Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: Miami Heat

Originally Published: September 30, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Miami HeatTerrence Vaccaro/Getty ImagesShawn Marion and Dwyane Wade could lift the Heat out of the Southeast Division basement.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

There have been worse teams than the 2007-08 Miami Heat, but I don't think any of them had three likely Hall of Famers in the lineup and were two years removed from a championship. Miami's crash to a 15-67 disaster was notable mostly for the sheer speed of it: Even a year earlier the Heat were a playoff team, but faster than you can say "AIG" they were in total collapse, getting hammered every night.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 15-67 (Pythagorean W-L: 15-67)
Offensive Efficiency: 98.1 (29th)
Defensive Efficiency: 107.1 (25th)
Pace Factor: 92.5 (23rd)
Highest PER: Dwyane Wade (21.63)

The Hall of Famers were a big reason. Dwyane Wade came back from offseason knee and shoulder surgery, but it was clear from the get-go that he wasn't operating at full strength. He spent most of his time on defense gambling for steals and avoiding contact, while offensively he seemed notably less explosive than a year earlier. Wade's final PER of 21.63 was a far cry from his league-leading 29.04 of a year earlier, and as he again checked out at midseason, there have to be serious concerns about his durability going forward.

Alonzo Mourning, for his part, went out early in the season with a torn patella tendon that could prove to be career-ending; if he comes back, it will be at midseason at the earliest.

At least those two were trying. Shaquille O'Neal blatantly loafed through the early part of the schedule, especially at the defensive end, while the Heat looked on in horror at the three years and $60 million remaining on his contract. So lame was his effort that Miami defended far better after he was gone, improving from 25th to 20th in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break even though Wade sat out and they were playing mostly D-Leaguers.

Those weren't the only two problems, though. Miami mortgaged its future to win the title in 2006, and the bill came due last season. Older players like Jason Williams and Mourning broke down, while veteran Band-Aids such as Ricky Davis, Mark Blount and (gasp) Penny Hardaway couldn't stop the bleeding. Without any young talent in the pipeline, the Heat had nowhere to turn and were forced to dole out heavy minutes to replacement-level talents like Chris Quinn and Earl Barron.

The result was about as un-Riley a Pat Riley team as you'll see. The Heat were 25th in defensive efficiency and continually botched the types of little things you'd never see them screw up before, especially late in games. More generally, they just seemed worn out -- the combination of age and two-plus years of seemingly being ground down by Riley.

In the end, it added up to a 15-67 disaster. I could regale you with all the stories of exactly how bad they were in each individual category, but it's too depressing. Moreover, it's not pertinent -- this coming season's Heat are going to look very different from last year's edition.

The reason that will be the case stems from two very fortunate events that happened in the second half of the season.

First, Miami found a sucker to take on O'Neal's contract. The Heat traded Shaq to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks; amazingly, they didn't have to include a draft pick, a young player or anything else in order to complete the deal, and in Marion they got the best player in the trade.

From Miami's perspective, Phoenix's sudden interest in Shaq was akin to having a $40 million bag of money land on the sidewalk in front of your house. Suddenly, the Heat were out from the obligation to pay Shaq and could look forward to major cap space in 2009, and in the meantime they had a star in Marion and a potential solution at point guard in Banks.

Second, the Heat were so bad so early that they quickly fell out of the playoff race and began concentrating on tanking … er, on developing their younger players for next season. Wade shut his season down after 51 games, while Marion and Udonis Haslem sat out with injuries that, well … let's just say they would have been more gung ho about playing if they were in a playoff race. Their absence helped Miami lose enough to secure the second overall pick in the draft and take Michael Beasley.

Nonetheless, this team is clearly in a rebuilding mode, and that was borne out after the season when Riley stepped down -- perhaps for the last time -- and handed the reins over to assistant Erik Spoelstra. A highly regarded assistant, Spoelstra will have to contend with Riley's shadow looming over him from the front office and the threat of Riley's returning if the team becomes a contender, much as Stan Van Gundy did before him. But the 62-year-old Riley took time off in each of the past three seasons, so one suspects he might be ready to step down for good.


Biggest Strength: Speed

The Heat may have the fastest perimeter trio I've ever seen. Banks may not be anybody's idea of a true point guard, but he is one of the speediest players in basketball and can push it upcourt with anyone. (He'll follow that burst with a horrible decision, but we're setting that aside for now.) Wade, of course, is a blur at both ends when he's healthy, constantly creating breakouts with his running ability and penchant for steals. And then there's Marion, one of the best transition finishers of his generation and an especially speedy threat when he slides up to power forward and consistently beats his man down the floor.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Heat make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

It gets interesting in that Miami's other players don't seem to have the jets to keep up. With the exception of Wright and Beasley, pretty much everyone else on Miami's roster is a pure half-court player who doesn't seek out transition opportunities. So when Wade and Marion break out, players like Quinn, Jones, Haslem and Blount will have to keep up or risk being left behind.

Biggest Weakness: Interior defense

A strength of the Heat throughout the ages, the team's ability to defend the paint appears to suddenly be a major question mark. With Mourning and O'Neal no longer around to anchor the defense, the only true centers on the roster are Blount and Magloire -- and at this point in their respective careers, each is little more than a third center. Project
Joel Anthony seems nowhere close to being ready, and while there are rumors of a midseason comeback by Mourning, it remains to be seen both how much he has left and how long it would take him to get up to speed.

That leaves Haslem as the team's likely starting center, and while he's a hard-nosed defender, he's also 6-foot-8 and doesn't block shots. Joining him up front is Beasley, a prodigious talent but one whose defense looms as a major question mark. The only other bigs on the roster are "small-ball" power forwards Jones and Wright, who are more posing as frontcourt players for matchup purposes rather than players who are really capable of defending the position.

As a result, look for Miami to do a lot more doubling and scrambling against the post than they've done in past years, especially when going up against the likes of Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, or, dare we say it, Shaq.


Outlook

The Heat are perhaps the league's hardest team to predict this year. Make one set of fairly rosy assumptions -- a healthy Wade playing at an MVP level, joined by an active Beasley scoring right out of the gate -- and this team looks like a division champion. Make another, more pessimistic set -- Wade continuing to struggle with injuries, and Beasley needing a year of adjustment -- and they're a 50-loss team.

So I'll do the only thing I can and split the difference. I modeled the Heat as getting about 30 minutes a game from Wade -- including time off for injuries -- with a PER of 26. That was way higher than his projection, but the projections didn't know that Wade was limping through last season, nor did they watch Wade dominating in the Olympics.

As for Beasley, I gave him a rookie PER of 16.5 -- about what Kevin Durant did a year ago -- in 33 minutes a night. I can't really model him playing much more than that given the propensity of young bigs to foul.

That makes for a nice nucleus with Wade and Marion, but then the question marks come in earnest. Point guard and center are going to be major liabilities, the bench only has one proven player in Jones, and the rookie coach Spoelstra will be cutting his teeth as well. Additionally, there's a chance the team trades Marion at midseason for future help, which would obviously diminish their second-half results.

While the possibilities for this team are all over the map, I get to pick only one outcome. And the median of those possibilities seems to be that they'll hang in the playoff race all season, and might not know their postseason fate until the final game.

Prediction: 39-43, 3rd in Southeast Division, T-9th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.