Greg Cote

The Miami Heat is in search of a new direction, a new identity and a new star

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside and guard Goran Dragic share a laugh during media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 26, 2016.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside and guard Goran Dragic share a laugh during media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 26, 2016. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

This hasn't happened in 23 years. Start there. It was 1993 when the Miami Heat last opened a season with zero players on the active 15-man roster who had ever appeared in an NBA all-star game. Until now.

By that most literal definition the Heat suddenly is a team without a star. Goran Dragic might be an almost-star. Hassan Whiteside might be a someday-star. But, right now, as the club begins its 29th season, it is without a pedigreed all-star for the first time since year five.

Not by plan or desire is this franchise rebooting and rebranding. Nobody expected beloved icon Dwyane Wade to actually leave this summer. But he did. Nobody thought Chris Bosh's blood clots would have him declared medically ineligible. But it happened.

So now, without Wade for the first time since 2002 and with the Big 3 a memory, the Heat is a team in flux, feeling its way in search of a new identity, a new direction, a new star.

It's a jarring downsizing for a franchise that was born into the era of TV's Miami Vice and soon came to fit the sexy fast lane that show embodied. Pat Riley was introduced aboard one of the owner's luxury cruiseships. Riley's hunger for starpower and love of a splash showed in his trade for Alonzo Mourning. Later he added Shaquille O'Neal to Wade and won a first championship. By the time LeBron James brought his talents “to South Beach” to form the Big 3 and win two more titles, Miami was the epicenter of the NBA.

This became the glamour franchise. It flexed and preened and rose to be the biggest thing in South Florida sports, relegating football, which had always owned this town.

But oh how it ended ugly! James returned to Cleveland in a way that angered Riley. Wade left for Chicago in a way that left neither side happy. And the Bosh saga is full of rancor, with him still believing he can play but the Heat moving on.

The new start should come with air freshener, because there has been a stink to the way the Big 3 dissolved and Heat found itself here: Starting over as a great era of Miami basketball gives way to a great unknown.

Can Riley, now 71, take this promising, youthful roster and augment it for a return to relevance? For another run at a championship?

Can Erik Spoelstra develop this team and fast-track the future in the biggest challenge he has yet faced? Without an established superstar to count on for the first time in his coaching career?

Can Whiteside, the 7-1 center, justify the faith of that huge contract by growing his game beyond rebounds and blocks and becoming a franchise-defining force?

Can Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, last year's promising rookie tandem, take another step and begin a blossom to stardom?

I'm not sure anybody can be certain. Not Heat fans, not media experts, not even Riley or Spoelstra. But we all begin to find out together as Miami christens the regular season Wednesday in Orlando and then has its home opener Friday vs. Charlotte.

Riley insists his transitioning team can win and be competitive as it evolves.

“We're rebuilding right now,” admits the architect. “We're not retweaking or retooling. We're rebuiding to win now. We expect a very competitive, high energy, athletic team. Coach believes in speed and quickness and shooting. I think he has an abundance of that, whether or not all the parts fit together.”

Nobody knows for sure what to make of this Heat team and season.

“I'm probably as curious as everybody else about this team and how we can put it together,” Spoelstra said. “That's our job. To figure it out.”

A projected victory total of around 36 to 38 wins, sub-.500, suggests a Heat team unlikely to be among the Eastern Conference's eight playoff teams. The notion this is not a playoff-caliber team gave rise to recent speculation the Heat was mulling a trade that would have shipped Dragic to Sacramento and brought Rudy Gay here. There is even some thought Miami could be bad enough to be a lottery team.

I'd not write off this season that quickly or easily. This can be a team that competes for a lower playoff seed. The Riley-led culture remains strong. Spoelstra is really good, and resourceful. Dragic should be better without Wade. The nucelus of Whiteside, Dragic, Winslow, Richardson and Tyler Johnson is pretty solid.

I do worry about depth, about the power-forward position vacated by Bosh, and about perimeter shooting. I wonder where the scoring will come from. I wonder how the uptempo style preferred by Spoelstra marries with Whiteside's low-post game. Optimism counts on a number of the ifs coalescing – notably Whiteside becoming a dominating star and Winslow/Richardson taking that next step.

There can be intrigue in uncertainty, or, as Spoelstra puts it, “Sometimes the unknown is very inspiring.”

In the Big 3 era the Heat was favored every year to win the NBA championship. It turned everything perfunctory; it was as if the season didn't even start until the conference finals. Post-LeBron, there still was an assumption of playoffs under Wade and Bosh.

Now nothing may be assumed as a downsized and doubted team fights every night for everything it can get.

It's a little bit scary, stepping in the unknown. But a little bit exhilaratring, too.

  Comments