MANILA, Philippines - The first year of the post-LeBron James era has been disastrous for the Miami Heat, as multiple injuries to key guys have turned what was supposed to be a proud campaign for the franchise into a survival to claim one of the two last playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.
The team’s max-contract guy and best player, Chris Bosh, was lost following the All-Star break after blood clots were found in his lungs. Back in December, Bosh also sat out two weeks due to a calf injury.
One of the team’s two biggest offseason acquisitions, Josh McRoberts, played only 17 games in a Miami jersey this season after a torn meniscus forced him to sit out the rest of the way.
The other marquee off-season signee, Luol Deng, has also battled injuries throughout the year and just recently suffered a knee injury that’s clearly hindering his play. And even in games where Deng has been healthy, the 29-year-old’s performance (14 points, 5 rebounds a game this season) hasn’t lived up to the $10-million-per-year contract he signed.
Though he seems past the chronic knee issues that has troubled him over the past few seasons, even Wade has sat out multiple stretches this season due to a hamstring injury, with Miami going 7-12 in his absence.
The Heat’s 24th pick in last year’s NBA Draft, Shabazz Napier, looked unimpressive in his limited play (38% FG shooting) and was recently shelved the rest of the season due to a sports hernia injury, bringing an already disappointing rookie campaign to a premature end.
Veterans like Udonis Haslem and Chris “Birdman” Andersen are also nursing ailments that have limited their performance, but due to the team’s current rash amount of injuries, both have decided to continue playing.
All the injuries have forced the Heat to turn to the NBA D-League and international basketball tournaments to find guys that can replace the gaps in their roster.
Doing so landed them a future centerpiece in Hassan Whiteside, who’s averaging 17.6 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks a game per-36 minutes this season. But even Whiteside suffered a lacerated hand a few weeks back and will be hobbled for the rest of the season.
The Heat’s key pick-up during the trade deadline, Goran Dragic, has been superb since shifting teams with 16.5 points and 5.3 assists a game averages. But the starting point guard hurt his back after moving to Miami, and has clearly looked far from 100% in the past few games.
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Miami is currently 35-44, a game and a half behind the seventh and eighth-seeded Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets (36-42), and half a game behind the ninth-seeded Indiana Pacers (35-43), with three games left on their schedule (vs. Toronto, Orlando, and Philadelphia). The Heat owns tie-breakers against the Celtics and Nets.
In hindsight, it looks like the Heat should give maximum effort in their last three games, or as their head coach Erik Spoelstra would like to put it, treat every remaining contest as if it were a game 7 of a series, for a puncher’s chance at garnering a playoff spot and potentially upsetting a higher-seeded team.
But there are other factors in play that could hurt Miami if they battle for a shot at the playoffs rather than rest their wounded warriors and tank the rest of the season. These factors, I believe, should lead Pat Riley, Spoelstra, and the rest of the team to pick the latter option.
1. Keep the draft pick
The 14 teams that don’t make the playoffs will receive the top 14 picks in the NBA Draft, with the teams that have the worst records getting the best chance to secure the higher picks in the NBA Draft Lottery.
For years, Riley has preferred to punt the draft and has used picks instead as leverage to improve Miami through trades and free agency. Just in February, the Heat nabbed Dragic because of two picks they sent Phoenix’s way in 2019 and 2021, proving how valuable an asset it could be.
As part of the sign-and-trade they utilized to acquire LeBron in 2010, the Heat sent their 2015 first-round draft pick to Cleveland, who then sent it to Philadelphia as part of the deal that landed them Kevin Love. The pick is top-10 protected, which means Miami can re-acquire their pick granted it’s one of the first 10 selections. Otherwise, the 76ers get the pick.
Draft simulations currently have the draft pick falling at no. 10, which means if the NBA season were to end today, Miami would likely get the opportunity to draft someone like Frank Kaminsky, Willie Cauley-Stein, or Myles Turner. Those names aren’t as eye-catching as Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor, but a pick in that spot could still yield a key role player for the Heat in the upcoming years, when Riley plans on having the team contend for an NBA championship again.
In 2011, the Golden State Warriors took Klay Thompson with the 11th pick, and he’s blossomed into an All-Star. In 2008, the Chicago Bulls were slated to pick ninth in the draft as they finished with a 33-49 record, but wound up winning the NBA Draft lottery - even if they had just a 1.7% chance of doing so - and took Derrick Rose with the top overall selection. Betting on the draft has its perks.
Photo from the NBA's Official Facebook page
If the Heat wins a game or two on their remaining schedule, which is possible considering they face lottery-bound teams in Orlando and Philadelphia, but still misses out on the playoffs because Brooklyn, Boston, or Indiana win as well, then not only would they watch the postseason from their couches; they would also improve their record to the point where they end up 11th or 12th in the draft race, losing their pick.
“We’re not wired that way,” Spoelstra said about tanking. “For better or worse, I’ve never even heard that in a conversation — thank God — in this building.”
Maybe it’s time to have that conversation.
