The Miami Heat have been asking a lot more questions than they have been answering this season.
At what point does a run of good form become expected output?
When does winning stop being luck?
Who even are half of these players?
In the space of a few months, the Heat have gone from ‘sell everything that isn’t held down’ to ‘wait… these guys are actually good’.
Having lost Dwayne Wade and Luol Deng via free agency, along with Chris Bosh and Justice Winslow through injury, the Heat started the season with an understatedly rough start.
Come January, they were languishing towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference, with 30 losses in 41 games. It looked as though the best thing to do was for Pat Riley to start getting rid of anything with value in order to secure a high pick in this year’s stacked NBA draft.
There were rumours flying around that Goran Dragic may be traded, and even if there were takers for Hassan Whiteside’s contract.
However, after that, something really weird started happening in Miami… The Heat started winning. A lot.
Since January 17, on the backs of Dragic, Whiteside, the ultimate irrational confidence shooter in Dion Waiters, and some expert coaching from Eric Spoelstra, the Heat began heating up with a 13-game winning streak that thrust the side into a likely playoff spot.
If the Klay Thompson ‘no, no, no, yes’ shot, which looks like a horrendous idea until it goes in, was a team, it would be the 2016-2017 Heat.
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Miami have been arguably the best performing side in the NBA since mid-January, with a 103.3 defensive rating, placing them at fourth in the league. Combining this with an offensive rating of 111.4, they won 23 of 29 matches, which is insane!
This side aren’t the first team in NBA history to change their fortunes halfway through a season, but I cannot think of an experience where this hasn’t been the result of a major acquisition or player returning. The Heat have turned a full 180 with the same squad they have had all season.
Dragic is showing us the underrated offensive game that we have periodically seen throughout his career. He has played well at every stop of his career but is soon replaced as the number one option. This season, while almost being unintentional, Dragic has been given the reins to run the Miami offence and has been averaging 30 points and nine assists per 100 possessions.
Whiteside has developed from a box-score stuffer into a scrappy team player who also puts up numbers, James Johnson has stepped up his offensive game, Rodney McGruder and Willie Reed have shown that they are actual players and not made up names on 2k17, and Dion Waiters is relishing having the opportunity to be ‘the man’.
Waiters needs the ball in his hands to be successful and he had found himself in the worst possible situation in his time at Oklahoma City, standing in the corner watching Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant take it in turns to put up shots. Having seen Dion play, he was probably standing in that corner thinking he was the best player on the court and Durant should just give him the ball.
Waiters has turned from the free agent nobody wanted last off-season, to hot property come the end of this season.
All of this brings up that the question of what do we expect from Miami from here? Will this over-performance regress back to the mean, or is this what we now get from the new ‘Big Three’ of Dragic, Waiters, and Whiteside (yep, that looks even more strange written than it did in my head)?
If you are LeBron James and the Cavs, or John Wall and the Wizards, come Round 1 of the playoffs, are you looking forward to facing a mediocre side who managed to string a few wins together, or are you wary about drawing a team that has outperformed you in 2017?
The answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in between. However, that is mighty boring, so let’s roll with the Big Three 2.0.
Considering it would be a one versus eight match-up, the Heat actually line up well against Cleveland, and could easily take a game or two to make it a series. Miami have a winning record against them this season (although the Cavs have yet to hit their best), and if you were to design a player who could guard LeBron one on one, they might look like the 6-foot-9 James Johnson.
Let’s not get crazy and overstate this though, Johnson cannot guard LeBron over seven games. However, as we have seen before, not many can. Also, for the sake of the narrative, everyone would love to see a LeBron versus Miami series and what that would bring.
Regardless of how the Miami Heat end the season, this has been a magnificent ride and if they can shed Chris Bosh, as expected, then Pat Riley will have enough room to do Pat Riley things in free agency, while keeping the core of their team.
This could see the Heat rise up the Eastern Conference once again.