Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade did not speak to reporters about the future, the season that just came to an end or anything else after players and coaches for the Miami Heat met for exit interviews Friday morning at AmericanAirlines Arena.
But coach Erik Spoelstra had plenty to say, including his take on the big picture of Miami’s 44-38 regular-season finish, its first-round playoff exit and where the franchise goes from here.
"I love this team. I love the journey this team has been on for the last 20 months,” Spoelstra said during a 28-minute end-of-the-season news conference. “… it's been well-documented since our 11-30 start two years ago that we've basically been playing .600 basketball.
“The most important thing for this group was to get in the playoffs, to have this experience. It was so important for our guys to go through all the experiences we went through to get in, to fight for it, to earn it and then to experience how difficult and challenging it is in the playoffs. I think it was a great first two steps — last year to bang on the door, this year to get in.
“So, it's not the result we wanted. We get that. We know that as well as anybody around here. Oftentimes through these kind of pains, these kind of adversities, we grow to the next level from here. So, I love this team. I loved the journey of this season regardless of what happened at the very end.”
Where the Heat goes from here will ultimately be up to team president Pat Riley, who has already committed all of the team’s salary cap to 10 players — not including Wade, 36, veteran Udonis Haslem or three-point specialist Wayne Ellington. As currently constructed, the gap between the Heat and the best teams in the Eastern Conference appears to be vast.
But Spoelstra wasn’t buying or selling that story line on Friday.
“I haven’t even talked about it with Pat, but I’m sure he’ll say the same thing,” Spoelstra replied when asked if the Heat could contend with the roster as currently constructed plus a few tweaks. “We see progress, we see growth. Expectations do not scare us. What the opinion is on the outside, how rational or irrational people may think we are, we don’t care. We think we have a group that can contend."
Spoelstra said there is room for internal improvement, and a key is continuity.
"We believe as much as anything, you grow through continuity," he said. “It’s hard to start over. You see teams that get a little sick at sea when it gets a little uncomfortable. Our group doesn’t. But we’re also well aware of where we’re trying to get to and how much improvement we need to get to it. Whether that’s all from inside, that’s the only thing I’m focused on right now. We won’t even talk about anything personnel-wise for months. We don’t have to get to that point right now. That’s going to be Pat and Andy’s [Elisburg] responsibility. It’s not the first time they’ve been able to build a championship-contending team. So we have great confidence and faith in the full holistic plan.”
Other topics Spoelstra touched on:
▪ He feels the bone bruise Whiteside sustained in his left knee in a 26-point, 22-rebound performance on opening night in Orlando changed the course of his season and potentially the Heat’s as well.
“That's probably what I'll look back on as most frustrating is what could have been if he didn't collide with [Nikola] Vucevic,” Spoelstra said. “The story line should be Vucevic right now. It was all accidental. I'm not putting it on him. But that changed the course of his season. He really battled and grinded through not feeling 100 percent, several times. It's just one of those seasons that never felt like he was able to fully be healthy and ready to give like he was in that first game."
Spoelstra said Whiteside, who played a season-low 10 minutes in Tuesday's Game 5 loss in Philadelphia, was heading in the right direction before his injury on opening night.
“He really was learning how to impact winning last year," Spoelstra said. "It took him three months, but I could not be more proud of a player of transforming himself as a guy that could pile a bunch of stats in a way that we had never seen before to a guy that really impacted winning. And then to have the offseason that he had and to have a great training camp, a great preseason and then, 'Bam!' [Claps hands loudly] it was off to the races. And he has an injury…”
Whiteside, who turns 29 on June 13 and is due $25.4 million next season and $27 million in 2019-20, played a total of 77 minutes in the playoffs. Spoelstra, though, thinks that will become old news soon.
“In two weeks, nobody will be talking about that,” he said. “We can go take some time away. Hassan can get his mind off this and in a few weeks we can get back and connect and then start to share our experiences. He's not the only guy that's had to go through something like this. His head coach has. And like I said, a lot of players that have come through our system have been through that kind of playoffs. That is the playoffs. There's going to be heroes. There's going to people place blame on. None of it is fair. That's just the way it is, and we can help him through that process.”
▪ Spoelstra said he’s not going to try and push Wade into returning — at least not initially.
“I just had an awkward hug with him in the locker room,” he said. “When we hugged after the game, I was basically in tears. And I'll be honest, right now I'm just not emotionally ready to go there or even to have just a normal conversation. I tried to walk by. I said I don't want to read anything in his eyes. I just said, 'Hey, let's both get away. Let's connect for lunch in a few weeks. And we're leaving it at that right now.
“It doesn't take away anything from the last few weeks. This has been a treasure to be able to have an opportunity to be able to coach him again. I tried to enjoy every moment of it. I loved seeing his transformation through the 15 years. He is just the ultimate teammate, player, champion, leader, friend, all of those things. I just really respect him for all those qualities. He's made me such a better coach. He's made me a better guy. And I hope it continues.”
▪ Spoelstra said everyone with the team is hopeful Ellington returns next season after setting a single-season franchise record for three-pointers and playing a key role for the offense.
“First, I know the visions of my boss,” Spoelstra said. “Anything in this league, he can get done. So people are saying can you contend for a title with this team? I know who I work for. And then, secondly, I know the creativity of Andy Elisburg. But none of it has to be decide right now. Wayne know that we love him. He knows that we benefits so much. It was a unified symbiotic relationship where I think he really benefit from our culture. We benefited from his commitment to become the player that was transformational, his ability to come off screens. I think all of us, it's just right that he is out franchise leader in 3-point shooter. It's the way it should be. And he can keep on going. If it means I've got to recruit him and tell him he can shoot 20 threes next year, quote me on that right now.”
▪ Josh Richardson said he’s unsure if he will need to have a procedure done on his sprained left shoulder.