History informs. It’s important to know what a team was. The clearer picture we have of the past, the better we can predict the future. But all that data also has a nasty habit of limiting the scope of those projections.
Prior seasons help point us towards what a team is most likely to be. Yet sometimes it helps to take a giant step back away from percentages and outcomes and simply theorize on what a team could be.
As you’re most likely aware of by now following a whirlwind of announcements at the end of last week, the Miami HEAT has wrapped a good chunk of its business in free agency. Dion Waiters and James Johnson are both back on new contracts. Josh McRoberts was traded. Kelly Olynyk is now in the fold. Wayne Ellington was retained. There are a few roster spots left to sort out, but they’ll all join and re-join a core group that’s been in place for a couple seasons.
The HEAT, now, have their team.
“If you go into the season healthy and in shape, and you’re feeling good and there’s a commitment to each other, then the sky is the limit,” Pat Riley said. “You’ve got to go for it.”
You’ve also no doubt been reminded, especially if you spend a good amount of time on the social networks, that Miami finished the second half of last season 30-11 after starting 11-30. You’ve heard about the incredible three-point shooting, about Waiters’ clutch shots and Goran Dragic driving to the rim. You know about Hassan Whiteside’s improved defensive consistency, James Johnson playing point-center and Wayne Ellington shooting before he even sees the rim. You’ve heard about the injuries that held them back, the 13-game winning streak and the final, fatal losses that barred them from the postseason.
All of it accurate. All of it important. None of it capable of masking the fact that last year won’t be good enough. Teams that rest on last year fall short of last year.
“It’s getting old talking about how good we were in the second half of the season,” Tyler Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to putting it together.”
Some things you can re-create, some you can’t. Once Miami really hit its stride they enjoyed a two-month stretch of games where they shot over 40 percent from three while opponents shot less than 33 percent. Due to how noisy both those numbers can be, it would be a remarkably tough ask for any team to replicate that over the course of an entire season – only two teams have ever done it and the most recent, the 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs, took 629 fewer threes than the team with the fewest attempts this year.
The HEAT could shoot 40 percent from three for two months and they could prevent just as many on the other end, but they aren’t very likely to be a team that has both things happen at the same time, again, for so long.
What they can be is a team that does everything right to get there again, even if they never do.
They can continue to execute a drive-and-kick offense that was, for a time, a force of nature. Not only were Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters No. 2 and No. 5, respectively, in drives per 100 possessions, they were also, per Second Spectrum, both Top 10 in passes to shooters which originated in the painted area (per 100). No other pair of teammates in the league was so prolific at attacking and creating, which was by design. With all the same shooters and secondary ballhandlers back on the floor, plus the addition of Olynyk who can stretch from either frontcourt position, the HEAT can be that drive-and-kick team again.
“This is a combination guard league,” Pat Riley said. “You have to be two-way guards now. You have to able to score, have to be able to handle, defend, make threes and take it to the rack.”
They can also be the same dogged defensive group, fighting over the top of screens and harassing ballhandlers while simultaneously cutting off passing lanes and suffocating the rim. That’s a formula which led to the fewest opponent three-point attempts in the league, pace adjusted. Maybe more of those shots fall in the future, but the attempts you can control.
That defensive formula also led to the fifth-ranked defensive rating at 104.1. Why settle? Why not be Top 1? The gap between the HEAT and the No. 1 Spurs was greater than the gap between the HEAT at the No. 20 Washington Wizards. There’s room for growth with a largely returning cast. They can be more but it won’t be just because James Johnson is one of the league’s premier one-on-one defenders again or because Josh Richardson can’t stop blowing up other team’s fast-breaks. It’ll happen because they can be better – better at contesting shots in the in-between areas the defense is geared to force the ball into, better at containing all manner of pick-and-rolls and better at stopping or preventing mismatches in the post (despite the usual hyper-aggressive post denials).
With Olynyk and Adebayo, they have two new versatile additions to their frontcourt. Olynyk can shoot, pass and defend either big position, which makes him an enabler of just about any lineup combination Erik Spoelstra will want to try – and there won’t be any shortage of those.
“What we didn’t have, and have been looking for, are stretch four-fives that are highly skilled,” Riley said. “That’s where Olynyk came into the equation. He’s big, he sets probably the best screens in the NBA, or some of them. He gets players open, he gets your guards into the paint, he can step back for three. He’s an excellent passer…
“He’s a perfect fit with Hassan. He can play with him and we can play [Olynyk] with other guys. He and Bam can play.”
Adebayo is just 19 and will be on a long-term development process, but it’s possible that even in his first year he can defend multiple positions, including pick-and-roll switching, while helping to push the pace with a surprisingly high ball-skill level that’s been on display during Summer League.
They can get a healthy year from Josh Richardson, who bounced back to finish the last 15 games of the season shooting 43.8 percent from three with 3.0 combined steals and blocks per game.
They can get a healthy year from Justise Winslow, too, who played in just 18 games last year but has shown promising capacity as an on-ball playmaker in addition to his multi-positional versatility.
Rodney McGruder, who might be one of the least enjoyable players to compete against in the league, won’t be a first-year player anymore and stands to improve as a shooter.
Dragic, Whiteside, Waiters and both Johnsons each have areas where they can grow, and areas where they’ll have to fight just to be as good as they just were.
This is a roster that can fit as many different molds as are necessary and appropriate.
They can play big without clogging the floor.
They can play small without sacrificing defense.
That defense can be a choke-hold. The offense can be as explosively balletic as Baby Driver.
Sometimes, last year, they were many of these things. They can now be these things more times, and at the same times.
They also can be all these things and still not win at a 60-win pace like they did last season. That’s just how the results can play out.
They won’t have the element of surprise. Not in the underestimating sense of opponents thinking ‘we’ll probably be able to handle these guys fairly easily’ but that teams will be able to estimate them, period. The flip side of dealing with as many injuries as the HEAT dealt with last season is that it’s just as difficult for teams to prepare for irregular lineups as it is for the injured team to put them together. Now there’s a book out, a book that has anchored previous teams that enjoyed second-half runs, and teams are smart enough to figure out the end of the story if you don’t throw in creative twists.
One thing this team must be is just as competitive as they were last year. For all the versatility and strategy and how in the world do you defend James Johnson barreling down the floor when he’s the center, nothing was more crucial to the HEAT than their fight-like-hell desperation. Some shooters might naturally regress, some might improve and some powerful new lineup may reveal itself, but none of it compares to the impact of playing harder than the other five guys on the court.
This can be a 50-win team that earns homecourt advantage in the playoffs, but so can plenty of others. There’s luck and randomness involved in who reaches that level, yet it’s the teams that do what’s required to evolve make that outcome not just possible, but likely.
“They should be competing for that,” Riley said. “Thinking in those terms.”
This team can be many things and wear many faces. They just won’t be what they were.