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Haslem, Wade Share 'Maintenance' Plan In Quest For Fourth Ring

Together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem shared a warm embrace to encapsulate a third championship last June. The longest-tenured Miami Heat players signed professional contracts in August of 2003 and suffered a 15-win season six years ago, but conversations between the two begin on the successes and ability to sneak up on people doubting their NBA longevity.

This season, the Heat devised what they phrased as a “maintenance” scheme to maintain the strength in Wade’s knees – only discreetly involving Haslem, a postseason savior hidden in the deep reaches of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation for a reason. Haslem went the entirety of February benched, given doses of Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision, and will miss over 34 games for the same cause.

No key contributor in a title run simply disappears like this, healthy and able. Haslem had started 19 of 23 playoff games a year ago, knocking down clutch jumpers and conducting critical defensive stands, absorbing the physicality of the Indiana Pacers’ frontcourt and never fearing the consequences. While Wade and Spoelstra held endless dialogue about his “maintenance,” privately Haslem never expected his own protective plan, never saw all the DNP-CDs coming in a healthy season.

Only Spoelstra’s system and culture and the best player in basketball afford the absences of Wade and Haslem for most of the season, and still compete for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

“Oh, no, I didn’t know I was going to be sitting all those games this year,” Haslem told RealGM. “Had no idea. It was difficult going through the situation, but I kept myself ready. I worked out every day with [James Jones], Rashard [Lewis], [Michael] Beasley, Toney Douglas and Justin Hamilton, playing three-on-three and keeping each other encouraged.”

As the basketball microscope focused on Wade, Miami concealed Haslem, too, and now the 33-year-old finds his rhythm in the season’s final weeks. As an undrafted player 11 years into his career, Haslem’s an ultimate overachiever. At 6-foot-8, he closed any gap in height or power with grit and a fearless mind. When Haslem buried six jumpers and had 17 points in Game 3 of the Conference Finals last May, some teammates would say in the post-game locker room, “Don’t sleep on U.D.”

Someone assuredly will in May and June, and Haslem has capitalized so often. For now, Spoelstra trusts Lewis and Haslem in the rotation, but the coach knows that leaving just spot minutes for Shane Batter – with his penchant to make crucial shots and place his body on the line – is an unlikely proposition in the playoffs.

Everyone has a calling come postseason, Spoelstra says, and now he’s challenging his locker room to sustain a competitive disposition, to stay motivated against desperate teams.

No matter how wise the Heat’s approach with Wade could turn out to be, there are varying beliefs around the league about a player fluctuating in game action, fluctuating in flow, in his prime years. None of it would matter should a hamstring or a knee give out, like his right hamstring had last week due to spasms late in the loss to the Pacers. In the end, Wade will play less than 60 games for the first time in a full (non-lockout) regular season since 2007-08.

“For Dwyane, it’s precaution,” Haslem said. “Managing his body and making sure it doesn’t get worse.”

Their diligence to Wade’s fitness pushed Miami to scour for combo guards before the trade deadline, and Pat Riley ultimately acquired Toney Douglas from the Golden State Warriors in January. Despite speculation surrounding a possible parting upon his arrival, the Heat never notified Douglas about plans to complete a buyout or release, a source told RealGM.

Douglas understood he was kept around for moments when the voids of Wade and Ray Allen created available minutes in the backcourt, and he’s scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished nine assists over the past two games.

“I know I can play, and when I’m on the court, I produce and do my job,” Douglas said. He was part of the New York Knicks team that lost to Miami in the first round in 2012, and when traded, he saw the selfless attitude within a locker room with championship credibility. “Right when I came in, I could tell the top players – LeBron [James], Wade and Chris [Bosh] – lead by example. It’s all about winning. There is a winning mentality here.”

Only about winning for the Miami Heat, and out of a philosophy from the San Antonio Spurs’ playbook, a team with title pedigree must be handled delicately. Rest and attrition is valued in the journey from October to mid-April. Together, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem share the same highs of prosperity, the same low of futility, in this franchise. Together, their plan for freshness could prove genius in June.

Heat Left Vulnerable With No Deal To Improve Bench

Listed as the top-heavy title darlings at 11/5 odds, the Miami Heat are still largely considered the favorites to win the title this season. LeBron James is playing at an all-time top-5 individual basketball level while also seemingly leaving enough in the tank to win 16 games again in late April, May and June.

