Note to LeBron James: The Heat is coming for you.
With point guard Goran Dragic by his side Thursday, Heat president Pat Riley called his team a contender in the East, and for emphasis added, “and I mean contend high.”
Five years to the day the Heat introduced James to the City of Miami with an audacious offseason party, Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra flanked Dragic for a news conference that lacked the showiness of that 2010 free-agency bonanza but didn’t suffer one bit for confidence.
The Heat signed Dragic to a five-year deal for around $86 million Thursday morning — the first day teams were allowed to sign free agents — and in doing so reiterated its expectations for next season. Miami missed the playoffs in April, but anything less than a deep postseason run next spring will be considered a failure.
“I think all the players are coming back highly motivated,” Riley said. “And I think with a complete roster that we can contend in the East.
“We’re gonna go for it.”
Guiding the way back to prominence will be Dragic and shooting guard Dwyane Wade, who also agreed to a new contract last week. Wade’s deal, one year for $20 million, is expected to be formalized Friday. With Dragic and Wade in the backcourt, Luol Deng on the wing and Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside in the paint, the Heat’s starting five looks the part of a serious player in the Eastern Conference.
“This organization wants to win a lot of championships, and it’s always there,” Dragic said. “And that was one of my first goals, to continue my career to be somewhere we can win, and that was an easy decision for me because it’s a great organization, and a great team surrounds us.”
Though the core appears set for training camp, Riley, Spoelstra, general manager Andy Elisburg and CEO Nick Arison are still appraising the Heat’s depth, and the tinkering could extend into next week. Former Phoenix Suns perimeter shooter Gerald Green was added Thursday, and others — including power forward Amar’e Stoudemire — are also on Miami’s radar if the price is right.
Green reportedly agreed to a contract for the veteran’s minimum ($1.4 million). He made 137 three-pointers last season, or 59 more than the Heat’s most prolific outside threat (Deng, 78 three-pointers). Spreading the floor with a shooter will be important with two starting guards who specialize in aggressive drives to the paint. Wade is one of the best attacking players in NBA history, and Dragic converted paint attacks at an exceptionally high rate last season. He was 303 of 444 (68.3 percent) on shots within five feet of the basket.
To put that number into perspective, James Harden, a finalist for the league’s MVP award last season, was 305 of 542 on shots close to the rim.
“He’s a special, special player, and point guard, off-guard, two-guard — you take a look at the numbers, and when a guy finishes 70 percent and he’s 6-3 or 6-4 at the rim, then you know you’ve got somebody that’s unique and fierce,” Riley said of Dragic. “There are not many big guys that finish like that at the rim.”
Spoelstra gushed about Dragic’s toughness as well, calling the 29-year-old Slovenian “as fierce as any competitor in the league.”
“And that’s what you want from your point position,” Spoelstra said. “He controls the floor, controls your players as an extension of the coach, and you want somebody like that. You want somebody tough.”
With Dragic at the helm of a healthy team, Spoelstra plans to implement a versatile offense during training camp, but one that favors speed in the open court. That’s Dragic’s specialty, and it’s that style that helped him earn All-NBA honors with the Suns.
The challenge for the Heat: Making all the pieces fit. Dragic has never played with Chris Bosh and reserve Josh McRoberts, who were both injured last season when Dragic joined the team. With those players back, the Heat will look completely different than the product that sputtered to an embarrassing finish in April.
“Everybody knows my style,” Dragic said. “I like to play fast, I like to be in the open court and try to make easy plays for others. But this is a team sport, and everybody needs to make a sacrifice.
“We have a lot of good players on this team, but in the end the most important thing is going to be how the team is playing together. Of course we’re going to try to find a good mix for everybody. That’s the right path to succeed.”
And perhaps the path to a meeting with James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoffs.