Barry Jackson

Miami Heat falling behind in Eastern Conference arms race?

Just wait until LeBron leaves Cleveland or begins to decline.

For years, that was the source of inspiration for fans of the Heat, Raptors, Wizards and Celtics, a hope fed by speculation over the pasts several months that King James might bolt for the Lakers next summer.

But over the summer and the first three weeks of the regular season, it has become clear that LeBron leaving Cleveland or suddenly and shockingly declining (and he shows no signs of that), won’t be enough to catapult Miami back into Eastern Conference title contention.

That’s not because any grand judgment should be made on the Heat after a 4-6 start, with four of those games played without Hassan Whiteside. It’s way too soon to know if this is a 38-win team or a 48-win team, a fourth seed or a seventh seed. (And Miami now stands 12th in the East.)

Moreover, this is an acknowledgement that Boston, even without injured Gordon Hayward, has three young pieces that look like they’re going to be highly impactful players for a decade.

It’s an acknowledgement that Washington’s Bradley Beal - eighth in the league in scoring at 25.7 a game and shooting 50.3 percent - is moving closer to a level just below the NBA’s top stars.

And it’s an acknowledgment that Milwaukee - even at 4-5 - has assembled one of the conference’s most talented rosters, with Giannis Antetokounmpo reaching star status (he leads the league in scoring at 31 per game) and the Bucks augmenting on Tuesday by trading backup center Greg Monroe and first- and second-round picks for Eric Bledsoe, a very good player who averaged 21.1 points and 6.3 assists for Phoenix last season. And remember, Milwaukee in February gets back injured Jabari Parker, who averaged 20.1 points last season.

In Miami’s best case scenario, James would leave next summer and the Heat would be ready to capitalize, at least having a legitimate chance to compete with Boston, Washington, Toronto and Milwaukee for conference supremacy.

Now, barring significant roster changes next summer, the Heat would be viewed as no more than the fifth-most likely team to become the East’s beast in a post-LeBron Era, with the Celtics riding a nine-game winning streak even without Hayward, the Wizards and Raptors boasting elite backcourts and the Bucks more formidable than they’ve been in years, more so after adding Bledsoe and with the spring return of Parker.

For the Heat, the concern with Boston wasn’t merely the addition of Hayward and Kyrie Irving (who’s averaging 22.3 per game), though those moves were problematic enough.

The additional concern for Celtics opponents is the young, highly-skilled supporting pieces that the Celtics have procured in Jayson Tatum (16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds per game as a rookie) and Jaylen Brown (15.4 points, 6.4 rebounds), who will have even more opportunity to grow their games this season with Hayward out for the year with a leg injury.

Aside from Hassan Whiteside, do any of the Heat’s young pieces have the upside of either Tatum or Brown? It would be difficult to make that case.

So for the Heat, this is no longer about being primed to pounce when LeBron leaves or declines. It’s also about measuring up to the enhanced rosters of Boston, Washington and Milwaukee.

It’s also about hoping that the Knicks and Sixers aren’t able to surround Kristaps Porzingis (30.2 points per game this season) or dynamic Ben Simmons (18.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 7.6 assists) with strong enough supporting casts for them to leap past the Heat, too.

So how does Miami change this, with no cap space the next two summers?

Either seize on the opportunity if or when a disgruntled star becomes available via trade - which Pat Riley has done better than anyone - or continue hoping that your young pieces becoming something more, that Justise Winslow becomes something closer to Draymond Green (Doug Collins’ comparison) or Josh Richardson becomes as reliable offensively as he is defensively.

Or that Tyler Johnson has fewer 2 for 9 shooting games or that Dion Waiters seizes on last year’s 25-game eruption to become a top half of the league shooting guard (there’s no evidence, early on, that he’s poised to do that) or most importantly, Hassan Whiteside produces in a way to become universally recognized as a top-three NBA center.

So even with Cleveland’s early struggles - at 4-6, they’re tied with Miami and the Nets ahead of only Chicago and Atlanta in the East - there’s no evidence to suggest that the Heat has assembled a strong enough team to seize on the circumstances even if this Cavaliers regression is more than a sign of regular-season disinterest.

And Tuesday’s Bledsoe trade - while not as significant as Boston’s additions of Irving, Hayward and Tatum - only fuels the perception that the Heat needs to do a lot more with its roster to be realistically positioned to pounce if LeBron heads west.

Here’s a six-pack of UM football and basketball nuggets, including the Hurricanes zeroing in on a top quarterback and Jay Bilas opining on the FBI’s investigation of UM hoops.

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