Two months ago, when Pat Riley said he was very optimistic the Heat was close to being a title contender again, he was still referring to Luol Deng as a core member of the franchise who needed to be kept.
He was still counting on Dwyane Wade to be around, and still hopeful Miami could land Kevin Durant in free agency.
“The difficult thing for me in evaluating how far we’ve come and how good we are, really can’t be answered,” Riley said less than a week after the Heat lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Raptors.
“It can only be answered hypothetically if Chris [Bosh] was healthy,” he continued. “Then you would have a real idea of how everything would fit. All you can do is go back and just lament the fact he didn’t have the time with Goran [Dragic] when Goran was playing his best basketball. And he didn’t have the time with Hassan [Whiteside], or we didn’t have the both of them in the playoffs for those medieval games that count the most.”
Deng, Wade and Durant didn’t pan out, and the Heat’s hopes of being a legitimate title contender next season are pretty much long gone. But the questions surrounding Bosh’s health and future — and how he could fit in with Miami’s two other highest-paid players — are still very much around.
As the Heat turns the page on Wade and looks to its immediate future, there are essentially two versions of what the team could look like next season:
▪ The slow, plodding squad that played defense and ran its offense through Wade and a healthy Bosh during the first half of last season.
▪ The squad Dragic raced up and down the floor with after Bosh was sidelined following the All-Star break.
The more likely scenario is the latter.
With Wade’s departure, the Heat lost one of the league’s premier one-on-one scorers and finishers.
The team used the $20 million in salary cap space it had offered Wade to add two high-end three-point shooters (Luke Babbitt, Wayne Ellington), two young energetic guards (Briante Weber, Rodney McGruder) and three athletic front court players (Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Willie Reed).
There’s definitely a good reason to play a more uptempo style of basketball.
In the first half of last season when Bosh, Wade and a slow-paced offense was the focus, the Heat ranked next to last in pace (94.67 possessions per 48 minutes) and scoring (96 points per game). And Miami was only five games over .500.
After the break, with Bosh gone and Dragic free to run the offense, the Heat moved up to 18th in pace (97.7) and was the fifth-highest scoring team in the league (107.4). Miami finished nine games over .500 in the second half of the season.
“I’m sure it’s going to be uptempo, maybe even more uptempo [than last season],” veteran Udonis Haslem said Tuesday of the new-look Heat. “With Dwyane being out, we’re going to have to get Goran even more and more involved. Everybody knows Goran is at his best when he’s in the open floor.”
Since the end of February, when the Heat released 33-year-old veteran point guard Beno Udrih to stay under the luxury tax line, Miami’s roster has progressively gotten younger. Udrih was replaced by the 23-year-old, defensive-minded Weber.
In the past week, Wade (34), Deng (31), Joe Johnson (35), Amar’e Stoudemire (33), Dorell Wright (30) and Gerald Green (30) were replaced by a younger cast of McGruder (25), Williams (25), Reed (26), Babbitt (27), Ellington (28) and James Johnson (29).
Essentially, the Heat exchanged seven veterans with an average age of 32 years, 5,505 combined career games played, 3,340 combined career starts and 507 combined playoff games for a group with an average age of 27.5 years, 1,563 combined career games played, 397 combined career starts and only 23 combined career playoff games (James Johnson has 19 of those).
Finding scorers to replace Wade (19 points per game), Joe Johnson (13.4) and Deng (12.3) will be part of the challenge for coach Erik Spoelstra.
Although second-year players Josh Richardson (6.6) and Justise Winslow (6.4) are expected to take the next step and provide more offense with increased opportunities, not much proven offense has been added to the roster.
None of the six new faces have averaged double-digit scoring in their careers. Williams is the closest at 9.3 points per game.
Another issue for Spoelstra to figure out is who the Heat will turn to in crunch time.
For the past 13 years, Wade and LeBron James have taken the bulk of those shots. Bosh, if he’s healthy, would obviously be the top choice. He was second on the team last season in clutch-situation field-goal attempts with 46 — and that’s only counting the first half of the season when he played.
But no one else on the team really took big shots in close games other than Wade.
Wade took 130 shots in clutch situations, counting the playoffs. Dragic took 31. For perspective, Joe Johnson, who joined the team in late February, took 33 clutch shots in his short tenure with the Heat.
The Heat, which already has 15 players signed to fully or partially guaranteed contracts, signed a 16th on Wednesday: forward Stefan Jankovich, a sweet-shooting 6-11 power forward who was the Big West Player of the Year at Hawaii last year.
Last season, Jankovich averaged 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.2 assists and 24.7 minutes in 33 games (all starts) while shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, 39.3 percent from three-point range and 77.2 percent from the foul line. He helped the Warriors capture the Big West tournament championship and advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
In addition to being selected to the All-Big West First Team and to the Big West All-Tournament Team, he led Hawaii in points, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage for the season and topped the Big West in free throws made and attempted.
Teams can carry as many as 15 players during the regular season and as many as 20 in training camp.
Miami Herald sportswriter Barry Jackson contributed to this report.