Yet, oddsmakers and the general public seem to forget how incredibly difficult it is to threepeat in the NBA. Only three NBA franchises (Celtics, Lakers, Bulls) have been successful in completing the feat of winning three championships in a row in NBA history.

“There’s a reason these teams don’t do it,” Steve Kerr tells Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. “Emotionally, it’s just exhausting to keep doing it year after year, particularly when you have to deal with everything Miami has to deal with on a daily basis, just the constant critiquing and scrutiny on the team, and then you factor in the injuries with Wade and Bosh and their health. I don’t think Miami will get out of the East this year.”

While other contenders have been constantly tweaking their rotations up until the trade deadline, the Heat have stood pat with what they’ve had, other than shedding the contract of Joel Anthony for unserviceable guard Toney Douglass. Miami's rotation this season is much thinner than in previous seasons, and the pressure of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden to produce consistently would be a stretch.

The Indiana Pacers swapped Danny Granger for the talented former second overall pick Evan Turner to help provide more consistency as a swingman off the bench. Additionally, the Pacers were able to add Andrew Bynum as insurance for big man depth on their roster. Through 60 games, the Pacers bench has produced a solid positive 0.6-point differential compared to a negative 0.7-point differential last year per NBA.com. 

Over the past two years, the Pacers have closed the gap on the Heat. Fused with the drastic annual improvements to now superstar Paul George, breakout player Lance Stephenson, a relentless pit bull-like mentality from David West, and the ruthless interior defense from Roy Hibbert, the Pacers are hungrier than ever to get past the Heat.

Comparing the rotations of the Heat last season to this one can give us a solid idea of its lack of depth. The loss of Mike Miller has pushed veteran Shane Battier to play even more meaningful minutes than what he signed up for. Outside of Battier, Erik Spoelstra is forced to use Beasley in hopes of spelling LeBron and Battier minutes in the playoffs. Miller was crucial in huge moments in last year’s playoffs hitting timely three-point shots as he did in 2012. Except for Ray Allen, the Heat have been unable to find a consistent three-point shooter that could take pressure off the Big Three.

Additionally, the loss of Anthony in favor of Oden should be looked at intently. Sure Oden beats Anthony from a talent standpoint, but trusting him to play a solid 15-20 minutes off the bench to spell Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen in the playoffs would be taking a huge risk, considering how brittle Oden’s knees are.

Lastly, we all know how much of an X-factor Dwayne Wade is for the title chances of the Heat. Last year, the Heat were in serious trouble against both the Pacers and Spurs, but Wade was able to string together a couple of old vintage performances. Because of Wade’s career long knee woes, we have only seen ‘flashes’ of his superstar play, rather than the old Flash we have all come to know. Wade’s knees aren’t getting any healthier even though he has been more strategic about rest throughout the regular season. Through the past three years, Dwayne Wade’s usage rate and PER has dropped each year, 28.9, 27, 25.4, and 26.37, 24.04, 22.43, respectively.

“As you get older, your game has to change and you have to think the game,” Wade tells Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, “more than anything when you’re young, you just react….now you got to think the game, and so certain games when I’m frustrated with myself because I’m not thinking the game like I should, but for the majority of it, I do a good job of reading the game and thinking the game a little.”

Wade knows he can no longer rely on his athletic ability and must develop a craftier skill-set in order to prolong his basketball career. The Heat personnel put even more pressure on guys like Wade in order to produce by not providing much depth to back him up. Turner cost the Pacers merely $500,000 in order to acquire him, so while the Heat didn't have a huge expiring contract to cash in for a player like him, it is hard to imagine a deal for depth couldn't be made. Because of the talent in June's draft, this season has produced an even larger than normal surplus of teams trying to tank; therefore its quite strange to see the Heat not even make a minor move to help insure their team even a bit of depth on their quest for the rare threepeat.

During these upcoming playoffs, we will witness James realize his supporting cast is weaker than previous seasons, thus raising his game to another level. Similar to the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals in Game 5 when James scored the final 29 of 30 points for his Cavaliers, there is a good chance this type of performance will be required from him. His usage rate and stats will all be at all-time highs, yet it is still difficult to see the Heat winning a third straight title without the suitable supporting cast. 

