The Miami Heat has been to the NBA Finals four seasons in a row and played more games since 2010 than any other team in the league. On Wednesday, the Heat will begin relearning how to play basketball.
The reverberations of losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers this summer have settled down in Miami. The city got over it pretty quickly. The Heat’s coaches and players, on the other hand, are still trying to find north on the compass. James did a little bit of everything for the Heat, and while the four-time reigning Eastern Conference champions still have plenty of talent on the roster, gluing it all together could take some time.
“Fast track” was one of the go-to catchphrases for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra during the LeBron years. Spoelstra wanted to “fast track” everything, and he usually did. But there will be no fast tracking of Spoelstra’s so-called “process” this season. The Heat is preaching patience, and for a franchise that played with its foot pegged on the throttle the past four seasons, that’s quite a change.
“It’s a process, and every time we step out on the floor we’re used to being extremely successful and for things to come a little easier,” Chris Bosh said. “We haven’t had this process in a very long time. We’re used to the same guys coming back, and we know our rotations and it’s just a matter of getting in shape. We’re used to knowing where the ball is going to go. We knew everything.
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“And now is a time when we have to really be patient with it because even though we’re out there playing, we have to remember that we’ve only played eight preseason games together and we’re not going to be where we need to be.”
Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem are being marketed this season as the franchise’s “Heat lifers,” but the team is going to run through Bosh on most nights. Bosh lost a valuable teammate this summer when James chose Cleveland over Miami, but the Heat’s center won the lottery with that decision, too. He got paid, and he became the franchise player of one of the league’s most glamorous teams during the prime of his career.
Bosh’s new five-year, maximum contract currently guarantees him more money ($118,705,300) than any other player in the league. He could have gone to the Houston Rockets for a max deal, too, and helped build another instant title contender, but that didn’t appeal to Bosh as much as Miami, a city he and his family have come to love and a team that this season will be his own.
With James gone, Bosh has been handed the keys to the franchise, and this preseason he represented the team’s only glimmer of consistency. The Heat will feature three new starters to begin the season, and it’s unclear how much of the load Wade can help carry on a nightly basis. That set of circumstances projects Bosh to be one of the league’s more invaluable players this season, for good or ill.
“No matter when I’m on the court I always try to stay consistent,” Bosh said. “That’s what always has come natural to me. People tell me, ‘hey, shoot it, and be aggressive.’ Well, OK and OK.
“It was a struggle for me to find my way the past four years. That was tough for me, so I have developed an appreciation for the position I’m now in.”
Bosh is confident he can lead the Heat back to the playoffs — the team has been projected anywhere from fourth in the East to eighth or lower — but his transition from third wheel role player to first option could take some time, as well. Bosh averaged a career low in minutes per game last season (32.0), and his points per game mark (16.2) was lower only during his rookie season (11.5).
He has already started preparing himself mentally for the new challenge.
“To evolve is tough,” Bosh said. “It’s not easy. That’s something I understand. It doesn’t make it easy when you’re going through everything, but sometimes when you’re hitting a wall a little bit you have to really stay with it and make sure you believe in the system and believe in your teammates and believe in yourself.”
Luol Deng will be manning James’ old position at small forward, but it’s unfair to Deng to label him James’ replacement. There is no replacing the best player in the game. There’s only trying to figure out how to play without him. Deng is a versatile scorer and a quality defender. That’s enough if Bosh, Wade, Josh McRoberts and Norris Cole can collectively inherit James’ other responsibilities:
▪ Bosh needs to score and rebound.
▪ Wade must remain healthy.
▪ McRoberts, when he returns from offseason surgery on his toe, will be a facilitator from within who must hit open shots.
▪ Cole, a first-year starter, will be tasked with getting the Heat into its offense.
James’ long list of skills allowed the Heat to mask a lot of its weaknesses, but it’s not really necessary to check off the deficiencies created when James left for Cleveland. In a nutshell, it’s pretty simple to understand. James led the Heat in points, rebounds and assists for the majority of his time with the team.
Replacing all that will be a challenge, and it will take time, but Bosh says the team will be ready by April.
“We can compete and eventually I think we can compete as high as we want to,” Bosh said. “It’s just on us and how much we believe in ourselves and our ability to get the job done.
“So, everyone can put us wherever they want to put us as far as rankings and all that stuff is concerned, but nobody really pulls out the preseason rankings and says, ‘Oh, we were wrong, or we were right.’ Nobody does that. In March and April we’ll be able to have those discussions again, and we’ll be able to rub it in everyone’s face a little bit and go out there and continue to win.”