Holding Court - With LeBron gone, the Heat pick up the pieces
Losing your best player, let alone the acknowledged best player in the game, would be devastating to any team, and that’s precisely what the Miami Heat went through and, presumably, will continue to go through as they pick up the pieces of LeBron James’ going back home to Cleveland.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra so eloquently put it when he said, “This league does teach you that it’s inevitable that there’s constant change and you always have to continue to embrace change, adapt with change,” Spoelstra said after James unexpectedly returned to Northeast Ohio after four years in South Florida.
“This is a big, monumental change that we didn’t necessarily anticipate but you have to respect it because when you’re a free agent in this league you have the right to make a decision that’s best for you and your family. When he made that decision that was best for his family, where his heart is, all you can do from our side is respond with respect and love.” (RELATED: Erik Spoelstra won't hold grudge against LeBron James)
That, of course, doesn’t necessarily make James’ departure any less difficult nor less painful, particularly because when the 29-year-old superstar exercised his early-termination option and his fellow Big Three mates, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, followed suit, it looked like just a matter of time when all three would re-up as the master plan supposedly mandated. They of course would do so with contracts that would enable the Heat to bring in better talent to help them compete like they used to in their first three finals appearances and not like the way they did in being crushed by San Antonio in the last.
Except that by this time, James slowly came to the realization that he couldn’t take less money and be assured that the help that Heat president Pat Riley could bring around him would be enough to win a championship. That, and the tug of home and the lure of a rising, up-and-coming Cavaliers team, eventually led to his final decision to leave.
It didn’t matter that Riley had started the process of retooling by coming to terms with forwards Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, two players that fit Spoelstra’s offense that valued spacing. James still thought such a move, if it represented what was forthcoming, would not make much of a difference. He was simply burned out with carrying the Heat on his shoulders, and it showed this past season when he obviously took some plays off. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, for example, measured James being barely above average on the defensive end. James was often seen lagging behind a play and it was perhaps his way of taking after Wade, whom Spoelstra has put under a “maintenance plan” in recent years to keep his perennially ailing and aging knees from being aggravated to get him ready for the playoffs.
While this worked in previous years, this on-and-off approach especially on the defensive end was badly exposed against the Spurs. The Big Three that came together with high expectations in 2010, and that included James, were no longer the same without the necessary help as role players like Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and even Ray Allen could not come through when it mattered.
With James gone, the process of rebuilding – as opposed to the retooling that Riley originally planned – had to take its due course, and it actually started when Wade again sacrificed himself by taking less money when he re-signed with the only team he has known all 11 years of his career. (RELATED: 2014 NBA Free Agency Grades)
Wade had opted out of the final two years and $42 million of his contract primarily to help keep James in South Beach, but in the end, the two-year, $31.125 million deal he later took did more to help Miami fill the void left by James, particularly in bringing in free-agent forward Luol Deng and in re-signing Bosh to a maximum deal.
“Home Is Where The Heart Is… My Home, My City, My House,” Wade first posted on Instagram while proclaiming himself a “#HeatLifer.”
He then later said, “I am proud to have spent every single day of my career as a member of the Miami Heat and to have brought three championship titles to this great city. I’ve been here through the good times and the hard times. I have confidence in the Miami Heat organization and the team they are building.”
Riley of course could only praise his long-time franchise star, decidedly the greatest player in Heat history notwithstanding James’ prodigious four-year stint with the club. “Dwyane has been the franchise cornerstone for this team since the day he arrived 11 years ago,” Riley said. “He has shown his commitment to the Heat many times over the course of his career and has always been willing to sacrifice in order to help build this team into a champion. This time is no different.”
It was actually the second time that Wade left money on the table to enable his team to have the flexibility to bring in more talent, with the first time of course taking place in 2010 to help Miami put together the Big Three of James, Wade and Bosh. Notwithstanding the fact that the partnership fell short of the trio’s audacious prediction of winning more than five or six titles, that partnership still has to be considered an unmitigated success. The Heat after all became the first team since the Larry Bird Boston Celtics to make the NBA finals four straight years, winning two titles in the process and bringing to three Wade’s number of championships won after that amazing run in 2006.
