This past week, the 2017-2018 season concluded for the Miami Heat, with them falling four games to one at the hands of the upstart Philadelphia 76ers. The series never looked particularly close, with Miami in their lone win needing a vintage Dwyane Wade game (28 points, 11/16 shooting) in order to escape a sweep.
In many ways, the 76ers are the anti-Heat. Philadelphia's "Trust the Process" mantra is well-known (which, as a basketball nerd, is cool to hear it has filtered its way into non-basketball fan's lexicon) and resulted in the most blatant tanking in NBA history. Following a fruitless playoff run in which Philly knocked off the Derrick Rose-less Bulls, the 76ers underwent three straight sub-.200 seasons.
However, the Process paid off, and it showed within the series. Through the high draft picks the 76ers acquired by losing, they were able to land many of their foundational pieces (Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Dario Saric chief among them) that enabled the young 76ers to blow Miami out of the water. Given their rookie-scale contracts, the 76ers are also in prime position to add a high-salary star via free agency or trade (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, anyone?)
Miami decided to take an opposite approach. Following the exodus of LeBron back to Cleveland, the Heat had two of the big three left. One more competitive season later, and an extra year of deterioration for Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh was diagnosed with blood clots and was forced to leave basketball. What has followed has been some semi-competitive teams led by players that are good but not great, leaving Miami in the dreaded mediocrity cycle.
Look, I agree, making the playoffs is nothing to scoff at. It's exciting, it puts butts in seats so a franchise can have a healthy bottom line, and people can maintain their jobs. However, a team can only suffer so many first-round exits before that seven seed just isn't worth it. I believe that Miami has reached that point.
Goran Dragic, the lone All-Star for Miami, was a replacement for the midseason classic following an injury to Cavaliers forward Kevin Love. Dragic is a fine player (averaged 17 PPG, 4 RPG, and nearly 5 APG), with a great feel for the game as well as a fiery passion for winning. However, if he is your team's best player, your team cannot hope for too much. He is 31 and is likely to be getting worse soon, not better.
Miami's highest paid player is arguably the biggest problem with this team. Center Hassan Whiteside (2017-2018 salary: $23,775,506, according to ESPN) fits the Old NBA model of ground-bound physical big men. Whiteside's stats have cratered (down to 1.7 blocks per game) despite him gaining the reputation as one who chases blocks. In a video that has gone viral in the NBA world, all-time great Shaquille O'Neal rips Whiteside's positioning, energy level, and overall demeanor. Whiteside's salary compared to his output is unbalanced, creating a huge burden to the roster construction of the rest of the team.
The Heat is at a crossroads, but if they act quickly, there is a way off their mediocrity treadmill. Behind their high-priced nominal old-ball starters (Dragic, Whiteside, Wade, and forward James Johnson), the Heat have a highly productive and --most importantly-- young bench. A lineup of Bam Adebayo, Kelly Olynyk, Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson, and Justice Winslow produced (albeit in a limited sample size of 144 minutes) a staggering 19 point net rating, which would easily pace the league. That lineup has an average age of 24.6 years and a paltry average salary of $4,708,790.
The story behind the numbers makes sense as well. Adebayo faired surprisingly well as a rookie, establishing himself as a young building block as a rim-running, rim-protecting center that has head coach Erik Spoelstra's trust. Olynyk is slow-footed but is a perfect complement for Adebayo that spaces the floor with his range and possesses solid defensive instincts.
In many ways, he makes Whiteside look like a dinosaur of NBA yesteryear. Ellington spent the season shooting the cover off the ball (39.2% on 7.5 three-point attempts a game) and bringing a veteran edge. Richardson is easily this team's best two-way player, as he routinely covered the opposing team's best player while shooting well enough to be a true "3 and D" threat.
Lastly, Winslow is the biggest wild card of the group. Coming out of Duke, he was often praised for his motor, relentlessness, and leadership while possessing a struggling but fixable shot. Three years in, his weaknesses have shown more than his strengths. However, this year he showed real progress (38% from three) and is still only 22 years old.
The past few years have shown that this Heat lineup simply doesn't work. Getting valuable assets in return for Dragic (package him for Kawhi?) and anything for Whiteside (his negative attitude needs a check) would expedite this inevitable rebuild process. The Heat have young players that are ready for bigger roles, and one year of tanking could bring a true superstar similar to the way the 76ers acquired their best players. This Heat team is making the playoffs, but it's high time to break the band up. Long live the Heatles.