Five days after Dwyane Wade returned to Miami for the first time since he left the Heat, which he led for 13 seasons and three career-defining championships, the franchise is beginning to realize that the road to respectability will be far more arduous than it had imagined.
After Monday’s 94-90 road loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Miami is 2-7, tied with the Washington Wizards for last place in the Southeast Division. Coming out of the weekend, the Heat had the league’s second-worst offense in terms of scoring and third-worst in terms of points per 100 possessions through Saturday’s games. In Saturday’s 102-91 loss to Utah at American Airlines Arena, the Heat scored just 12 points in the third quarter, a listless performance that caused head coach Erik Spoelstra to open his postgame press conference with these remarks:
“It’s not who we are. It’s not who we’ve been for the last month. It’s disappointing,” he said. “This league doesn’t feel sorry for you.”
Wade is gone and Chris Bosh won’t play for the Heat again due to his health concerns. And without those franchise cornerstones, consistent offense has been hard to come by.
Hassan Whiteside is now the face of the franchise with his four-year max contract, but he’s not your prototypical 20-point-per-game scorer. Goran Dragic — who hasn’t played since last Thursday’s game against the Bulls due to a sprained left ankle — isn’t either, but he is the key to solving a major problem plaguing this offense: Pace.
“We gotta get out and run,” Whiteside told The Comeback. “We gotta push the ball and get in transition even more.”
The problem is the team only averages 94.3 possessions per 48 minutes, a pace ranked 24th in the league. The Heat hasn’t really had enough possessions to get out and push the ball, which is a major reason why Miami is towards the bottom of the league in scoring.
“We’d like to play faster,” Spoelstra told The Comeback. “Ultimately, the team will tell you how fast it can. Obviously, Goran really helps with that.”
Josh Richardson, the 23-year-old second-year shooting guard playing a larger role on this younger Heat roster, said that pace is one of the biggest factors surrounding this team right now.
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“It’s like we’re just kind of standing there watching the ball bounce after it goes through the net,” Richardson told The Comeback. “We should be taking the ball as fast as possible and just getting out.”
Along with Justise Winslow, the 10th pick in the 2015 draft, and Tyler Johnson — the 24-year-old guard who Miami kept by matching a four-year, $50 million offer sheet signed with Brooklyn — Richardson is one of several Heat players adjusting to a newer and larger role with Wade and Bosh out of the picture.
Winslow is fourth on the team in scoring at just over 12 points per game, but his shooting percentages — 33.9 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from three on more than three 3-point attempts per game — are horrendous. But it’s not just him; Miami’s collective 42.3 field goal percentage is 27th in the league.
On a team that lacks overarching continuity for the first time in a while, Dion Waiters (!!), James Johnson, Luke Babbitt and Derrick Williams are all relative journeymen fighting for consistent minutes in Spoelstra’s rotation.
“We’re not a team that’s been together for a while,” Richardson said. “We’ve got to execute everything the whole game and not take plays off.”
Effort, unfortunately, has been mentioned around the team as a weak point on this young team.
“It’s definitely a problem that no team wants to have this early,” Richardson said.
Veteran big man Josh McRoberts, who saw his first game action of the season on Saturday, stressed that winning an NBA game is tough and demands continued hard work. Even talent alone, which the Heat don’t have the most of right now, can’t win most games in this league.
“This is a tough league,” Spoelstra said. “And you just have to continue to grind and plug away and build collective character, especially when things aren’t going your way, and not get caught up in what the result is. Just keep on competing, keep on working, keep on building better habits.”
This dreadful start is certainly a far cry from where this team was last season, when Miami took Toronto to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals and its pace and defensive efficiency were similar to last season’s numbers. It may take a different approach on offense, featuring Dragic, Waiters and Whiteside picking up the pace and getting in transition more while trying not to sacrifice too much of its strong defensive play.
With games against the Hawks and Bucks up next, Miami could easily be looking at a 2-9 or 3-8 start. And with a younger team still looking for its identity, it’s looking more and more like that this will be a Heat team on the losing end of a lot more games than this proud franchise is accustomed to.