“We are not done; not even close.”
Those were the words of Miami Heat owner Micky Arison this offseason after his franchise absorbed the loss of the NBA’s best player to the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James led the Heat to the NBA Finals four years in row, and the team won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in last season’s championship round. In the aftermath of James’ announcement that he was returning home to Northeast Ohio, it was assumed around the league that other important players for the Heat would follow the four-time MVP out of town. That didn’t happen.
While Miami native and valued sharpshooter James Jones did join James in Cleveland, Chris Bosh signed another long-term deal with the Heat, Chris Andersen committed to Miami for two more years and Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem negotiated new deals to give the Heat’s front office some much-needed financial flexibility. Bringing back those players and adding a few new veterans ensured a solid base of talent, and once free agency had been salvaged, Arison wrote his message to restore some public confidence.
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“Pat Riley is fond of saying that the only thing you can count on in life is change and those that embrace change are best prepared to emerge successfully,” Arison wrote. “So while the names on the back of the jersey may change from time to time, the constant presence of the name ‘Miami’ or ‘HEAT’ on the front guarantees that our goal remains the same: to put a competitive team on the floor capable of competing for the ultimate prize.”
With Media Day for the Heat on Friday, and the beginning of training camp set for Saturday, Arison’s reassurance to fans and the Heat’s busy and emotional offseason raises some obvious questions. Here are five:
1. Does the Heat have enough to return to the NBA Finals?
Not according to Las Vegas handicappers. Arison said his team will compete for the “ultimate prize,” but that might not be realistic this season. The Heat has been given 60-1 odds to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, or the same chances as the Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors. James’ Cavaliers, meanwhile, are the favorites (16-5).
Beyond the Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls (9-1), which return point guard Derrick Rose from another injury, are expected to challenge for the Eastern Conference title. The Heat isn’t even the favorite to win its division. The Washington Wizards begin their training camp at 40-1 odds to win their first NBA championship.
2. What changes now that LeBron James is gone?
Pretty much everything. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and his assistants have spent the offseason reimagining the team’s offensive and defensive strategies to fit the personnel. James’ versatility both offensively and defensively gave the Heat flexibility. He could do anything, and play all five positions. Without that trump card, the Heat’s options are still plenty talented, but understandably less dynamic. After all, James’ most underrated skill during his time with the Heat was that he made everyone around him better.
Luol Deng is a quality small forward, and he is expected to transition well into the Heat’s system, but he can’t double as a point guard and play defensive center in a pinch. For many Heat players, training camp will be about re-learning how to play without James more than anything.
3. Is Chris Bosh a franchise player?
According to his bank account, he most certainly is, but Bosh has plenty to prove to himself, his teammates and the NBA at large when the season begins on Oct. 29 against the Wizards. No one doubts Bosh’s ability, versatility and unique skill set, but he did average fewer than 15 points per game in the 2014 NBA Finals. There is room for improvement.
Bosh was a franchise player before he joined the Heat, and he led the Raptors to the playoffs twice. More will be expected of him in Miami as the franchise’s front man, but only because he has improved and evolved so much since those Toronto days of “CB4,” long hair and made-for-YouTube sketch comedies.
4. How much does Dwyane Wade have left?
The status of his knees is not something Wade will enjoy discussing at Media Day, but it’s a topic that likely will dominate Wade’s career until he retires. The Heat can challenge for the East title if Wade remains healthy. That’s a big “if,” though. He missed 28 games last year in an attempt to save his body for a long playoff run. In the end, his averages and production slipped off in The Finals. The departure of James should be a motivator for Wade this season, but his body might not cooperate.
5. To borrow from one of Spoelstra’s favorite catchphrases, what is this team’s identity?
In the beginning of James’ time in Miami, the Heat made a point to keep Wade happy while stubbornly sticking to some of the franchise’s old strategic philosophies. It didn’t work, that first year was trial by error and ultimately the Heat didn’t reach its full potential until 2012. Conventional wisdom suggests Bosh will move closer to the basket this season, but both Spoelstra and Bosh are all about innovation and bucking convention. Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: Spoelstra will emphasize at Media Day that “everything is on the table.”