The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent All–Stars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.
2016-17 finish: 41-41, ninth in the East
• Offensive rating: 105.2 (16th)
• Defensive rating: 104.1 (5th)
Did the summer help at all?
Honestly, that’s one of the more fascinating questions in the NBA’s middle class. I get why Miami did what it did, and I think the Heat will probably be all right this season. In the long run, though, I think the answer might be no.
You know the story. A rash of significant injuries, headlined by the heartbreaking end of Bosh’s South Beach career, contributed to early-season struggles that left Miami looking in mid-January like a team set to go into the tank. Instead, the Heat started whomping fools, reorganizing themselves around a a cranked-up, fast-paced drive-and-kick game to become the East’s hottest team before falling one win short of the playoffs.
It begged the question: which team was the “real” Heat? The one that started 11-30 and couldn’t seem to get on track? Or the one that finished 30-11 and outscored its opposition over the final three months by more points per possession than any team besides Golden State? After a failed chase of free-agent small forward Gordon Hayward, team president Pat Riley bet big on the latter.
Miami doubled down on its second-half identity, rewarding shooting guard Dion Waiters and point forward James Johnson for their career years by handing them four-year deals totaling more than $110 million. Riley spent the rest of the Heat’s cap space to import Olynyk, a versatile 7-footer whose shooting, passing and physicality played well in Brad Stevens’ system with the Boston Celtics, and to lock up talented 24-year-old swingman Josh Richardson, who has battled injuries through his first two NBA seasons but has shown signs of being a dynamic shooter, slasher and secondary ball-handler.
First-round pick Adebayo profiles as an athletic pick-and-roll dive man who can defend in space and thrive in transition, and who will step into some of the reserve center minutes that Reed left behind. Healthy-again Justise Winslow, a 2015 lottery pick returning from a season-ending shoulder injury, looks like one of the league’s most interesting bellwethers, the kind of player who could determine whether Miami’s ready to rise up the Eastern standings or likely to drop back below the fringes of postseason contention.
Factor in linchpin stars (Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside), holdover guards (Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington) and role-playing forwards (Rodney McGruder, Okaro White), and it looks the Heat go 12 deep with actual NBA players. This team will compete like crazy and defend its collective tail off. Coach Erik Spoelstra will not rest until he figures out how to most effectively mix and match his frontcourt pieces. (Winslow being able to shoot well enough to credibly play small forward on offense would help a ton.)
If Dragic, Whiteside, Waiters and Johnson approximate last year’s work — and, most importantly, last year’s 3-point shooting, which provided the space for the ball-handlers to get downhill and for Whiteside to rampage — that should be enough to top .500 and make the playoffs in a watered-down East. Barring significant steps from one or more youngsters, though, it’s really unclear whether it’s enough to do much more. And whether just making the playoffs was worth locking Miami out of meaningful salary cap space for the next three years (especially when the Heat will be without draft picks this summer, and without second-rounders until 2022) is very much up for debate.
Best-case scenario: The second-half surge wasn’t a mirage. The Dragic-Waiters backcourt picks right up where it left off, and James Johnson’s “kickboxing Diaw”/”slightly sedated Draymond” routine carries over, providing the basis of an offense that proves more productive than the sum of its parts. Spoelstra finds the right lineups, and the likes of Tyler Johnson, Richardson, Winslow and Olynyk ensure that Miami’s second unit is good enough to either keep or extend leads. Depth, defense, relentlessness and just enough scoring combine to push Miami up near 50 wins and into the second round of the playoffs.
If everything falls apart: What looks like a 12-Deep Collection of Solid Dudes is revealed to be a Very Expensive Collection of Seventh Men. Waiters and Johnson tail off after getting paid. Olynyk isn’t equipped for a larger role and Winslow still can’t shoot, significantly limiting Miami’s flexibility and effectiveness. There’s not enough shooting to keep defenses honest, and they collapse on Whiteside, frustrating and stifling the big man. Spoelstra spins his wheels but never finds traction. Miami stumbles to 35 wins and hand the Suns a lottery pick.
Best guess at a record: 43-39
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz