The NBA is a stars league. You need one or two or three to make it to the top. And when you lose one — especially of the caliber of a Dwyane Wade — it’s hard to get a new one. The Miami Heat’s 2016-17 dilemma.
By Chris Umpierre
MIAMI — Year 1 A.W. (After Wade) has not gone well.
The Miami Heat (10-22) sit in 13th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference. Miami’s new face of the franchise — the 7-foot-tall Hassan Whiteside — is a double-double machine, but injuries and inexperience have plagued the 2016-17 Heat.
What Miami is discovering is there’s no replacing a legend. Dwyane Tyrone Wade Jr. was a once-in-a-generation star. He was the rare player with an incomparable work ethic to lift a franchise and charisma to unite a city.
Look around the NBA. There are few players like that.
Did Miami make the right move in not re-signing Wade?
Yes. At 34 years old, Wade is on the down slope of his career. Yes, he’s having a strong season in Chicago (19.2 points per game would rank second on this year’s Heat behind Goran Dragic’s 19.3 average), but he’s not the same Wade who led Miami to its first title in 2006.
Wade admits as much. Wade mostly plays below the rim now.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s still a top-50 NBA player. I enjoyed watching the recent highlight of him stealing a ball during a game against the Indiana Pacers. Wade shot the gap, intercepted a pass, tipped the ball ahead, put his head down and ran full speed to collect the ball as it headed out of bounds.
Wade gathered himself, approached the rim and flushed a two-handed dunk. Then as if he didn’t know the next time he’d get a chance to dunk, he hung on the rim with one hand and yelled as loud as he could.
“When you don’t get as high as you use to on your dunks,” Wade wrote on Instagram. “It’s what you do after the dunk that makes it look better. Haha. Great team win tonite. /react-text #letsbuild.”
Wade is playing great. But how much longer will it last? Will he be playing like this in four years when he’s 38? Father time is undefeated. All the greats stumble at the end. The biggest reason is health. After playing basketball for decades, ligaments and body parts tend to break down.
Look at Kobe Bryant, who lost countless games to injuries in his last three NBA seasons. The times he could play, his timing was off and he lacked the defensive acumen that made him an elite two-way player.
Like Kobe then, Wade has a lot of miles on his legs. His hard-charging style means he took a lot of hits over the years.
Remember this Converse commercial?
Could a Wade-led Heat team make the playoffs this year? Possibly. But the team wouldn’t go further than the first round without Chris Bosh, who might never suit up for Miami again because of health problems (get better, Chris).
A Wade, Whiteside and Bosh led roster would be interesting, but we never really got a chance to see it.
Keeping the Future in Mind
In deciding not to re-sign Wade, the Heat made the tough decision to prioritize future flexibility and cap space over loyalty. Letting Wade walk was a bad public relations move. But basketball wise, it was the right move.
Letting Wade walk gives the Heat the financial cap space to try to sign top-level free agents this summer (see bottom of article). NBA is a young man’s game and you want stars on the rise.
Re-signing Wade would have surely meant more season tickets, jersey sales and wins. At least, in the short term. But if you’re not challenging for the Larry O’Brien trophy year after year, then what are you playing for?
The 2016-17 Heat continue to sell out games. Miami’s sellout streak is at 300-plus consecutive games, the second longest in the league. This is an impressive streak, especially for all those critics who say Miami is a bandwagon town.
(On a side note, the Heat have a great partnership with Bustelo during home games. Each home game, the Heat play a Café Bustelo segment on the jumbotron. It’s great. A Heat player will walk onto the Café Bustelo set, drink some cafecito with the host and then answer a few questions. The Heat players usually have to answer in Spanish. It is so Miami.)
But when you attend a game, you can see the sellout streak is in name only. There were a lot of empty seats when I attended a recent game against the Indiana Pacers.
Despite the team’s record, fans still get into the game and support the club. A recent study conducted by SmartAsset showed Heat fans are the sixth most die-hard supporters in the NBA.
Over the last 11 years, the Heat had the third-highest attendance in the league at 99.4 percent.
This season, Miami is averaging about 19,000 fans per game.
Finding the Next Star
Whiteside, an undrafted player, is a player to build around. In this wide-open, 3-point era of basketball, it’s imperative to have an athletic rim protector. Whiteside not only protects the rim, he’s a menace on the offensive glass.
He’s not always into games, but when he is: look out.
When have you seen a 7-foot center do this? (This is a ridiculous in-game double-pump dunk!!! Can we get him in the dunk contest?)
Whiteside’s offensive game is improving, but he needs work there. During a game against the Indiana Pacers, Whiteside impressed with his ability to swing the ball out of the post.
Some people say Whiteside doesn’t have superstar charisma. Few players do. Kareem never engaged with the public during his NBA Hall of Fame career.
Tyler Johnson, another undrafted player the Heat re-signed with a major contract this offseason, and Justise Winslow round out the team’s young core. Johnson is averaging a career-high point total and Winslow is just now returning from several injuries.
The Celtics reportedly offered six draft picks to try to acquire Winslow in the 2015 NBA Draft, so he has the talent. Winslow does everything well on the court except, well, you know… shoot the basketball.
This could become a problem. But he’s still young.
Winslow is averaging 11.5 points per game on 37 percent shooting in the first 16 games of this season. He’s making just 20 percent of his 3-point attempts.
The 30-year-old Dragic, the team’s leading scorer, has come up in trade rumors. Will the Heat trade him to a contender?
I’m not sure. But if the Heat continue to struggle this year, I do know they will go into next spring with a lottery pick.
They would have Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Whiteside and Dragic under contract, a lottery pick and ample salary cap space to swing big in a 2017 free agent class headlined by Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook? A 28-year-old athletic, future NBA Hall of Famer. Now that’s a player Miami could rally around.