My take on a series of Heat-related topics with two games left in the preseason:
Q: Is the Heat really interested in trading Goran Dragic to Sacramento for Rudy Gay?
A: The immediate answer is no. The long term answer could be yes. From everything I've heard consistently throughout this summer, Pat Riley, 71, doesn't want to sit on his hands and watch the Heat fade into irrelevance. And despite the surplus of available free agents next summer, he knows landing a big fish won't be easy for this Heat team without an established franchise player like he had before in Dwyane Wade. So, Riley is very much looking to make a trade or two to net a whale and begin pushing the Heat toward another championship run. That said, he doesn't have many assets right now having traded away most of the Heat's picks already to build the Big 3, and then to acquire Dragic two years ago.
So, could Riley trade Dragic? Absolutely. Making a deal with Sacramento for Gay, who could opt of his contract next summer, would free up an additional $14 million in cap space for Riley to work with, potentially giving the Heat more than $50 million to use overall if Chris Bosh's contract is also wiped off the books after Feb. 9. In the end, that could be enough to land two whales next summer.
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But when it comes to this rumor (and from what I've been told over and over again since the summer) Riley first wants to see what he has with Dragic pushing the pace and a young, supporting cast around him before he blows it up. If the Heat comes out of the gate and flops after 20 games (Riley has referred to 20 games as his barometer in the past), then trading Dragic for Gay (or to another team with draft picks and a player with an equal expiring contract) would make sense. But if Miami finds something unique here -- small ball with athleticism and a dominant center -- that is competitive and on the path toward a championship, then Riley probably won't pull the plug. Instead, he could tinker and land one whale in free agency this summer to replace Bosh.
Q: What can we honestly take away from the Heat's 4-2 preseason start?
Coach Erik Spoelstra has been adamant that we can't really read too much into preseason results since teams are usually working through issues and rotations and teams are often sitting their best players to keep them healthy for when the games really count. That said, the Heat's win at San Antonio last Friday was impressive even with LaMarcus Aldridge out. Miami's starters and regular rotation players held the Spurs -- with Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker -- to 39 percent shooting through three quarters and had a 20-point lead heading to the fourth quarter when the benches for both teams took over.
What's real about this Heat team is its depth at guard, versatility at power forward and improved three-point shooting.
Miami is shooting 40.1 percent from beyond the arc this preseason and has reached double figures in three-pointers made in five of its six games. After being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league last year, the Heat is finally playing like everyone else in the league and it is helping stretch the floor for Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside, who have said repeatedly this preseason they can't believe how much space they have to work with. It’s completely different than it was just a few months ago when the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors packed the paint against the Heat in the playoffs and dared Miami to shoot.
What’s also real? Nobody is being selfish right now. Asked Tuesday if it's important for him to start, guard Dion Waiters (whose reputation for selfishness before coming to the Heat was well-established) had an interesting response.
“I can't answer that right now,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's not about Dion right now.”
Yes, he talked about himself in the third person. But for those who know Waiters this is real progress.
Q: Speaking of Dion Waiters, will he be the starting shooting guard for the Heat this season?
Probably in the season opener and the first few games, but once he returns from injury expect Josh Richardson to move into that role starting role.
Part of what Spoelstra has done this preseason by having Waiters come off the bench in the Heat’s first three games and then start the last three is have Waiters buy into the notion he can be effective as a starter or as a sixth man. For much of the early part of his career, Waiters was hung up on issues like starting or being relegated to the bench. His attitude often reflected where he was in the pecking order with the Cavs and Thunder.
Spoelstra is erasing that notion, making Waiters buy into the team concept and telling him it will eventually pay off for him when he can opt of his contract next summer and earn a bigger pay day. Waiters is doing his own part, too. He acknowledged before camp even began he wanted to play for a team that could deliver tough love and tap into his talents.
Hearing Spoelstra's response when asked which Waiters he likes better -- the starter or the sixth man -- sheds light into how he’s handling the 6-4 guard.
