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Friday, April 23, 2021

With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh gone, Heat will be far from boring this season

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LeBron James called it a “grind.” Even General Manager Erik Spoelstra compared it to playing an “asphalt” surface. If the Miami Heat didn’t think their season was going to be like that when it started, they probably shouldn’t have.

To say the Heat had a rough few weeks would be a gross understatement. On the day they officially opened their season — at home against the lowly Washington Wizards — James sat out with a strained groin, Dwyane Wade sat out due to a “weak shooting left wrist,” and Chris Bosh sat out with a slightly painful case of a stomach flu. The Heat’s losing streak stretched to two (and counting), dropping them to 1-3 to start the season.

“I’m sick of that losing streak,” LeBron James said after the Heat’s 96-80 loss to the Wizards on Monday.

If it gets any worse, Spoelstra will have to consider starting Justise Winslow at point guard and Hassan Whiteside at center to compensate for the absences of James and Wade. That’s one reason it’s hard to read too much into Miami’s roster overhaul last summer.

Don’t make the mistake of expecting anything less from the Heat, though, even at 0-5. Miami started 1-2 last season and ended up sitting at 16-17 at the midway point. It wasn’t until James was healthy again — when he averaged a career-high 31.2 points and was named Finals MVP in the Spurs’ victory over the Heat — that the Heat started to stabilize and their playoff hopes were revived.

Health will determine how successful the Heat will be this season. But regardless of what happens on the court, and the health of Miami’s superstars, there’s good reason to expect this season to be fairly tense — in the locker room, and among Heat Nation.

Gone are two Heat stars, Wade and Chris Bosh, who broke their hearts by announcing they were simultaneously dealing with the premature birth of a son and development of a recurrence of blood clots. Two players who averaged at least 30 points per game the last three seasons — Wade led the Heat in scoring the last two — were not nearly as important as they once were.

So what are Miami’s options?

First off, Whiteside, the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is likely to start at center ahead of rookie Bam Adebayo. Whiteside had his most productive season as a pro last year, posting career highs in rebounds (10.1 per game) and blocks (2.5 per game). Even if Whiteside does slip, Spoelstra will likely still have Whiteside to fall back on.

Although Winslow looks more promising than he did a season ago, there are still issues. The point guard position will also be a struggle in many ways, with James Johnson and Rodney McGruder rotating alongside, neither of whom have ever played as much as 30 minutes per game in their careers.

There also are big questions about whether the Heat can find consistency this season. The team only averaged 95.2 points per game last season, good for 12th in the Eastern Conference. They’re even more of a mess defensively. The Heat ranked among the league’s worst teams in scoring (101.2 ppg), field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and defensive field goal percentage and allowed the fifth-most field goals per game last season.

So what would a successful season look like for Miami? Winning 42 games, of course.

The question, though, is whether James and Wade could conceivably stay healthy — like they did last season — to help them accomplish that goal.

Perhaps no team has dealt with the luxury that Miami does. James has already announced he is moving on to Los Angeles next summer, where he’ll join the Lakers. And James and Wade have spoken in one way or another of their dissatisfaction with the Heat’s organizational structure, which relies more on analytics than on recruiting.

Even with the loss of James and Wade, I’m not convinced the Heat couldn’t find an efficient way to go 48-34 this season. They remain a well-stocked roster with an up-and-coming young core. And despite LeBron’s announcement, the Heat may not be done adding pieces. The Heat need to find a way to have success without them.

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