If the Miami Heat was a village, Udonis Haslem would be the elder. Not only has he spent most of his 36 years in his hometown of Miami, where he hopes to run for mayor someday, but he has spent all 13 of his NBA years with the Heat.
He’s seen more incarnations of the Miami Heat than any of his teammates. He’s been part of the Shaquille O’Neal-Dwyane Wade Era, and the deep trough that followed it. He was a key element during the Big 3 Era. He’s been loyal through thick and thin, when the franchise won its three titles, and when the arena was half empty.
So when U.D. talks, he knows what he’s talking about, and he likes the current character of a Heat team that ventured into the great unknown and defeated the Orlando Magic 108-96 in its season opener.
Haslem is just as curious as coach Erik Spoelstra and the rest of us as to what this sapling of a team will look like when it grows up. But he’s optimistic, and he saw glimpses of the source of that optimism Wednesday night.
“We’ve got a lot of guys with my type of DNA,” Haslem said when training camp opened with lots of new faces. He was undrafted out of Florida. “They have something to prove. I know the feeling of being written off. I’m looking forward to molding that energy and thirst and hunger.”
Spoelstra likes the concept of “position-less basketball.” Now he, his players and Heat fans have to get used to the concept of “star-less basketball.” Shaq is long gone. Wade and LeBron James went home to the dueling World Series cities of Chicago and Cleveland. Chris Bosh, his health at risk because of recurring blood clots, won’t wear a Heat uniform again, according to Pat Riley, who managed to generate ill will with each member of the departed trio.
The 2016-17 edition of the Heat is out to cleanse any bad blood, start fresh and establish its own identity. These guys want to show they are not just the leftovers, not just the rubble of the Big 3 castle, not just the consolation prize of the Kevin Durant sweepstakes the Heat was never close to winning.
Something to prove? The Heat did that in the third quarter, coming back from a disheveled first half and three-point deficit to hold the Magic to 16 points and seize an 11-point lead.
“We are coming out here with a chip on our shoulder,” said Hassan Whiteside, whose defense sparked dunks, fast breaks and a decisive turnaround. “People are counting us out. These guys have an edge to them. I’m excited. We are going to get better as the season goes along.”
Something to prove? Tyler Johnson, who looks more like a pal of Huck Finn’s than an NBA player, dunked over Jeff Green.
“We have a lot of guys who have come from different teams and haven’t had their opportunity to put a stamp on a season but they are going to this year,” said Johnson, who has a 42-inch vertical leap.
As Spoelstra says, change is invigorating. Positions that used to be written in ink are now written in pencil.
“It’s OK to admit it’s strange,” he’s said, in typical Spo-speak, referring to his roster and to the sight of Wade as a Bull.
Embrace the next generation. That’s the theme of the Heat this season. It’s a garden. Who will blossom? Who will wither? Who will be a pleasant surprise? Who gets weeded out?
It’s too early to judge Miami’s potential, especially when the opener featured two teams expected to be among the Least of the East. Orlando, attempting to rebuild from low-rise to high-rise, has nine new players.
But already we’re seeing signs that Whiteside, the Heat’s $98 million man, is ready to burst forth as an elite NBA player. He scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked four shots and was a huge, 7-foot reason the Heat got 74 points in the paint.
Whiteside, who picked up two fouls in the first quarter, also complained about every call, and officials got sick of it, slapping him with a technical in the third quarter.
Whiteside had only one assist and his post moves are a work in progress. But he epitomizes what Haslem is talking about — a player who was given up as a “head case,” trudged around China and Lebanon and the developmental league wasteland before being given another chance in Miami. He intends to make the most of it, and that will be fascinating to observe.
Goran Dragic, the Slovenian who never had a chance to play up to his capability on a bad Phoenix team, scored 16 points with six assists. In the second half, he displayed the open-court speed and kamikaze slashing that Spoelstra needs to make this team attack at full tilt. But Dragic was 0 for 1 on three-pointers, a Heat weakness.
Justise Winslow added 15 points and eight rebounds; he could be the Heat’s next great two-way player. Dion Waiters, a No. 4 draft pick in 2012 who stagnated for years and is another Haslem project, showed his versatility but will have to be more productive from the perimeter. Newcomers James Johnson, Willie Reed and Luke Babbitt made contributions.
It’s the first time since 2009 expectations for the Heat have been this low. Let’s see if they can exceed them. Let’s see if Haslem is right about the grit of his teammates in the post-Wade era. The Heat is no longer a red-carpet team. To find harmony, it’s going to have to be a blue-collar team.
“Can you legitimately enjoy someone else’s success?” Spoelstra said. “It’s a very competitive league. But to really connect you have to get to a point where you enjoy your teammates when they are playing well. At least you’re starting to see the foundation of that.”