not enough good players, and not enough players of any kind who are consistently available.
Somehow, though, it’s happening, with Monday’s win over LeBron and the Cavaliers in Cleveland as the latest fireworks display shot from a supposedly empty cannon.
So they’re 30-34, and that’s not enough to get in, but it’s close enough to stare at the schedule pretty hard and see what’s coming up. Danger, that’s the short answer.
The long answer is try to get to that March 28 game at Detroit without falling into a hole and disappearing. The Pistons are one of the teams Miami is trying to catch for that final playoff spot in the East, and Detroit already has won two of three against the Heat.
It can still go either way, of course. Miami’s playing as well as anyone at the moment. On the other hand, the first Heat team after the Big Three era was 30-36 at pretty much this same point in 2015, and coming off an upset of the Cavs, too. What followed, however, was a 5-9 stretch that ended the suspense.
With a bunch of new faces and no Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, this Heat’s roster is full of question marks. But Miami’s new brand of basketball should be fun to watch, as the Heat will play fast and shoot a lot of three-pointers. A core of Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson should keep Miami in the playoff race for most of the season. Record: 40-42
Although the Heat are rebuilding, they will be entertaining. Miami is athletic, is going to hoist a lot of threes, will play hard and still has Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic leading the way. But it doesn’t have Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh and all that youth means the Heat will be sitting at home when the playoffs start for just the third time in the last 14 seasons. Record: 38-44
Too much depends on what the record looks like by the trading deadline in February to make much of an intelligent forecast. If Hassan Whiteside develops a more reliable offensive game and a thicker skin, Miami could be flirting with .500 by then. On the other hand, if Goran Dragic and the other guards don’t mesh into something comprehensible, Pat Riley could decide to blow the whole thing up by midseason. We’ll split the difference and say no disaster but no playoffs either. Record: 36-46
From winning the games they are expected to win, to handling their divisional opponents, the Heat will need to capitalize on every opportunity to pick up wins, both at home and on the road.
Following Thursday night’s release of the 2016-17 NBA schedule, here are the 10 most important games on the Heat’s docket:
Nov. 10, 2016: Heat vs. Chicago Bulls
Beyond the Dwyane Wade element of the Heat’s home matchup against the Bulls, the game will be played between two teams likely to be on the fringe of the playoffs. If both teams were fighting for a postseason spot at year’s end, holding court at home could help Miami ease its worries about potential tie-breakers.
Nov. 15, 2016: Heat vs. Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks finished second in the Southeast Division last season with the same record as the Heat. Though Atlanta lost center Al Horford in free agency, they did add Dwight Howard. Miami will need to protect its home court against a Hawks team many are picking to finish ahead of them in the standings.
Dec. 12, 2016: Heat vs. Washington Wizards
The Wizards struggled to a 41-41 record last season, good for fourth in the Southeast Division. But they added Trey Burke via trade and are expected to be better as Bradley Beal gets healthier. Much like their season series with the Hawks, the Heat will need to protect home court against a solid divisional foe.
Jan. 6, 2017: Heat @ Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are coming off of a 17-win season and — although they have good, young talent and added veterans like Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov — they are unlikely to improve significantly next year. Though the Lakers are not an Eastern Conference team, this is a game that Miami should be expected to win, therefore making it important that they do so.
Jan. 25, 2017: Heat @ Brooklyn Nets
The Nets won just 21 games last year and, despite adding Jeremy Lin, are expected to bring up the rear of the Eastern Conference. The Heat won three of four matchups against Brooklyn last season, but did drop a home game to the Nets just after Christmas. The Heat will need to handle Brooklyn, who are perceived as a lesser opponent, on the road.
Feb. 11, 2017: Heat @ Philadelphia 76ers
Much like the Nets, the 76ers are coming off of a disappointing campaign. Only Philadelphia fared much worse, winning only 10 games last year. The Sixers seem as though they are in a perpetual rebuilding mode, and the Heat need to take advantage of every matchup they have against the young and developing squad. While Ben Simmons may grow into one of the league’s top stars one day, the Heat will look to capitalize on his growing pains.
Mar. 3, 2017: Heat @ Orlando Magic
Another important divisional matchup, the Heat will need to win up the road in Orlando if they hope to remain near the top of the Southeast. The atmosphere isn’t as hostile in Orlando as in several other NBA cities, meaning that the Heat will need to capitalize. The Magic are an improved team, having added both Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka to their frontcourt. Nikola Vucevic also traditionally plays well against Miami.
Mar. 8, 2017: Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets
Charlotte, another divisional opponent, finished last year with the same record as Miami, and the two teams even met in the first round of the playoffs. Winning at home against the Hornets will be imperative for the Heat, who will be hard-pressed to win on the road at the Time Warner Cable Arena. The Hornets are expected to again compete for a playoff spot in the East and will represent a home challenge for Miami.
Mar. 28, 2017: Heat @ Detroit Pistons
The Heat won one of their two games last season in Detroit, losing the first by 23 points. Miami will have to at least duplicate that feat of winning at least one road game against a team that they will likely be jockeying for position with in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Mar. 31, 2017: Heat vs. New York Knicks
The Knicks made several moves in the offseason to bring in veteran talent. While it is no guarantee that their new additions stay healthy, on paper, the Knicks legitimately did improve their roster. Winning in New York — especially on the back end of a home-and-home series — will be a challenge for a young Miami team, meaning that they will need to take advantage of home court. Sending a message at AAA against a potential playoff team could pay dividends for the Heat down the road.