Greg Cote

It isn’t just the Heat — Miami’s big teams have steep climbs to championship contention

Miami Heat Goran Dragic and Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry wrestle in the key in the first quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, Florida, Jan. 23, 2017.
Miami Heat Goran Dragic and Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry wrestle in the key in the first quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, Florida, Jan. 23, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

A sobering reminder came watching the Golden State Warriors slice through the NBA to a championship and the doorstep of a dynasty.

How can the Miami Heat (or any other basketball team) hope to narrow such a gaping divide?

In South Florida, the Heat is not alone. All our biggest teams — Dolphins, Marlins, Panthers and Canes football included — find themselves in a tender spot that challenges fans’ optimism and reveals how high, or modestly, we are setting the bar on expectations.

With all our big five teams, there is cause for hope entering Summer 2017, but only if the criteria doesn’t get too ambitious.

Be optimistic, if the guideposts are low-hanging fruit such as “progress” and “competitiveness.”

Be far less so, if the standard is contending for championships.

It was that, once, of course, for the distant Dolphins of the 1970s, swaggering UM football in the ’80s and beyond, and the Big 3 Heat circa 2010 to 2014.

That locomotive has left the Miami station, alas. Aspirations of making the playoffs, of being pretty good, might be in play. But visions of championship parades? Nope. Not now, at least, and likely not in the graspable future.

With each of our main-stage teams every argument for optimism has an asterisk attached. A caution. A “yeah, but …”

A quick state of the big five analysis:

▪ Dolphins: Fins are coming off a 10-6 season that ended the long playoff drought. Adam Gase is the club’s most capable head coach in 20 years, since Jimmy Johnson. Miami has exciting weapons on offense led by Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry and went full-bore in free agency and the draft to shore its defense. (Yeah, but ...) The Patriots are still the Patriots, and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady show no signs of leaving. The New England roadblock is why the betting over/under on 2017 Fins wins is a mere  7 1/2, lowest of any returning playoff team. Subtle as a slap to the face, the public perception is that last season was a fluke and Miami will sink back to mediocrity.

Dolphins bottom line: Gase is the real deal, the Dolphins are ascending, the “over” on wins looks lock-solid. This should be a playoff contender, but little more. Ryan Tannehill still must elevate beyond pretty good, the Patriots are in a different league and Miami’s first Super Bowl parade in more than 40 years is not presently scheduled.

▪ Heat: Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra continue to inspire trust. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic are solid. And this team was good (or well-coached) enough to go a surreal 30-11 in the second half of this season. (Yeah, but ...) Did you see the Warriors!? What that franchise has with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant? Miami’s climb is steep just to get out of the East, where Cleveland reigns. But the gap between the Heat and Golden State? Hard to imagine even a free agency home run (Gordon Hayward) and a big hit in the coming NBA Draft would be nearly enough.

Heat bottom line: Spoelstra will wring the utmost from the team and Riley will make sure he has pieces to work with. Miami has a chance to be top four in the East and win a playoff series. But another parade down Biscayne Boulevard? That’s on hold until the breakup of Curry/Durant and his prime finally running away from LeBron.

▪ Hurricanes: Love what football coach Mark Richt brings and what Manny Diaz has done with the defense. Hurricanes last year won their first bowl game since 2006; the surge in optimism is justified. (Yeah, but ...) Miami enters this coming season with inexperience at quarterback. More broadly ominous: UM has two roadblocks in reigning national champion Clemson and nemesis Florida State. UM must find a way to be better than one or both to win the ACC, a requirement if The U is to ever add a sixth national title and first since 2001.

Hurricanes bottom line: Richt was perfect hire, and Miami has a fair chance for its first 10-win season since ’03. The Canes should be a player in the Top 25. But a revisit to past glories is tough to expect as long as Clemson and FSU remain powers that replenish with great recruiting.

▪ Marlins: Don Mattingly’s team is 15-8 since an awful May swoon, and the pending sale of the club plus hosting the All-Star Game decorate the season with excitement. And a solid lineup led by Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna packs wallop. (Yeah, but ...) It will still take a small miracle for Miami to avoid its 23rd nonplayoff season in 25 franchise years, and the Fish have watched Washington take over as clear NL East power.

Marlins bottom line: Baseball teams can turn it around quickly if run right; see Houston. Maybe new ownership will bring ingenuity and smart spending in addition to a needed gale of fresh air. But the minor-league cupboard is bare, and this starting rotation is one or two (or three) arms from contending.

▪ Panthers: Dale Tallon back in charge rights some of the management wrongs that (along with injuries) made last season so disappointing. Who knows about first-time NHL head coach Bob Boughner, the new hire, but Tallon believing in him is worth something. Jaromir Jagr might be the face of the team, but it’s the ascending young guns (Sasha Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, etc.) that give Boughner a ton to work with. (Yeah, but ...) Florida’s spotty history (five playoffs in 23 years) works against much benefit of doubt. Boughner must prove he can turn this roster’s potential into proof.

Panthers bottom line: Don’t discount a big season from the Cats. The NHL (unlike the NBA) begins anew wide open, and Florida should be in the mix to contend in the East. In fact, I would say the Panthers — right now — are closer to a championship parade than any of our other big five.

What’s left to figure is whether that says more about our hockey team or about the arduous climbs confronting the Dolphins, Heat, Marlins and Canes.

  Comments