LAS VEGAS – Nearly two weeks into free agency, the Heat stands as the only team among the second- and third-tiered Eastern Conference playoff contenders that has not added a veteran player through free agency or trades.
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, an optimistic by nature, spoke Wednesday of several reasons why this team could still be significantly better than a year ago.
Speaking to several reporters in a Las Vegas high school gym after the Heat’s summer league practice, Spoelstra cited several reasons for hope:
▪ He seems committed to something of a fresh start with Hassan Whiteside, who complained a half dozen times about playing time last season, including an expletive-filled rant that drew a substantial fine.
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“I have absolutely been in touch with Hassan,” Spoelstra said. “We've gotten together for lunch, in constant contact on the phone and in texts. Like many things in this league, it's not what it seems on the outside.
“It's pretty normal NBA life. I'm looking forward to the start of the season with a healthy Hassan. I know he's looking forward to that. And we still have a good part of the summer to get better. I think Hassan having an opportunity to start off the season healthy will be a really big boost for us."
▪ He sees considerable upside in Derrick Jones Jr., a summer sensation before being sidelined with an ankle injury.
“It’s hard not to be excited about the development of Derrick Jones,” he said. “You’re so happy for a guy that puts in the work and had been dedicated every single day and really wants to commit to his craft and become the best basketball player he can become. He’s trusted us with that process and you saw tremendous results even in a short period of time.
“But we were seeing this a few weeks ago and the improvement he is making at rapid rates. It’s exciting to see. We think he is a great addition going into next year.”
▪ He says it’s reasonable to expect better versions of Dion Waiters and James Johnson in their returns from ankle surgery and sports hernia surgery, respectively.
"I certainly would expect that. And I don't want to stand up here and make excuses for them, but injuries are a big part of this game. And it was one of those years where we were dealing with it, with several of our guys, not unlike a lot of different teams."
▪ He believes another year of playing together will lead to improved results.
"We feel really good about our roster. We love the internal growth we’ve had. Guys have had tremendous summers already. You’ve seen the improvement that Bam has made in terms of his skill level and running an offense through him. Being a little bit more offensive minded."
▪ Spoelstra, awaiting word on whether Wayne Ellington and Dwyane Wade will return, said this is not “the exact same team” because “we weren't playing with our full roster, where we thought this team could be and where it could grow. In the meantime other players have gotten a lot better. They've improved. They've had real game competition experience, which I think really helps.
“And the depth that we have will make it competitive and the guys will make each other better. I look at all those guys that had some injuries that they were dealing with last year as opportunities.
"In my mind, you're almost adding a new player, adding a Derrick Jones, adding a Rodney McGruder, adding a Dion Waiters, adding a healthy Hassan Whiteside. Having a fully healthy James Johnson. These are new players you're adding into the mix of already a playoff team. That's something that's exciting to me.
“So we have great opportunities for internal growth. We have a lot of they guys returning. We think the continuity and the corporate knowledge we bring from one season to another can really help. What we’re seeing is a lot of turnover every single offseason with a lot of teams. That’s not the easiest thing to manager. We bring some familiarity which we think can be a help.
▪ He believes Rodney McGruder will come back strong from a leg injury that sidelined him much of last season.
"I think Rodney McGruder has had a fantastic summer. He’s 100 percent healthy with his body and his mind. He’s really been putting in a lot of work. He’s ready for games tomorrow if he needed to play. He’s in that kind of shape right now but his skill level it what’s really improved as well."
Spoelstra, on reportedly having a conversation with Lakers coach Luke Walton on coaching LeBron James, said:
“We’re coaching colleagues, I talked, there wasn’t a whole lot to illuminate from my end. I think Luke is the right guy at this time. And Luke is comfortable with that entire environment. He grew up with the Lakers as a player with a team that was in a fishbowl. Golden State he’s used to that kind of environment and last year coaching the Lakers, that’s his comfort zone. I think he’s be just fine."
▪ In an ESPN piece this week on James’ departure from Cleveland this month, Heat general manager Andy Elisburg revealed that he called Cleveland general manager Koby Altman the morning after James disclosed he was leaving the Cavaliers to sign with the Lakers.
“I called him and said, ‘Well, did the sun come up this morning?'” Elisburg said, according to ESPN. “And he said, ‘Yes, it came up.’ And I said, ‘Well, I just want to let you know it’s going to come up tomorrow too.'”
Elisburg, in that piece, recalled getting physically ill after learning James was leaving the Heat for Cleveland.
“The night it happened [in 2014], I was so angry and emotional I was having chest pains,” Elisburg said to ESPN. “I was lying in bed and thought I was having a heart attack.”
Elisburg couldn’t sleep that night and drove a few hours north past West Palm Beach until he calmed down.
“I got clarity about 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning: It wasn’t about us. It was about what he wanted to do,” Elisburg said to ESPN.
“I came in the next day around 9, 10 o’clock in the morning, went to the whiteboard, started putting down names and building the roster like we’d always done. You have to realize, it always ends. It never ends the way you want it to end, but it ends, and you have to start again. … But no matter what, it was an incredible four years. You won a championship, you know? Nothing takes that way.”