Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Heat regresses, Panthers rise, and both on playoff fringe

Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh react during a loss to the Orlando Magic on Monday, Dec. 29, 2014.
Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh react during a loss to the Orlando Magic on Monday, Dec. 29, 2014. EL NUEVO HERALD

The law of averages is an interesting concept in sports. Like religion, it cannot be agreed upon. Fans of downtrodden franchises view it like a drowning man sees a life preserver. Fans of winning clubs want to believe it doesn’t exist – or that, by some miracle happenstance, their team has been made exempt.

The law exists.

Dolphins fans don’t believe it, of course. They have been waiting 31 years to see their team play in another Super Bowl and 42 years to cheer another champion, with no apparent end in sight. Thus Dolfans regard the law as atheists do God.

Hey, I never said the law of averages was fair, or fast, but it does exist.

What is happening to the Heat and Panthers this season seems to present evidence.

Miami’s NBA team, so high for so long, struggles with the uncommon notion of mediocrity while our hockey team, so low for so long, starts to feel some muscle and begins to rise.

Right now, near midseason for both, the Heat and Panthers meet in the middle – where average teams strive to top .500 and merely make the playoffs – but for one that’s close to an embarrassment and for the other, a celebration.

To view the current lot of each team in an historical context is to have zero tolerance for any complaining by Heat fans, and to feel nothing but happy for Cats faithful. One fandom is spoiled and the other starved.

Heat fans feeling sorry for themselves earn about as much sympathy as a billionaire bemoaning a stock-market loss.

The Heat has been on a 20-year joyride since legendary coach-turned-executive Pat Riley blessed the franchise in 1995. Dwyane Wade arrived in 2003 as South Florida sports’ most enduringly bounteous draft pick besides Dan Marino. Shaquille O’Neal came bigger than life in ’04. Some guy named LeBron James was ours from 2010 through ’til last summer.

Those four helped deliver 16 playoff teams in the past 19 seasons, seven reaching at least the conference finals and three reigning as champions. Except for a one-season blip in 2007-08, post-Shaq and pre-LeBron, the Riley-era Heat has rarely not done us proud.

The Panthers, along a similar timeline, oppositely have endured mostly misery, having last won a playoff series in 1996. Except for a one-season blip in 2011-12, when Florida narrowly made the playoffs despite a losing record (quickly exiting), the Cats haven’t skated into Lord Stanley’s postseason since 2000.

This is why the Panthers’ current version of mediocrity (a 17-20 record and a mere two points off playoff pace) stirs growing optimism while the Heat’s version of mediocrity (15-20 and hanging onto the eighth and last East playoff spot) stirs angst and desperation.

Local hockey fans are cheering the six-year contract given rising young scoring star Nick Bjugstad, 22, while Heat fans are praying the rapid development of a young project-center named Hassan Whiteside might somehow save them.

The Cats feel young and ascending, like tomorrow, although a lack of goal scoring continues a problem needing remedy.

The Heat feels older and stagnant, like yesterday, the symbol of that Wade turning 33 on Jan. 17.

The season each team is having has been entertaining, oddly refreshing, though for different reasons.

It’s fun watching both scramble just to make the playoffs.

We are used to seeing the Heat assured a high seed, rendering the regular season boring and perfunctory. (“When do the playoffs start?”)

We are used to seeing the Panthers hopelessly out of the hunt, rendering the regular season almost pointless. (“There’s always next year…”)

Now every game matters for both teams, giving importance and vitality to the regular season even as each team is left the modest struggle of proving they are above average.

No longer can we assume the Heat will make the playoffs and the Panthers won’t.

What the Heat and Cats both could be headed for this year – a fight for the No. 8 and last conference playoff seed – would be a rarity in both clubs’ history, and end each season in excitement if not excellence.

Only three times in 27 Heat seasons (1992, 1994, 1996) has the schedule gone into April and the final games with Miami in a close fight for the eighth seed (the present situation).

And only three times in 21 Panthers seasons (1994, 1995, 2009) has that happened.

Now both teams could be headed for that final-week, playoffs-or-bust scramble.

The difference is, what would feel like close to an indignity for one team would feel more like a triumph for the other.