It’s not easy to find the words to sum up your season when it’s come to an end in a 27-point blowout, one win shy of the team’s season-long goal.
It’s even harder to look ahead to the future when eight teammates are about to enter free agency, one of the key pieces under contract is still at the mercy of a serious health issue, and team president Pat Riley — the huntsman of all huntsman — has only $40 million in salary cap space to work with and a bold ambition to quickly return the Miami Heat to the mountaintop.
So on Sunday, before the Heat left Toronto toward a summer full of questions — Goran Dragic, one of seven players under contract or with team-favorable options for next season — offered some perspective.
“Hopefully,” Dragic said, “the future is bright. We have a lot of good young, players like [Josh Richardson] and [Tyler Johnson] and Justise [Winslow]. Hopefully, C.B. [Chris Bosh] is gonna get healthy. Hassan [Whiteside], too. We have a good core of veteran guys and now a young core. We’re gonna be OK.”
The Heat certainly was OK this season. Miami finished 48-34, third in the East and then advanced to the conference semifinals before injuries finally caught up with it.
But looking ahead, does Riley, 71, simply want the Heat to be OK next season? Or, is he shooting for another parade down Biscayne Boulevard?
And, how close is the Heat really to beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to get out of the East? Would Miami even stand a chance against the offenses of Golden State or Oklahoma City in a seven-game series?
The feeling inside Heat headquarters — before Bosh was lost at the All-Star break — was that this team could at least compete with the best in the league. Riley said as much back in December.
But without Bosh, and there’s no telling if he will receive the medical clearance he needs from team doctors to play again, the Heat was truly a long shot to win this season — even with a 34-year-old Dwyane Wade playing at his highest level in years in the playoffs and a healthy Whiteside swatting shots over the second half of the season.
Yes, Miami posted the fifth-best record in the NBA after the All-Star break at 19-10. And yes, Miami’s offense averaged 107.4 points over that stretch (fifth-most in the league), finally hitting another gear when Dragic began playing his game uptempo style in the open floor.
But in the playoffs, that exciting, uptempo offense slowed down an awful lot.
Miami averaged only 96.9 points in 14 postseason games (eighth among 16 playoff teams) and the Heat’s 16.4 assists in the playoffs (14th out of 16 teams) decreased considerably from the 22.1 assists the team averaged in the final 29 games of the regular season. Miami’s pace also went from 97.70 after the All-Star break to 92.64 in the playoffs.
Scoring in bunches is clearly important in today’s NBA. Three of the four finalists — Oklahoma City, Golden State and Cleveland — all averaged 106 points or more through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Miami was 5-0 in the playoffs when it scored at least 100 points and 2-7 when it didn’t.
Bosh, of course, never played in that uptempo offense. Coach Erik Spoelstra ran the offense through Bosh and Wade before the All-Star break and Miami averaged 96 points per game (29th out of 30 teams).
With Bosh out, Whiteside went from averaging 12.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.8 blocks before the break to 16.5 points, 12.8 rebounds and posting 24 double-doubles and one triple-double in the 28 games he played in after the break.
Would Whiteside have produced the same with Bosh next to him on the floor in that faster-paced attack? Would the Heat have even upped its pace in the second half to begin with?
And so, Riley must consider all that he saw and decide how close the Heat really is to a title.
Kevin Durant, the top free agent in this summer’s class and the leading scorer in these playoffs, would be an instant upgrade to Miami’s offense. But would he come not knowing if Bosh will be back?
Bosh’s contract is going to count against a good chunk of the Heat’s salary cap next season whether he plays again or not. It leaves Miami, barring trades of Dragic or Josh McRoberts, with only enough cap room this summer to add only two of the three best options out there: Wade first, and then Whiteside or Durant.
Any real roster upgrades after that will probably have to come through the draft (the Heat doesn’t have any picks and would have to acquire one) or a veteran free agent willing to take less money to play here.
There’s also room for internal improvement with the potential return of Bosh and further growth from Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Briante Weber.
But the clock is ticking. And Wade, who has said he wants to end his career in Miami, isn’t getting any younger.
“For myself and a lot of guys on this team, there’s not always another season and another season,” Wade said Sunday after his 13th NBA season came to an end. “So you want to take advantage of the opportunities. We did everything we could to try and get there. Hopefully going forward, this organization isn’t snake-bitten like we’ve been the last two years with losing key players.”
▪ Winslow finished sixth in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting Monday. Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns was the unanimous winner. The NBA has yet to announce its All-Rookie team, but Winslow and Richardson are considered strong contenders to make second team.