It’s all looking pretty bleak right now for the Miami Heat.
Goran Dragic’s back is ailing and it could be a while before he gets back on the court and looks like the same guy who was averaging 21 points and nearly seven assists a game in the month of December.
Hassan Whiteside, whose production has tailed off a little of late, was poked in the eye late in Friday night’s loss to the Celtics and his streak of perfect attendance this season (he’s the only Heat player who has suited up and played in all 34 games) could be in jeopardy.
After it hosts Detroit on Sunday (the Pistons beat Miami by 23 in their last meeting just before Thanksgiving), the Heat, losers of six consecutive road games, will hit the road for a six-game West Coast trip.
And yet, while so many Miami fans are cringing after this 10-24 start, coach Erik Spoelstra sees something many have a hard time grasping.
“Guys are getting better. The team is getting better,” Spoelstra told a large group of reporters at TD Garden a couple hours before Isaiah Thomas dropped 52 points on the Heat including 29 in the fourth quarter, dropping Miami to 7-15 in clutch situations.
“We’re forming an identity that we’re getting more consistent to,” Spoelstra continued. “We haven't been able to close out games. And I think that’s probably the most frustrating thing. But in terms of defensive principles, defending at a high rate and learning how to win, learning how to make winning plays... Sometimes when you have veteran players a lot of that is understood. When you have a team like this, it has to be developed. And that’s an invigorating process. I feel very grateful I have an opportunity to coach a team like this.”
While his boss, team president Pat Riley, has consistently said the franchise is in as a rebuilding phase, Spoelstra said he prefers not to “use the word rebuild.” To him, it’s all development – growing pains.
There’s obviously some proof of that. Whiteside is the league’s leading rebounder and the NBA’s eight-most efficient player and fellow former D-League product Tyler Johnson is the league’s second-leading scorer off the bench and the player Spoelstra relies on most in the fourth quarter (he’s second in the league in fourth quarter minutes at 10.9 per game).
There’s also evidence it’s happening in smaller doses with 2015 draft picks Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, who each have struggled at various points of their sophomore campaigns but have also shown us flashes.
With Dragic hobbled over the last three games, Richardson has stepped up in a big way. He’s averaged 20.3 points, shot 53.2 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from three-point range and played more efficiently at point guard (13 assists, 6 steals, 4 turnovers), encouraging signs after he was shooting only 37.3 percent through his first 21 games of the season.
A big reason for the improvement, Richardson said, is the knee he injured shortly before the start of camp is finally feeling healthy again, giving him the explosion he needs.
Winslow, meanwhile, is still struggling with his shot. Only one other player in the league averaging double-digit shot attempts per game – Philadelphia’s Jerryd Bayless – has a shooting percentage (34.4 percent) worse than Winslow’s (35.2 percent).
But, Spoelstra said, Miami’s 2015 first round pick is doing a better job rebounding (7.4 rebounds per game over his last five), defending and creating for others (4.4 assists over his last five games).
“With Tyler, I’ve seen a lot of improvement with how he’s handling pick-and-rolls, how he’s playing and how he’s reading situations,” Dragic said after Friday’s loss. “Of course Justise already had that before. He was a good player and now I think for him the next step is try to develop his offensive game a little bit more.
“J-Rich, I mean, when he came to the Miami Heat, everybody was saying he’s not a shooter and he can’t shoot. Look and see what kind of transformation he made. He’s a great shooter from outside and he’s an unbelievable defender – same as Tyler and Justise. All three guys have this in common that they’re unbelievable defenders. Some stuff, especially defensively, you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t have it. I feel like that for the future, those three guys have great qualities to be even better.”
Still, it’s a results based league as Spoelstra points out, and ultimately it’s going to be up to Riley to decide at the end of the season if he’s seen enough development to continue to be patient. Riley could conceivably blow it all up, trade pieces to try and acquire a bigger piece and start over with what is almost sure to be a top-end draft pick.
Whatever direction the franchise goes in from here, Spoelstra has faith in his boss to figure it all out and put the Heat on the right path.
“It’s a competitive league and everybody wants to be that last team, but who has a coherent plan?” Spoelstra said. “Who’s committed to that plan? Who’s disciplined to that plan when there’s a lot of noise and not necessarily getting the results that you want? We’re able to see great promise, hope and progress with this team. And, if you know anything about our organization we have a plan.
“That's what I love about working with Pat and this organization – working for somebody who believes in that type of vision and the track record that we’ve been able to do it. But it starts with a belief and having a visionary that's going to push that. Nothing is guaranteed, but being involved in that hunt is the an exhilarating thing.”
Sunday: Pistons at Heat
When/where: 6 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 53-49.
Scouting report: Goran Dragic (back spasms) and Hassan Whiteside (eye) are questionable. Detroit steamrolled the Heat 107-84 at home on Nov. 23 but is struggling, having lost seven of its past eight games including Friday night at Atlanta.