When the Miami Heat prepared to start a six-game West Coast road trip on December 7, the team was coming off a 105-90 loss to the Orlando Magic three days earlier. That left the team with a 9-14 record and a bleak outlook early this NBA season.
A combination of hefty contracts, early injuries, inconsistent play, and coming short in the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes a month earlier had both media and fans look at the Heat as a playoff outsider. It reached the point where both groups started to openly advocate that Miami trade their most serviceable players to contenders for future assets and focus on the 2019 NBA Draft. In other words effectively tank the season.
17 days later, not only has the Heat come back from that trip with a 4-2 record but have won five of their last six games, the latest victory being on Sunday night on the road against the Magic in a 115-91 blowout.
The only losses in that time were to the Los Angeles Lakers on December 10 in a close game, a listless effort against the Utah Jazz two nights later, and bitter home loss to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday. Miami’s record is now 16-17.
Two factors are key in the Heat’s resurgence.
A main component has been continuity in the roster. Other than a couple of additions Miami has the same roster that went to the playoffs last season. This has let the team to not have to make drastic adjustments.
The return of forward James Johnson from sports hernia fortified the Miami front line and allowed head coach Eric Spoelstra to be more versatile with his lineups thanks to Johnson’s passing ability.
Another component has been the play of the Heat’s young players. Forward Derrick Jones Jr., one of the new roster additions, has worked himself into the rotation thanks to his athleticism in the Heat’s recent use of the zone defense. guards Tyler Johnson and Rodney McGruder have contributed on both ends of the floor after coming back from injuries. Second year forward/center Bam Adebayo has shown growth in his offensive arsenal and become more comfortable in Spoelstra’s defense. Center Hassan Whiteside has been more focused throughout the season and has shown that he can be depended on in the fourth quarter.
Two players have shone the brightest in this stretch for Miami, the team’s 2014 draft pick duo of forward Justise Winslow and guard Josh Richardson.
Throughout his first three years in the NBA Richardson has proven to be one of the steals of his draft class thanks to his defensive tenacity.
This season, his offense has caught up, particularly his perimeter shooting. The progress has shown why the Heat was hesitant to include him in their ultimately fruitless trade talks for Jimmy Butler.
In those same three years, Winslow, while showing flashes of why Miami picked him tenth overall in 2014, was derailed by injuries and an inconsistent shot. This season not only has his defense improved but his overall offense has grown to the point where he is now a dependable perimeter shooter. What has grown the most is his confidence on offense and in playmaking especially during the road trip as he had three straight games where scored at least 20 points. As a show of confidence, Spoelstra has named Winslow as the Heat’s starting point guard while normal starter Goran Dragic recovers from knee scoping surgery.
There are still issues that the Heat must face this season. The logjam in the backcourt still exists with Wayne Ellington losing his rotation spot will get more complicated once Dragic and Dion Waiters come back from their surgeries. Whiteside can still lose focus at times. Most of all the salary cap issues still make Miami a non factor in the summer of 2019 barring a major trade.
The Heat are not built for tanking whether it’s by the current roster makeup or the overall team culture. The season is still young but it looks they are closer to contenders than initially thought.