It’s hard to figure out any of the teams in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, where only four games separate the No. 3 seed from the No. 9 seed. One losing streak or one easy stretch of games can move a team from having homecourt advantage to slipping out of the playoffs entirely or vice versa. There’s just not much separation between a group of teams that are one injury to LeBron James from being legitimate threats to make the NBA Finals and one injury to any of their rotation players from a failed season that causes the team to be blown up.
No team is straddling that balance more than the Miami Heat, who have been one of the most enigmatic teams in the NBA all season. On paper, there’s no one in the East who would present more match-up problems for the Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven-game series. Kevin Love would have a difficult time guarding Chris Bosh or Hassan Whiteside and Kyrie Irving would have a difficult time guarding Goran Dragic or Dwyane Wade. The Heat even have two big and physical wing players - Luol Deng and Justise Winslow - who could theoretically force LeBron James to work for his points.
The problem is that games aren’t played on paper and Miami hasn’t been able to get the most out of their players this season. They have a 28-22 record and a +0.1 point differential, the lowest of any team in the top-9 out East. To make matters worse, they had a relatively easy schedule over the first few months of the season (their strength of schedule is currently 20th) and a tough stretch of games ahead of them. If they aren’t careful, they could easily find themselves out of the playoffs, which would be a disaster of unmitigated proportions, considering the amount of money and assets they have invested in this team.
The only one of their star players really playing up to his potential is Bosh, a guy with such an unassuming game that he could fit on just about every team in the league. A versatile 6’11 big man with a complete game and a high basketball IQ, Bosh can do just about everything on the basketball court at a high level and he makes the game easier for anyone he plays with. That’s what makes the struggles of this team so puzzling - it shouldn’t be that hard to build a team around him.
The guy who has gotten the most negative publicity is Hassan Whiteside, an uber-talented young center who puts up huge statistics but not in a way that’s necessarily helpful to the team’s success. Whiteside is one of the best shot-blockers and rim-runners in the NBA and he’s in line for a huge payday in the offseason. The question Miami is going to have is whether they should give money to Whiteside when they have already given Dragic and Bosh max contracts while Wade, who is also set to enter free agency, will undoubtedly want a huge contract as well. How much money can they shell out to keep together a team that hasn’t proven they can win at a high level?
Dragic might be the most frustrating player on the roster, in terms of the difference between his talent level and what the Heat get out of him. One of the most electrifying players in the league when he was with the Phoenix Suns, Dragic has been reduced to a role player and a glorified spot-up shooter in Miami. He’s averaging 12.1 points and 5.1 assists a game on 46.4% shooting, which is not an awful lot for a guy in the first year of a five-year $86 million contract.
Lurking beneath the surface is the play of franchise icon Dwyane Wade, who is putting up numbers in line with his career averages without having the same impact on the game. At the age of 34, he’s having his worst field goal percentage season in eight years, raising the question of how long a guard without a three-point shot can delay the aging process and remain the primary hub on offense. The problem with Wade is that it’s hard for him to be a secondary player when he can’t stretch the floor - opposing defenses don’t have to guard him when he’s playing off the ball and his usage rating (32.2) is as high as ever.
The underlying issue is that Miami has a bunch of players who need the ball in their hands to be effective and not enough guys who can spread the floor for them. The Heat are 26th in 3-point makes, 25th in 3-point attempts and 28th in 3-point percentage. With reserve guard Tyler Johnson out for at least two months following shoulder surgery, they don’t have a single player in their rotation shooting above 37% from 3 and they have five different perimeter players shooting below 34%. In a league getting faster and shooting more 3’s by the season, Miami plays at one of the slowest paces and takes one of the fewest amount of 3’s. It’s a far cry from the heyday of the LeBron James era, when they were at the forefront of the pace-and-space revolution.
The interesting thing is there aren’t two players more ideally suited to playing spread pick-and-roll basketball than Bosh and Dragic. Bosh has an ideal combination of length, speed and shooting ability at either frontcourt position while Dragic is still one of the fastest guards in the league and a guy who learned at the feet of Steve Nash in Phoenix. With both Whiteside and Wade set to enter free agency, the question is how much both players fit with that style of basketball that maximizes the games of the two guys whom they have the most money invested in.
The net rating of Bosh and Dragic when paired with either player isn’t great. The pairings of Whiteside and Dragic (+1.3) and Wade and Dragic (+0.9) are barely in the positive while Bosh and Whiteside (-0.7) are Bosh and Wade (-0.9) are both in the negative. Compare that with the sterling plus/minus numbers that Bosh and Dragic post with guys like Gerald Green and Justise Winslow and it’s hard not to wonder whether the Heat need to shake things up.
Their core hasn’t gotten a chance to play together in the post-season and they have a coaching staff who has proven they know how to make adjustments in the crucible of a seven-game series so it’s hard to count them out at this point. There’s going to be no team in the East more interesting in the next few months if for no other reason than that there’s no team with more difficult decisions ahead of them. Miami has a great collection of individual talent - they just need to figure out how to make them better than the sum of their parts and they are running out of time to do it.