Five takeaways from the Heat’s season-ending 104-91 Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers:
1. Not good enough.
That’s the resounding conclusion to be drawn from this Heat season, Miami ousted from the playoffs before any other team in the Eastern Conference was jettisoned.
Good enough to make the playoffs?
Good enough to achieve anything meaningful once you get there?
And the later, after all, is what Heat president Pat Riley and this organization are all about – building championship contenders - not sixth, seventh and eighth seeds.
Riley gambled with this group, investing $153 million in long-term deals for James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Josh Richardson (along with $50 million for Kelly Olynyk), with the hope that last year’s 30-11 finish would be the harbinger of a 50-win season and a playoff run into mid-May or beyond.
Instead, the Heat proved to be a middling team, barely above average, neither skilled enough nor consistent enough to land a top four seed, let alone beat the league’s bottom feeders consistently.
Miami lost 12 games this season to teams that finished at least 10 games below .500, reinforcing that this team isn’t even talented enough to regularly dispatch doormats unless most of its rotation pieces are clicking. Such is the small margin for error when your roster lacks a top-12, arguably a top-15 player, in the Eastern Conference.
So now there must be change.
Riley assuredly knows this, and trades are likely the only way to accomplish that, with the Heat lacking a 2018 draft pick and capped out this summer – beyond a $5 million-plus midlevel exception.
There are some players the Heat would prefer to keep – Josh Richardson, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk likely atop that list. Hassan Whiteside likely will be made available.
But no player, not a single one, should be untouchable.
If the Spurs make Kawhi Leonard available, Riley should give the Spurs the choice of at least two of anybody on his roster, plus additional enticements, if he’s given an indication that Leonard would be open to staying longterm amid rumors that he’s intent on returning to his native California as a free agent in 2019.
All potential trades for high-end rotation players should be explored. And they presumably will be.
At 73, Riley is less likely than ever to embark on a rebuilding program – a notion he found distasteful even at a much younger age.
But this season was about providing clarity, and Riley at least has that.
This roster as currently constituted – one Riley hoped would organically grow multiple All-Stars and prove better than the sum of its parts – clearly isn’t equipped to compete with Boston and Philadelphia for the next half decade.
In No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons and No. 3 overall pick Joel Embiid, the Sixers already have pieces above the ceiling of any Heat player. The same also might be said for the Celtics’ pair of No. 3 overall picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, two players who will be supplemented by the return to health next season of All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving.
The Sixers capitalized on a half-decade of tanking and the Celtics were smartly able to rebuild while enduring only one awful (25-win) season.
If there’s an area to second-guess the Heat’s approach, it’s investing huge dollars in Tyler Johnson (due $19.2 million each of the next two seasons), James Johnson and perhaps Waiters – deals that leave the Heat without any cap space the next two summers.
But that’s the bed the Heat made, and now Riley must magically parlay some of those pretty-good NBA players into better ones. It might be his most challenging job yet.
And if Riley cannot do that, the question becomes whether to use chips such as Winslow as sweeteners to dump bad contracts (like Tyler Johnson’s) in hopes of clearing cap space for 2019. That’s a tougher call.
2. Whiteside must augment his offensive game.
He too often settles for soft floaters in the lane instead of going up strong – one reason why he shot an underwhelming 55.7 percent on layups this season.
Whiteside - who played just 10 minutes Tuesday, shot 0 for 4 and scored two points to cap a disastrous series - must develop a consistent go-to move. He shot 45.5 percent on hook shots and 39.3 percent on jumpers in 2017-18.
Whiteside again voiced displeasure about his playing time after the game. Please see my story here about that.
3. The Heat needs to get the aggressive James Johnson more often.
When Johnson plays with a controlled edge, when he drives to the basket with purpose, he’s far more effective than the passive J.J. who settles for long jumpers. He was much better since mid-February, but the aggression must be sustained over 82 games and beyond. His impact Tuesday (four points, four rebounds, five assists) was negligible.
4. Each of the Heat’s young players must improve some element of his game.
For Richardson, there’s a need for offensive consistency. For Adebayo, it’s developing a post game. For Winslow, it’s continued offensive growth, especially from the midrange and perimeter.
5. Dwyane Wade can still help.
His playoff series suggested that Wade, even at 36, can be an asset next season if he chooses to return. But with Waiters returning, the backcourt rotation must be thinned, with Tyler Johnson most expendable.