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

Thursday at the NBA trade deadline, we saw a total of 26 players, seven second round draft picks, and zero blockbuster trades. On Friday, we covered how the 10 players that ended up on West teams will shape the playoff race, and now we are looking at the 16 that were sent to the D-League…whoops, I meant the Eastern Conference.

While the Western teams made a few smart, calculated trades to improve depth (Steve Blake to the Warriors) and cut costs (possible buyout for Jason Terry from the Kings), the East had the biggest deals of the deadline. The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

The Brooklyn Nets traded their disappointing – but playoff tested – guard, Jason Terry, for the Sacramento Kings' disappointing – and never played in a playoff game – guard, Marcus Thorton. Thorton, who once averaged 21.3 points per game, is a solid sixth man and capable of scoring in bunches when needed though he has struggled badly this season. He will likely provide relief for Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson down the stretch of the season. However, adding his extra $730,000 in salary means paying a ridiculous $3.3 million in tax, bringing their total to over $88 million on taxes alone…for a team that won’t get out of the first round.

The Cleveland Cavaliers traded for 76ers' center, Spencer Hawes. He will likely anchor their team right to where they were destined to be before they traded for him…the lottery. Hawes is a talented 7-footer who leads all centers in three-pointers made and percentage, is an elite passer for his position, a good scorer and rebounder, and a capable body on defense when he cares. Forced to play on a hapless Philadelphia team, Hawes had no reason to try over the past few months, but as he heads into free agency this offseason, expect his production to go back up for the Cavs. Despite the addition of Hawes and recently acquired Luol Deng, this team is unfortunately still coached by Mike Brown, suggesting they are likely doomed to miss the playoffs and then ultimately lose Hawes and Deng to free agency for nothing.

Professor Andre Miller, PhD left his classroom for winter break on December 30th and has been M.I.A. ever since. However, after being traded to the Washington Wizards, you can rest assured Professor Miller will be making a teaching once again. Miller, who was restless under indecisive rookie head coach Brian Shaw will be a capable backup behind John Wall, likely helping lead this Wizards team to homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Charlotte Bobcats made a good deal at the trade deadline. Say it with me: “The Bobcats did something right.” They traded valuable but redundant point guard, Ramon Sessions to the Milwaukee Bucks along with Jeff Adrian for Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal. Ridnour is a terrific backup point guard who can play behind or with Kemba Walker, while Neal is an outstanding shooter who won an NBA Finals game last season by scoring 24 points in 25 minutes!

In the only move that might affect the NBA Finals this season, the Pacers trading former All-Star forward, Danny Granger to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. Turner is a do-it-all forward who has fallen out of favor league-wide because he has failed to live up to the hype of a second overall pick. Turner should play with the first unit as well as anchor the second for the Pacers. His ball handling will allow George Hill, Paul George and CJ Watson to get free and take uncontested shots while giving them insurance –albeit expensive at an $8.7 million qualifying offer or whatever long-term offer he receives – in case Lance Stephenson leaves in free agency. Additionally, Allen started in the playoffs only two seasons ago and is a capable big man off the bench. Most importantly, Larry “The Legend” Bird signed off on this trade, thus, it must be great.

The last set of trades involved the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks. Each team gave up players that weren’t part of their future and received cash, second round draft picks, and laundry service for a year in exchange for helping another team out. The Heat traded Roger Mason Jr. and cash for a pick they will likely never see in order to open a roster spot for Caron Butler (Tuff Juice wants to go home!). The 76ers, who were involved in a league-high four deals during the trade deadline ended up with five second round draft picks and five players that won’t be buying property in Philadelphia. Finally, the Hawks acquired Antawn Jamison from the Clippers and enough cash to take him out to a nice dinner before buying out his contract.

Compared to the four West teams that made a deadline deal, eight of the top ten Eastern franchises made a deal with only Chicago and Detroit remaining inactive. Whether this reflects the fragility of the Eastern Conference standings (5th place through 11th is separated by just 5.5 games), or the strength of the mighty teams in the West (3rd place in the East would be 10th in the West) is anyone’s guess. With that said, all these moves outside of Indiana and Miami are moot because none of them are making the Eastern Conference Finals.

Indiana Pacers Vs. Miami Heat, Round III starts May 20th – Get ready, America!

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