Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Heat is no pawn despite losing the King

For the Heat to contend this season, Chris Bosh, left, must play up to his maximum contract and 32-year-old Dwyane Wade must play like he’s still in his prime.
For the Heat to contend this season, Chris Bosh, left, must play up to his maximum contract and 32-year-old Dwyane Wade must play like he’s still in his prime. El Nuevo Herald

The instinct to fight, to punch back, is a part of the Heat’s DNA. It grows from club president Pat Riley’s background as an amateur boxer in Schenectady, New York. It had its face in the scowl and clenched-fist ruggedness of Alonzo Mourning. It is nourished by coach Erik Spoelstra’s admiration of the sweet science and especially Manny Pacquiao. It is why Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been invited to watch practice and address the team.

It is an attitude that is at gut level and in this franchise’s soul:

When you get knocked down, you get back up.

And so it is as the 2014-15 NBA season, Miami’s 27th, begins here on Wednesday night.

The Heat got knocked down. Hard. Took a blindside hit it didn’t see coming in July when LeBron James, the best player in the game, abruptly left in free agency to return to Cleveland.

No team suffered a bigger offseason loss. It’s a blow that is supposed to devastate, as it did the Cavaliers when James left there to come here in 2010. When this player leaves he is supposed to take all hope with him, taking a contending team and leaving it in a shambles.

It didn’t happen here.

The Heat got up. Fought back.

No, Miami isn’t the heavyweight title contender it was when LeBron helped lead the team to the past four NBA Finals, winning two of them. The Heat certainly is no longer the national media darling and epicenter of basketball.

But neither has the club conceded competitiveness, resigned itself to a slow rebuilding nor surrendered to the likelihood of the draft lottery that awaits the league’s dregs.

Miami is ready for a fight, accepting the challenge to prove that life after LeBron needn’t be desolate.

Two truths remain in James’ wake.

One is that the Heat remains better positioned to make the playoffs and make South Florida proud than any of our other pro teams. Some of that is the varying postseason droughts engulfing the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers. And part of that is the second truth:

Even sans LeBron, the Heat still has a Big 3.

It is Riley, the Hall of Fame overseer of the entire operation, Spoelstra, the coach, and, less known but not less important, Andy Elisburg, the behind-the-scenes general manager and salary-cap guru in charge of making most of Riley’s roster wishes come true. (It would be a Big 4 if you includes Micky Arison, one of the best owners in all of sports.)

In other words, LeBron is gone, but the leadership that brought him here, and won a championship before he came, and scrambled successfully to refashion the roster when he left, remains.

The best player left, but the core of the Heat, Riley, did not. Nor did the hope embodied by Riley in charge — a Riley reinvigorated, at age 69, to withstand the loss of James and prove to all he has another championship run in his tank.

Miami has positioned itself to enjoy much salary-cap space next summer and especially in 2016, when the free agent bounty is expected to include Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah.

Meantime, the Heat should be competitive, playoff-good.

Concede that Cleveland, with LeBron, and Chicago, with a healthy Derrick Rose, are the best in the Eastern Conference. Admit that Toronto and Washington both could be better, too. But Miami, if most of Spoelstra’s “ifs” pan out, should contend for the playoffs’ first-round home-court advantage that comes with a top-four seeding.

Adding Luol Deng to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh makes for a diminished Big 3 but not a bad one. Adding Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and rookie Shabazz Napier to the returning nucleus of Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Birdman Andersen could make for an interesting rotation. Oh, and young James Ennis could be ready for a breakthrough.

Now, the ifs. …

If Deng, a strong defender and career 16-point scorer, proves still in his prime at 29.

If McRoberts is ascending and ready to be starter-caliber.

If Granger stays healthy.

If Napier and Ennis are ready to prove themselves.

If these things happen, Miami could be pretty good if the two biggest ifs also turn out right.

That would be Wade and Bosh, of course.

This season figures to be interesting in a way the LeBron years were not because, back then, a spot in the NBA Finals seemed a foregone conclusion. It made the regular season a bit perfunctory, if not boring.

Now, the season means something as Miami jockeys for playoff position, and the great variable is whether Wade, turning 33 in January, and Bosh, 30, can flourish in the expanded roles they will have in LeBron’s absence.

Can Bosh, the go-to guy now, be the 22-point, 10-rebound force he was in Toronto before comfortably playing the third scoring option in Miami? He was given a maximum contract and the burden that entails. Now Bosh must lead.

Can Wade, whose scoring average has declined five consecutive seasons, muster enough of his fleeting prime to still be All-Star caliber? Wade has been overshadowed by Shaquille O’Neal or LeBron for eight of his 11 seasons. Now, even if ostensibly this is Bosh’s team, Wade will have a stage to shine that he so often has had to share. Does he have it in him?

The finding out lends an intrigue to the coming season.

The Heat got knocked down, hard, and got back up.

Now we get to see how much punch it still has.

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