What strikes you first are the smiles, the edges of lips curling upward, after so many months of everything — from leads to moods — drooping toward the other direction. The dominant theme at Miami Heat training camp at Florida Atlantic University has been renewal and rejuvenation, and it makes you think there’s a reasonable shot of a revival this season, a rapid return to the ranks of the NBA’s elite.
Of course, it’s also understandable to be edgy about all the enthusiasm, all the optimism, and not merely because the last Heat season was such a luckless fiasco. If you’re a South Florida sports fan, you’ve learned the folly of falling for elevated expectations; for the Marlins, Dolphins and Hurricanes, even if the glass is half-full, the liquid is likely laced with strychnine.
So, as training camp ends and the preseason starts — at 6 p.m. Sunday against the Charlotte Hornets — should you embrace the hope and the hype? Can you believe in a team constructed so conversely to many of the other current contenders, those that have stolen the Heat’s recent super-S championship blueprint: stars, small, speed, space?
Can you shake off all the nagging concerns: no current consensus top-20 player, three starters in their 30s, a starting point guard who never has filled that role in a playoff game, two cheap free agent additions who have viewed defense as more of an imposition than a disposition — and a starting center who has never played a full NBA season and might struggle to stay on the floor for half an NBA game?
The Heat will be good.
For that, we’ll need to wait.
That probably won’t reveal itself until the postseason, for which the Heat will qualify for the 17th time in Pat Riley’s 21-season reign, and in which the team is likely to encounter LeBron James, whose loaded Cleveland Cavaliers are primed to coast to a comfortable playoff position. The rest of the East still isn’t daunting, not when compared with the anticipated top six out West, all of which would project no worse than the second seed in the meeker conference.
Plus, there’s confidence in Heat circles, even after finishing 15 games behind a Cleveland team that has worked out many chemistry kinks and fortified its bench, that the Heat could compete with the Cavaliers in a series. They cite a plethora of useful bigs, roster versatility, Luol Deng’s tenacity in guarding James, and the shaky health histories of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, with the duo missing 23 of a possible 40 games during what was supposed to be an experience-accruing first postseason foray. Even James, loathe to revisit his Heat history, cited Miami first on Sirius XM radio in July, when my cohost asked for his improved teams in the conference.
Improved? Of course. By more than a bit. Last season, Josh McRoberts and Norris Cole were supposed to be starters in a lineup that, amazingly, ultimately played only 34 minutes together. They have been replaced by Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic, with McRoberts part of a deep reserve frontcourt. Shannon Brown, Danny Granger and Shawne Williams all entered last season with potential roles; only Granger is on an NBA roster (Detroit) and he’s still rehabbing.
Erik Spoelstra has gone from nobody to play to too many to play, which is always the preferable problem.
Still, improved also could be imperfect, and the Heat is. Spoelstra keeps speaking about returning to “pace and space,” but in different terms than he once did, or most of the league — with real runners and more accurate gunners — does.
He has reframed the strategy as getting to spots and into offense quicker while playing to the midrange strengths of his players. This comes in an era most teams have all but abandoned the midrange game for the more analytically-approved three-point hoisting; the top eight teams in long-range makes all made the playoffs, and the top five had a combined record of 292-118. The Heat will be banging away on an old IBM Selectric while the Cavaliers, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers and Hawks glide across MacBook Airs.
Then there’s the superstar thing. Recently, an Eastern Conference scout questioned the Heat’s championship viability by characterizing the team as a slightly glitzier, if not yet as synchronized version of last season’s egalitarian Hawks, who stormed through the regular season before sputtering out. The scout spoke of how, on a given night, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Dragic are still capable of an “A-minus,” or even “A” game, but that only Whiteside — he of the 32 career NBA starts, 4.1 fouls per 36 minutes, and trail of attitude and aptitude issues — could make Miami special, by dominating on both ends.
“The question,” the scout said, “is whether he follows that A-plus effort up with a D. Maybe since he’s in a contract year, he won’t. But who knows?”
None of the bookmakers’ top 10 current favorites — with the Heat anywhere between seventh and 10th — is so reliant on someone with such a shallow résumé. No previous potential Heat contender, not in all of Riley’s years, has been.
Still, there’s talent here, depth here, hope here. The Heat will be good. Quite good. Maybe great. Now we wait.