Aging Heat Failed To Improve This Summer
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
With a dominant low-post center, a glass-cleaning power forward, a playmaking point guard, and two slashing, jumpshooting wing players, the NBA Champion Miami Heat are a classic — textbook even — NBA team. And this summer they made a classic mistake. Following their stunning victory in the NBA Finals, they spent all their money and energy to keep the same cast of players from last season together.
It’s nice that all the contributors from last season’s title will be on hand for the banner raising and ring ceremony October 31, when Miami plays the Bulls in the NBA’s season opener, but their roster reconstruction strategy — or rather, their lack of one — is one of the worst plays of the offseason. It may augur substantial change at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
Miami was 52–30 in the 2005–06 regular season, which makes them the worst team to win a title since the 44–38 Washington Bullets upset everyone en route to the 1978 crown. That alone should have made the Heat a bit more proactive in their offseason hiring.Then consider the team’s age: center Shaquille O’Neal is 34; his backup, Alonzo Mourning is 36; reserve point guard Gary Payton is 38; the starting point guard, Jason Williams, turns 31 in November, and forward Antoine Walker is 30. The Heat’s shooting guard, Dwayne Wade, 24, and power forward Udonis Haslem, 26, are the only Heat players in the rotation that figure to improve. And how much better can Wade get? At times during the Heat playoff run, Wade didn’t look Jordanesque — he looked better than Michael. Or, considered another way: Last season Wade averaged 27.2 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 boards per game while shooting 49.5%. Expecting dramatic improvement on that kind of production is unreasonable.
It is likely that the Miami graybeards will decline and even more likely that they will miss substantial time with injuries. O’Neal missed 23 games last season and has been out of uniform for 77 contests in the last five years. Those expecting some sort of miraculous bounce back should consider that O’Neal has always been a tad injury prone (perfectly logical given the level of pushing and shoving he absorbs in the paint); Shaq last missed fewer than three games in a season in 1994,when he was 22. D-Wade has missed 33 regular season games in his three years as a pro. Mourning has missed entire seasons with kidney problems and a variety of maladies have kept him out of other regular season games. Williams is often dropped from the schedule with some ailment or another. Put simply, this is an old and increasingly frail team that is returning to defend their title.
So where should they have looked to improve? After all, a banner is going up at American Airlines Arena at the end of the month. The comment “yeah, but they got a ring,” has been tossed around to justify several questionable personnel moves in the past. Last year’s Heat were mediocre in several important offensive categories: They finished 17th in percentage of offensive rebounds corralled (curious, since they led the league in cleaning the defensive glass), 17th in percentage of possessions that resulted in turnovers, and 15th in ratio of free throws to field goal attempts, even though Shaq and Wade draw tons of fouls. It doesn’t take great vision to see a scenario where one of the stars gets hurt and Miami struggles to score and loses a lot of 83–78 grinders.
What’s worse for the Heat is that this was the summer to make changes. With Wade’s $60 million dollar contract extension going into effect during the 2007–08 campaign, the Heat will lack the necessary cap flexibility to make major changes until the summer of ’08. By that time, they could be a middle of the pack Eastern Conference playoff team.
The power structure of the Western Conference figures to remain constant — Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix on top, one or both of the L.A. teams in the middle, and a smattering of good, but not yet great, teams following close behind.Yet, in the East, this season looks like a time of change. Miami should be expected to slip a bit. Detroit’s point differential was well below the 64 wins they compiled last season, and while I don’t think their offseason was a disaster, I don’t expect to see them winning 60 games again. After going bust with a cast of veteran role players, New Jersey is relying on a cast of rookies to push them to next level. I support the gamble, but if it doesn’t pay fast dividends, then Vince Carter’s impending free agency may prove too big a distraction for the team to improve much.
On the other hand, Chicago, Orlando, and Cleveland are poised to move up and move quickly. Orlando finished the season strong, wining 16 of their last 22, and boast a young roster led by Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson (memo to Pat Riley: this is the kind of roster with which you maintain the status quo). Cleveland won 50 games with nearly everyone not named LeBron having a down season; almost all of their role players figure to improve. Chicago won 12 of their last 14 and added Ben Wallace to a stellar defense. With the exception of Wallace and a new power forward, PJ Brown, the Bulls are also young and rapidly improving. They won’t be patsies for the Heat on opening night.With a few mishaps, the Heat will find getting back to 52 wins a struggle, much less defending their crown.