Wade’s financial sacrifice of course gave the Heat extra money to sign Deng to a two-year, $20 million contract with a player option for the second year. The 6-foot-9 Deng, a 10-year veteran, doesn’t have James’ otherworldly athleticism but he is as close as anyone can come to providing what James did on both ends of the court. The two-time All-Star averaged 16.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.0 steal last year while shooting .431 from the floor and .791 from the stripes as he split time with Chicago and Cleveland. He has career averages of 16.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.0 steal.
Wade’s hometown discount also made it possible for Riley and team owner Micky Arison to make Bosh the Heat’s new main man, with the 6-11 Bosh getting, rather surprisingly, a five-year contract worth $118 million. At 30 years old and his production having steadily gone down in recent years, dipping to 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists last season, his lowest norms in four years with the Heat, Bosh though may not be worth $23.6 million per annum.
As some pundits said, Riley might eventually regret giving the nine-time All-Star that much money particularly when the deal reaches its last two years. But the fact that Riley and the Heat did speaks to some kind of desperation, with the Houston Rockets having also made a strong pitch for Bosh and, in fact, looking like the favorites before the Heat pounced with their hard-to-refuse bid.
Bosh, however, seems adamant that he’s up to the challenge. He knows that he has to recall the form that he harnessed while serving as the primary offensive option in Toronto, when his averages peaked at 24.0 points and 10.8 rebounds, and is confident he’ll do just that. “I can’t lie to you. I’m excited. I’m excited for the challenge,” he says. “I want to step up to the challenge. I feel this is a chance to prove to myself and others that I can still do this.”
Bosh goes a step further by declaring the Heat can still contend for a title even without James, even comparing the current Heat team with the Spurs themselves. “I think right now we have the correct infrastructure to compete for a championship,” he asserts. “We have to get much better at certain positions, and there’s a bunch of things that have to continue to happen. But you know a team like the Spurs, they had a lot of guys that people underestimate, but as a team, they were outstanding.”
Bosh says the chemistry that the Heat have built over the years is bound to serve them well as they attempt to regroup. “I think over these few years, Dwyane and I have developed a bond as well. I think that’s going to really help us going forward,” he says. “We have so much chemistry. We’ll just be continuing without LeBron. It’s starting a different chapter. It’s exciting. I think it should be motivation for everybody to step up to the plate. We’re fortunate enough to have some of the same guys. We should be able to say, ‘Hey, we can come out here and compete no matter what happens.’”
Aside from Bosh, Wade, Deng, McRoberts and Granger, the Heat have also come to terms with five other players as they attempt to fill the roster and rebuild following LeBron’s departure – Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers, rookies James Ennis and Shabazz Napier, and Udonis Haslem, who along with the Big Three also opted out of the remaining $4.3 million of his contract to help in the pursuit of James. But unlike his fellow lifelong Heat teammate Wade, Haslem gained more money when he re-signed for a two-year deal worth the Heat’s mid-level exception of $5.6 million.
Andersen, the tattoo-covered reserve center, also re-signed for two years and $10 million as the Heat resolved to keep him away from the Cavaliers following overtures by LeBron’s new club, Chalmers also re-upped for a two-year deal worth $8.3 million, while Napier, this year’s 24th pick, signed a deal that will pay him $1.2 million this season. Ennis, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Long Beach State, was drafted by Atlanta with the 50th pick last year and has yet to play a game in the NBA.
The contracts the Heat reached with these players total some $215.725 million in value, leaving Riley with just the minimum contracts to fill out the roster, but they also give Miami the flexibility to make a big move or two in two years since most of the deals just have a two-year window. With the exception of Bosh’s deal, the four-year, $22.7 million pact of the 27-year-old McRoberts and the rookie contract of Napier, which runs for two years plus another two years at the team’s option, all the deals Riley closed over the past two weeks are set to expire after the 2016 season. So are the only two contracts that existed before all these deals were signed, those of Cole and reserve center Justin Hamilton whose salary for next season is not guaranteed anyway.
