The Miami Heat came within one game of the NBA Finals last season, losing Game 7 of the conference finals at home to Boston. A nice building block for the 2022-23 season except when you examine the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Several teams, including many in the top half of the conference, have improved. Meanwhile, the Heat had an unusually quiet off season, returning virtually the entire roster intact.
Miami opens training camp Tuesday in the Bahamas with 16 players on the roster, 14 who spent time with the team last season. The only additions are first round draft pick Nikola Jovic from Serbia and Darius Days who is on a two-way contract.
Still, this is the Heat, the most successful South Florida franchise with three championship trophies and six Finals appearances. Run it back? No problem. Besides, the Heat believe there is plenty of room for improvement from within.
"We realize we belong," Jimmy Butler said Monday at the team's Media Day at FTX Arena. "We don't really pay attention to all the outside noise. Guys are constantly working on their game. Now moving forward they just want to build on that. Confidence is going to be key for myself and everybody on this roster."
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Here are five takeaways as the Heat enter the season. Coach Erik Spoelstra was not available Monday, spending the day with his wife, Nikki, as the couple is expecting their third child.
Is roster good enough to take next step?
Pat Riley was unable to reel in that elusive whale, but that's not to say Miami didn't go after Kevin Durant or Donovan Mitchell.
Now, Spoelstra and his staff are tasked with improving from within. The Heat have a nice blend of veterans, emerging stars and complementary players. Butler, Kyle Lowry and Udonis Haslem entering his 20th season, are the established leaders. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro are young veterans.
But that improvement must also come from players like Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent and a healthy Victor Oladipo.
"This is a new year," Lowry said. "Teams have gotten better, the league has gotten better, our conference has gotten better."
Miami watched while Boston added Malcolm Brogdon, Cleveland traded for Mitchell, the Nets retained Durant and should have a much more focused and motivated Ben Simmons, Philadelphia signed P.J. Tucker from the Heat and the Bucks still have Giannis Antetokounmpo and are counting on a healthy Khris Middleton to return to the team that won the 2020-21 title.
Lowry dismisses Riley's challenge
Lowry's first season in Miami was interrupted because of a family situation and hamstring injury that limited him during the playoffs. Then, following the season, Riley challenged the 35-year-old Lowry, saying he believes the point guard can be in better shape.
Lowry was dismissive of Riley calling him out. He is not worried, saying his conditioning was no more a priority this offseason than any other.
"I spent my summer doing everything I usually do every single summer," Lowry said. "I don't change what I do. I go out there and create my own environment and come back and do my job at the highest level.
"He has his opinion. Right?," Lowry added about Riley. "Everyone has their opinion and it doesn't do anything for me. All I do is motivate myself. I always motivate myself."
Lowry's scoring dipped to 14.2 points from 19.3 and 17.8 the previous two seasons in Toronto. But his shooting and assists improved from the previous year.
"Last year was kind of an adjustment year," Lowry said. "(This) season will be a lot different. It'll be a lot smoother ... just to be able to flow a little bit more. Last year was kind of choppy up and down. Now I'm more settled down more, I know where everything is, so it'll be a lot easier."
Butler desperate for title
Butler has thrived since joining the Heat three seasons ago. He's consistently averaged around 21 points per game, he's had two of his best shooting seasons and he's reached career highs in assists.
Although he calls Adebayo the "engine," Butler is the Heat's best player.
Butler showed up at media day with longer dreads - "I just tried it to make the internet mad," he said - and excited about his growing coffee business.
As for on the court, the 33-year-old remains motivated and continues to play at peak level. Miami needs Butler at his best to win at championship, and Butler addressed what that would mean to him.
"Everything," Butler said. "That's why I play this game to win a championship and to gain everybody's respect on the court. That's why we practice the way we practice, work out the way we work out, for no other reason (than to win a championship)."
What's next for Herro?
Herro is facing an interesting season between his contract situation and his role on the team.
He will earn $5.7 million in the final year of his rookie deal and the Heat have until mid-October to extend his contract. An extension would make it very difficult to trade the emerging star.
"I'm just focused on the season, basketball, playing my best," he said. "I'm going to let my agent take care of that."
Herro, 22, was the centerpiece of nearly every trade rumor involving the Heat during the offseason. He improved in virtually every category, averaging career highs in points (20.7), field goal percentage (44.7), three point shooting (39.9) and assists (4.0).
And he is the first player in Heat history to win the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award. Herro started just 10 games last season and has started 33 in his three year career. Following last season Herro said he wanted to be a full-time starter. Riley responded by saying Herro would have to earn that honor in training camp.
Herro softened that stance Monday.
"I'm a team player," he said. "Whatever Spo and the organization want me to do I'm willing to do. I have my personal goals but at the end of the day the team is always over what I want to do as an individual player. Whatever role fits me best, that's what I'll do."
Who replaces P.J. Tucker at power forward?
Tucker started 70 games last season at power forward. But the 37-year-old signed with Philadelphia leaving the Heat with a big hole on the front line.
"P.J.'s a traitor," Butler said smiling. "I tell him every single day."
And having failed to add another big man, the Heat are searching for someone to help with Adebayo on defense and the boards.
One player whose name has been tossed around has been Butler. But this is what he said about playing power forward.
"I don't play the 4," he said, before adding, "I could play the 4. If they absolutely need me to play the 4, I could, yes. If they absolutely wanted to have a conversation about me playing the 4, I could yes.
"But I'm not playing the 4."
That answers that.
The 6-5 Martin is the leading candidate entering training camp and 6-7 Haywood Highsmith could compete for the job.
"I think we have an opportunity to have guys step up and change their roles a bit and kind of adapt to a different role than they were in before," Lowry said. "But I don't think you can try to make another P.J. because there is only one P.J."
With Martin at power forward the Heat would be undersized. But that does not concern Adebayo.
"We've done it before and had success," Adebayo said. "We always find a way. P.J.'s not with us no more. We got to learn to adapt to that."
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Miami Heat: 5 key takeaways ahead of the 2022-23 season