“Right now what I've told him is to continue to try to get better and commit to the things that are important to us and I think he’s really been making an effort to do that,” Spoelstra said after Waiters scored 15 points and dished out three assists in Tuesday’s win. “He's been making a lot of multiple efforts defensively. He’s making an impact on that side of the floor. He’s being aggressive, but letting the game come to him, making the game easier for other people on the other side of the floor. It's three games of [starting], but again, don't look at any of these lineups too much. Guys are out. I'm just looking at whatever we can with the guys that are available.”
That last part makes me feel like Spoelstra is saying: Don't pay attention to who is starting right now at shooting guard because Richardson will be back soon.
Q: Is Tyler Johnson really evolving into a reliable point guard?
It's early. Very early. But it’s clear Johnson isn't the same hot mess at point guard he was last season when Spoelstra threw him to wolves in January after Dragic went down with a calf injury and Miami badly needed point guard help.
Johnson has 14 assists and only one turnover this preseason and he says the game is finally beginning to slow down for him a little bit when he’s at the point. Spoelstra has had a big hand in that. He’s made sure Johnson has run the point in practice regularly since camp began and stressed to Johnson all off-season how his focus should be on developing his point guard skills.
“You can drill it was much as you want, but until you're in the situation -- I need these reps, these game reps,” Johnson said Tuesday. “In practice it's good for me to get a feel for what guy’s tendencies are. But in the game, using my voice and being able to get guys in the right position and just knowing where I need to be is probably the biggest difference.”
With guard the real strength of this Heat team, the ideal situation for the team is for Johnson to thrive as a backup point guard, scoring and sharing the playmaking duties with Waiters, basically continuing what the starting lineup does with Dragic and Richardson. And Johnson has no problem coming off the bench -- even after signing that $50 million deal this summer.
“I definitely feel comfortable coming off the bench,” he said Tuesday. “It gives me a chance to see the game; see how things are going, and then I can come in and kind of add my own. If I need to inject energy or if I need to speed up the pace a little bit, I can do that.”
Having Johnson be a legitimate starting caliber point guard not only makes his four-year, $50 million contract worthwhile for the Heat, but it also makes trading Dragic away easier if they have to.
Q: Has Rodney McGruder pushed his way into contention for the Heat's final roster spot?
It looks that way.
When I asked Spoelstra on Monday if the battle for the 15th and final roster spot was between veteran point guard Beno Udrih and 23-year-old defensive dynamo Briante Weber, he said me it wasn’t. At the time I thought it was just coach speak to sidestep the issue.
But on Tuesday night it was McGruder -- not Weber or Udrih -- who made his way into the game first off the bench. In fact, McGruder came in with 2:38 left in the opening quarter for Waiters and ended up playing 23 minutes. He scored eight points and had two assists without a turnover. He finished plus-29 for the game.
Udrih, meanwhile, didn't play even though he was healthy. Weber played 13 minutes, entering late in the third quarter. He had five points, three assists and four turnovers.
“I thought Rodney was so rock solid,” Spoelstra said. “I don't even know what his stat line was, but he does so many things to help you win on both ends of the court. He really plays with a focused intensity. [That's] tough to teach.”
That sounds like a ringing endorsement. But before we get carried away, remember McGruder is shooting 39.5 percent from the field, 31.3 percent from three-point range and has played 17.1 minutes this preseason, most of which has come on nights when the regulars are on the bench or when they’ve sat out entirely.
Weber, meanwhile, leads the NBA in steals (17) this preseason. Although he’s made nearly as many turnovers (14) as assists (16), he gives the Heat something it doesn’t otherwise have on the roster -- a top-notch defender to opposing point guards. The Heat, meanwhile, has a lot of combo guards already on the roster.
And although Udrih hasn't played much at all this preseason, Spoelstra values what he brings as a steady hand to the offense as a true backup point guard.