But going from two players when James left to 12 a week after he’d put the Heat through perhaps their greatest crisis yet has to be a big accomplishment for Riley and the Heat braintrust. The question now is, how good will this Heat team be post-James?
For all his financial sacrifices, Wade is not the same player that he was four years ago and may not even be worth the $16 million-$17 million that he’s set to receive. This is partly because the knee problems that have hampered him has taken away from his explosiveness and ability to consistently perform at the high level that one has been used to seeing him do. His norms of 19.0 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals last season, while helping him rank behind only James Harden among shooting guards in player efficiency rating, are the lowest numbers he’s had in the last four years. On top of this, his minutes and number of games (54 last season) have had to be managed to keep him fresh.
Bosh, on the other hand, has also been reduced to an outside-shooting big man whose effectiveness inside has also gone south in recent years. He has to bounce back in a big way and make his big-man presence felt to keep the Heat a legitimate title threat in the now-more wide-open East.
Deng also has to recall the form that has made him Chicago’s fourth-leading career scorer. The South Sudan native, a good two-way player, has also been injury-prone, and he has to avoid those injuries to give Miami the capable filler it needs to replace James.
Spoelstra’s job just became tougher no doubt. Through the past four years, the Heat were good enough to make the finals with LeBorn making up for whatever deficiencies they had, whether it was Wade’s less-than-healthy status, Bosh’s occasional disappearances, or Chalmers’ and Cole’s ballhandling inadequacies. He simply served as their “great safety net” and “grand equalizer,” in the words of Yahoo Sports’ Dan Devine.
But James is now gone, and it’s time for Bosh, Wade and company to step up to the plate, meet the challenge of their buddy’s absence head-on and put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.
SHORTSHOTS: Carlos Boozer, who was amnestied by Chicago to allow the Bulls to make room for Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, has been acquired on amnesty waivers by the LA Lakers. Nine teams made a blind bid for the 32-year-old Boozer’s $16.8 million Bulls deal, and the Lakers won with a bid of $3.25 million. The Bulls must pay the balance of $13.6 million that he’s owed on the final year of his contract in 2014-15. While releasing the two-time All-Star via the amnesty clause removes that $13.6 million from Chicago’s books for salary-cap and luxury-tax purposes, the Bulls are still obligated to pay him that amount… There are 10 players who have been amnestied that are still being paid by their former teams: Josh Childress by Phoenix, Travis Outlaw (Brooklyn), Tyrus Thomas (Charlotte), Brendan Haywood (Dallas), Drew Gooden (Milwaukee), Andray Blatche (Washington), Mike Miller (Miami), Luis Scola (Houston), Brandon Roy (Portland), and Gilbert Arenas (Orlando)… The Rockets acquired Trevor Ariza as part of a three-team trade also involving Washington and New Orleans, bringing the 6-8 forward back to where he averaged a career-high 14.9 points during the 2010 season. Ariza joined Houston in a sign-and-trade where the Rockets also sent center Omer Asik, forward Omri Casspi and $1.5 million in cash to the Pelicans. The Rockets, meanwhile, received forward Alonzo Gee, guard Scotty Hopson and a protected 2015 first-round pick from the Pelicans, while the Wizards in turn got journeyman center Melvin Ely from New Orleans and an $8.5 million trade exception from Houston… Phoenix reached a four-year, $27 million deal with restricted free-agent guard Isaiah Thomas of Sacramento. Instead of matching the offer, the Kings facilitated a sign-and-trade deal with the Suns, with the Kings receiving center Alex Oriakhi and a $7 million trade exception in the exchange. Thomas, 25, had reached an impasse in Sacramento, where the Kings didn’t want to make him a starter and where the 5-9 guard, in turn, didn’t want to stay. The Suns plan to make Thomas, who averaged a career-high 20.3 points and 6.3 assists last season, their third guard behind Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, an intriguing rotation in coach Jeff Hornacek’s system. The Kings had earlier signed ex-Clippers point guard Darren Collison. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.