2. Save the likely embarrassment
Even if Miami ends up with the seventh or eighth seed, that would mean a playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively. The Heat went a combined 2-6 against both teams in the regular season, with both victories coming on their home floor against the Cavs. Miami was swept by Atlanta, and two of those losses came in games where the Hawks’ starting line-up wasn’t even complete.
The reality is, Miami is more likely to get swept - or win just one game at best - against either foe in a seven-game series. Pundits have mentioned that the Heat making the playoffs would give postseason experience to their younger players, but a four-game sweep won’t supply much experience at all.
3. Rest for the weary
Wade is 33-years-old, and the Heat’s list of injuries this season has forced him to take a heavier burden than he should. Any rest he can get at this point of his career is significant if he wants to remain effective for more years. With the Heat likely to miss the playoffs (a 65.3% possibility, per NumberFire) it’s time to shut him down.
Some will argue that it’s only three games and that the possibility of an injury occurring isn’t high. But all it takes it one bad twist of the knee, one awkward fall, or one unfortunate bump, for an athlete to injury a body part, with the severity unpredictable and potentially very damaging.
Just ask Chicago Bulls fans who thought it was okay that Rose was playing with 1:22 left in a playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Bulls up 12 if it was still a good idea. Tom Thibodeau is a terrific head coach, but his mistake to keep Rose in that late will haunt the Bulls franchise forever.
Dragic’s back, Deng’s knee, and Whiteside’s hand need to heal. Haslem and Andersen are closer to retirement than they are to their prime years. Shut them down.
4. Evaluate the other talent and seek keepers for the future
The Miami Heat had utilized 21 different players and 30 different starting line-ups entering this week - numbers that are absurd, considering the importance of continuity in the NBA. That’s what injuries will do to a team, and Miami’s season has clearly been derailed by it.
But one positive from the constant shifts in their rotation is that Miami has had the opportunity to try out different players, from NBA journeymen, to cast-offs that went abroad, and to the NBA D-League, that could become future rotation players.
I already mentioned Hassan Whiteside. Another keeper prospect is Tyler Johnson, who’s averaging 11.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.0 steals per-36 minutes this season. The 22-year-old Fresno State product has played in only 22 games, but has shown flashes of brilliance such as when he went off for 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists against the Sacramento Kings on March 7.
Photo from the Miami Heat Official Facebook page
Henry Walker, 27, a former PBA import, has also seen a career renaissance with the Heat. Though his performance has dipped since he was signed to a season-long contract in March, Walker has recorded seven double-digit scoring games and played respectable defense.
Michael Beasley, who’s just 26, is in his third-go with the franchise after they signed him following his season in the CBA. This time around he’s displayed more effort and better defense compared to his past two tenures with the franchise. He’s also averaging 8.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 20.8 minutes a game, while giving the team’s second unit a much-needed boost in some games.
The 24-year-old James Ennis has really come on as of late, averaging 10.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in Miami’s last five games. He’s also very athletic. He’s signed with the team up to the 2016-2017 season, but the remaining two years in his contract have him set to make $845,059 and $980,431, respectively - figures the Heat could easily pay off if they waive him or trade to another team.
Not all of the names above will be a members of the Heat next year, when their core will feature at least Dragic (assuming he’s re-signed), Wade, Deng (assuming he exercises his player option), Bosh, Whiteside, McRoberts, Andersen, Chalmers, and other pick-ups.
Resting Wade and company for the last three games would give the four youngsters more playing time to show that they deserve a longer - and possibly richer - contract with the Heat beginning next season, when the team could start contending in the Eastern Conference once again.
5. The Pacers
This reason is more helpful to the Indiana Pacers, the NBA, and its fans way more than the Heat, but I’ll include it anyway.
If the Heat voluntarily fall out of the playoff hunt, it would leave only the Pacers chasing the Nets and Celtics. Boston has remaining games against Cleveland (2), Toronto, and Milwaukee, all playoff-bound squads, while Brooklyn has to take on three of four playoff-bound teams in Washington, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Orlando.
Indiana’s schedule isn’t any easier with games against Detroit, Oklahoma City, Washington, and Memphis, but with Paul George back - albeit still on a minutes restriction - and re-adjusting to his teammates, the Pacers have a great chance to make the postseason. And frankly, they have the best shot among the lower-seeded teams to score an upset.
Indiana has faced Atlanta twice in the last two NBA playoffs’, winning both times. The Hawks are much better this season compared to last, but facing a complete Pacers squad, who’s used to taking on Atlanta, isn’t going to be a typical walk-in-the-park first-round series for the #1 seed.
If Indiana grabs the seventh seed, it will lead to a fourth straight series against a LeBron James team. No center has given James more trouble in the paint than Hibbert, and other than Kawhi Leonard, no other small forward has had to make James work on both sides of the floor more than George. David West, George Hill, and head coach Frank Vogel are seasoned playoffs veterans, and will be tough challenges for playoff newbies Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and David Blatt.
The Pacers split their season series with Cleveland this year. In their one loss - the most recent meeting - the Cavs won by only three. And all four matches took place without George.
Neither Atlanta nor Cleveland will want to meet Indiana.