Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Heat accepts ‘invigorating’ challenge of Life After You-know-who

Miami Heat guards Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole ham it up for the camera during Media Day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, Sept. 26, 2014.
Miami Heat guards Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole ham it up for the camera during Media Day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, Sept. 26, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

No point in trying to deny the obvious. The Miami Heat became a diminished team – the sport’s four-year epicenter suddenly shunted off to the periphery – the moment ol’ What’s-his-name decided to leave. There is no use arguing that the coming basketball season will seem quieter and smaller now that the Unnamed Superstar has taken his talents from South Beach back to Cleveland, and taken the NBA spotlight and the attention of America with him.

Certainly the player no longer here was the now-slimmed-down 250-pound elephant not in the room Friday as the Heat gathered at the downtown arena for its annual media day preparatory to opening preseason training camp Saturday.

Seemed all we wanted to talk about, understandably, was life after [blank].

We must find a positive spin to help us move forward. Because let’s be real. It can be depressing dwelling on the fact the unthinkable happened and the Balding Headband-Wearer is really gone.

So I offer this, and I actually mean it:

This Heat season will be less exciting, no doubt.

But it might be more interesting, too – less predictable and more competitive.

Sure, the Carpetbagger Forward is no longer with us, but in his sizable void there are many interesting questions and challenges to be answered.

The Heat steps into the unknown now.

“Invigorating,” was coach Erik Spoelstra’s word for it Friday, because what choice does a poor coach have other than to make the best of losing the game’s most dominant player. “I’m looking at this as a blank canvas.”

Or, as Dwyane Wade said: “We can’t replace [my departed teammate]. We’re a different team.”

Four consecutive NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back championships in between made the Big 3-era Heat great but also created a sameness. The 82-game regular season ceased to really matter because everything seemed forgone. Miami was the beast of the East and everybody knew it and the only question was whom the Heat would meet in the Finals.

Yawn. Bor-ing!

(Hey work with me here. Positive spin, remember?)

Now, with Miami’s best player LeGone, the regular season finally matters again. Nothing may be assumed. Every game will count and the standings will matter as the Heat jockeys for playoff position because, now, the first-round opponent could be a rugged challenge, not a walkover sweep.

Now, Miami is seen as just another team. Cleveland with its once and future King is the new (expected) beast of the East. Chicago with Derrick Rose back is also supposed to be better than the Heat. So is Washington. Miami is seen as fourth best in the East at best, and is often pegged even lower.

We are, as an NBA city, what we haven’t been in four years:

The underdog.

The four-year preseason favorite to win the NBA Finals is a current 60-1 long shot.

Pat Riley and Spoelstra love to ply psychology, and the obvious mind-game now is to prove the doubters wrong and show that the Heat is bigger than any one player – yes, even [name redacted].

Major ifs will steer this season.

The Heat will remain an East power arguably as good as anybody in the conference if Chris Bosh is up to his increased scoring role, if Wade is healthy and playing like he’s still elite, if Luol Deng proves to a smart addition, if Josh McRoberts does, too, if Danny Granger is healthy and if Spoelstra “reinvents himself” (as Riley said he must) and coaches his butt off. Among other things.

It will start with the Big 2, Bosh and Wade, flourishing in their expanded roles.

“Obviously I’ll have the ball in my hands a little more,” as Wade put it.

There is a smothering effect to playing alongside The One Who Left. If Bosh and Wade both play like all-stars in his absence, Miami will be very good again.

Of course there is always the wrong side of “if.”

The Heat will be an East mid-pack team, perhaps even fighting for a playoff spot, if Bosh is not up to a go-to-guy role, if Wade just seems older, if Deng proves a disappointment, if McRoberts and Granger are this year’s Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, and if it turns out that what made Spoelstra seem like a great coach moved back to Akron.

Spoelstra sums up in four words the mystery of this season:

“How change pushes you.”

We have no idea if it will push the Heat to unexpected greatness, or to humbling mediocrity.

It is the finding out that will be interesting. Different.

For what it’s worth, Bosh on Friday took umbrage with the perception and betting odds that Miami will suffer a sharp falloff, post-[blank]. Bosh said he thinks the Heat is as good as anyone in the East.

While we wait to find out it is worth noting that – even diminished – the Heat remains the one pro team in Miami that can most be relied upon to make the playoffs. That is a knock on the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers but also an appreciation that the Heat should still be pretty darned good, even minus the superstar whose name we can’t quite seem to recall.

Also happy to report that Spoelstra, declining to borrow from the Joe Philbin handbook, confirmed that Bosh and Wade would be starters.

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