After the first 41 games of this NBA season for the Miami Heat, they appeared to be headed for one of their worst campaigns in franchise history. The Heat were 11-30 and they were barreling towards having one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft. The Heat’s roster is comprised of youngsters and relative unknowns who appeared to not have the ability to cut it at this level. But what has happened for the Heat since then has been downright magical.
The Heat would go on to win their next 13 games which included a victory over the Golden State Warriors who are the defending Western Conference Champions. And even after Miami’s 13-game winning streak, they have yet to slow down as they’ve gone 20-4 since their dreadful start. And now the Heat are just a .5-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with nearly a month remaining in the regular season.
The coaching job that has been done by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra cannot be overlooked. In 2012 and 2013, Spoelstra led the Heat to the NBA Championship, but he never got the credit that he deserved due to the fact that Miami had small forward LeBron James, shooting guard Dwyane Wade, and power forward Chris Bosh on the roster for those titles teams. And when James decided to opt-out of his contract with the Heat in 2014 to re-join the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami’s chances of winning another title faded. The Heat still had Bosh and Wade as they were able to make the playoffs last season. But things changed drastically when Heat team president Pat Riley allowed Wade to leave last summer as a free agent to join the Chicago Bulls. Riley wasn’t willing to break the bank for an aging Wade, while health issues forced Bosh to unofficially retire as the only player left from Miami’s last title team is veteran power forward Udonis Haslem.
The Heat have attempted to rebuild, but one of their building blocks in small forward Justise Winslow would only appear in 18 games this season after he suffered a torn labrum. However Riley is one of the best to have ever done it in the NBA when it comes to being able to evaluate talent and put a team together.
Center Hassan Whiteside was a relative unknown who had spent the majority of his professional basketball career playing the NBA’s Development League. However Riley saw talent in Whiteside and signed him in 2014. Whiteside has gone of to be an overnight sensation for the Heat. Whiteside led the NBA in blocks last season at 3.7 per contest, and he’s leading the league in rebounds this year (14.1). Whiteside is a double-double machine as he has posted at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in 52 games this season and he has turned into a building block for the Heat.
For nearly eight years point guard Goran Dragic was an underrated player during his time with the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns. Riley acquired Dragic from the Suns in 2015 and after he struggled to play alongside Wade and Bosh, he has begun to flourish on South Beach. Dragic is averaging 20.2 points this season which is a career-high, to go along with 6.1 assists per contests as he has given Miami a solid floor general.
Throughout the basketball journey of shooting guard Dion Waiters he has been a player who has been overlooked. In Waiters’ last collegiate season with the Syracuse Orange, he was the Big East Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year. Waiters was selected fourth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Cavaliers, but he quickly clashed there with point guard Kyrie Irving who he accused of playing “buddy ball” with center Tristan Thompson. And not long after James returned to Cleveland, Waiters would find himself traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder where he was bench player in the shadow of small forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook.
Waiters would sign with the Heat last summer, but for only $2.89 million which was shocking with money being thrown around the league as the result of a new television deal. But Waiters has done nothing but shine in Miami as he is averaging 15.9 points per game and he has brought the tough-minded approach that he developed on the playgrounds of Philadelphia to Miami.
Riley would receive a ton of criticism last summer when he re-signed point guard Tyler Johnson to the tune of $50 million over four years. However Johnson has turned into a key contributor off of Miami’s bench as his 13.8 points per game are fourth on the team.
Aside from Dragic and power forward James Johnson, none of the regular contributors for Miami are more than 30-years of age. The Heat have a team of players that have yet to figure out how good they can be and thus they are playing with house money which is a credit to Riley and Spoelstra.
Riley has once again made the Heat into playoff contenders by using his thinking cap as opposed to relying on help. In the four years that James was with the Heat, the Cavaliers had the first overall pick in the NBA Draft three times, yet they were unable to make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference once. However the Heat are in the mix for their second playoff appearance without James as they’ve gone about their business in a different way. The Heat never whined and publicly complained about James leaving like Cavs owner Dan Gilbert did, nor have they ever won the NBA’s Draft Lottery. But since Riley has been a part of nine championship teams as a player, head coach, and team president, he knows how to win. And even though that James has gone on to win an NBA Championship since leaving Miami, the Heat are still a franchise that cannot be overlooked due to Riley’s influence.
Riley has lobbied for Spoelstra to be the NBA’s Coach of the Year and he has a valid case as this was written off a few months ago. When critics questioned Spoelstra’s coaching ability during James’ tenure with Miami, Riley backed his coach, and it’s time that the rest of basketball world gives him some credit as well. The Heat might not be a title team at the present time, but if you give Riley the opportunity, he will bring another Larry O’Brien Trophy to South Beach sooner than you think.