Life after Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh begins officially for the Heat on Wednesday, and as the number of realistic “star” free agents available next summer dwindles, here’s one way Miami can become a legitimate contender again:
If their top three still-ascending players can somehow reach their perceived ceilings or even a higher level than what many believe that ceiling is.
For Justise Winslow, that means eventually making as big a jump as Draymond Green did from his rookie season (2012-13) to Golden State’s Finals teams the past two years.
For Josh Richardson, that means becoming as productive a pro as Eddie Jones, the player that Wade and Udonis Haslem have compared him.
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For Hassan Whiteside, it means becoming an All-Star, a player routinely mentioned in discussion of the best center in the league.
Winslow is very much aware of the Green comparison. ABC’s Doug Collins says Winslow should look closely at Green, who’s versatile and gifted defensively like Winslow and improved his three-point shooting from 20.9 percent as a rookie to 38.8 this past season.
Winslow shot 27 percent on threes as a rookie but expects to be appreciably better after working with shooting coach Rob Fodor.
“I don't think Draymond and I play the same, but I think in a way we affect the game the same way as far as our versatility,” Winslow said. “I've heard people bring that name up. He affects the game a lot of the ways I do, whether it's rebounding, defending, passing.
“He is definitely one of those players that made the jump offensively that I'm looking to make. Even a guy like CJ McCollum in Portland; he has always been talented. You kind of want to emulate that. I know I play different than Draymond. But I think the way he affects the game, I feel like I can do the same thing.”
Haslem said when he and Wade initially compared Richardson to Jones, “it was physical at first. At that time, Josh was back and forth between the D-League and here. It was their physical attributes and faces.”
But Haslem also sees similarities in their skill sets, especially as rangy, skilled defenders and dangerous three-point shooters.
Jones was a three-time All-Star, and Richardson “has the ability to be better than Eddie,” Haslem said. “And that’s no disrespect to Eddie. Eddie didn’t handle the ball that well.
“Josh is in a situation where we can put him in pick and rolls. Let him bring it up some. He has that good pull-up jumper. He’s a little better than Eddie in that regard.”
Richardson – who won’t play in Wednesday’s opener because of a knee injury - said: “It would be cool to meet him and pick his brain. I watched him growing up with the Lakers. I [see similarities], how he was a good defender, could knock down shots. He was a great player. I would like to be comparable to that.”
Richardson shot an NBA-best 46.1 percent on threes last season; Jones, who was once all-NBA third team at shooting guard (in 2000), shot 37.3 percent on threes in his career.
With Whiteside, he knows his passing must improve. Whiteside averaged 14.2 points per game, which ranked 9th among centers, but without Bosh, averaged 17.5 after the All-Star break, which ranked fifth.
Only two centers averaged at least 20 points: DeMarcus Cousins (26.9) and Brook Lopez (20.6). But Whiteside could get close to that.
Even though he’s an elite rebounder, there’s another level there for Whiteside, whose 11.8 average trailed only Andre Drummond (14.8) and DeAndre Jordan (13.8).
But Whiteside, who sometimes seemed focused on numbers in the past, said it is no longer about that, which reflects maturity.
The priority, he said, “is showing more leadership and sacrificing for your team to win. It’s not all about numbers. I want to be the best and the most winning center. It doesn’t matter if they say you are the best center if you are never in the playoffs.”
Heat president Pat Riley has challenged him: “We want you now to be able to carry a team, and that's going to take a lot more focus and discipline and growth and understanding what winning is all about. I think he's ready for that.”
Whiteside said he is still driven to be the best center in the league and but said he doesn’t care that no GM voted him best center in a poll last week. So who’s better than him now?
“There ain’t nobody who plays both sides of the court better than me, offense and defense,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that play really well offensively and a lot of guys that play really well defensively. Nobody can have 20 or 30 points one game and then have a triple double in blocks. I feel I can play both sides of the court better than anybody.”
So if Winslow becomes something close in quality to Green, and Richardson evolves into another Jones, and Whiteside becomes an in-his-prime version of Dwight Howard, (and if Tyler Johnson, for that matter, can become an ace sixth man -- he has been studying Manu Ginobili’s tape) --- then this franchise can recover quickly from the dissolution of the Big Three.
It’s a lot to expect, but the Heat can dream.
For a look at what oddsmakers think of the Heat, and a scout’s view of the Winslow/Devin Booker draft day decision and other Heat nuggets from Tuesday night, please click here.... Twitter @flasportsbuzz