Lowe: Can Miami get red-hot again without making a big move?


As he returned from a scouting trip last Jan. 14, one day after another dispiriting loss dropped the Heat to 11-30, Andy Elisburg, the team’s senior vice president and general manager, used a layover to phone his boss, Pat Riley, and tell him it was time for a tough conversation.

“Math,” Elisburg remembers warning Riley, “is going to catch us.”

The Heat don’t tank entire seasons. It is not in the ultra-competitive, borderline militaristic DNA Riley has instilled over two decades. But they aren’t dumb, either. They know what the NBA’s incentive structure recommends when bad chemistry and injuries undo a season.

The full brain trust agreed to meet about how to approach the rest of the season during Miami’s upcoming four-game homestand. The Heat won the first game, over Houston. They postponed the meeting. Miami didn’t lose again until mid-February. The meeting never happened.

Miami went 30-11 the rest of the way, missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker, and transformed into one of those random teams NBA nerds will always remember — unwanted misfits who coalesced around an identity of relentless work and rapid-fire drive-and-kick basketball.

Players bonded over their winding journeys to the NBA. Someone — Hassan Whiteside claims it now — nicknamed the D-League “The Jungle,” and the players bestowed the same moniker upon their practice court.

“That became ‘The Jungle,'” James Johnson says. “Every morning before practice, you’re gonna see the same thing written on that whiteboard: ‘Mouthpiece, knee pads, rib pads.’ You wear all of that for practice. The Jungle became our obsession. If you’re from The Jungle, no top draft pick should ever get a loose ball over you. If a top pick and Rodney McGruder are going for a loose ball, I’d bet my house on Rodney.”

Johnson lost 35 pounds in The Jungle, and found he could play at full throttle for longer stretches. Everyone could. The Heat outran and outworked people. “I saw a lot of similarities with our team in Boston,” Kelly Olynyk says. “Tough, hard-nosed, didn’t have any All-Star — just like us before Isaiah [Thomas] came out of nowhere.”

When Gordon Hayward spurned Miami, Riley faced a choice: roll cap space forward, or use it to retain his misfits — and add one major piece in Olynyk. He chose the misfits. The franchise that mastered the cap room game — the icon who merely needed to plop rings in front of each summer’s premier free agent — locked in luxury-tax-level payrolls through 2020 for a .500 team.

They owe Phoenix two first-round picks stemming from their 2015 Goran Dragic trade. Executives love to say there are three methods of team-building: trades, the draft, and free agency. The Dragic deal chipped away at the first two. Last summer’s spending spree complicated any path into star-level free agency.

That’s the downside scenario: a team never satisfied with “pretty good” is stuck there in the post-Heatles era — at least for the next few years. That championship legacy quite literally follows the Heat around; blown-up photos of past title teams line every corridor leading to the Heat locker room.

“Those moments are fleeting,” coach Erik Spoelstra says as he glances at LeBron’s smiling face. “You want to enjoy them. But I’m able to look at those images with great reflection, and not stay there. It feels like a different chapter in my life. You want to give this group everything you have — to give them memories.”

Maybe this new Heat team can make its own postseason history. The Heat have surged to 23-17 after a sluggish start in which they couldn’t quite summon last season’s fury. “It has taken us longer to get back to those habits than we anticipated,” Spoelstra says. “That’s just the group we have. Even our veterans haven’t been in big-time winning situations. Each team develops at its own pace. I don’t judge them for that.”

Miami lacks a star (for now; the Heat hope one particular young guy might pop), but potential playoff rivals respect the collective. Some fear them as a first-round opponent. They are deep in good players. If everything broke right over a full season, it’s not outlandish to see this group winning 50-52 games (they are on pace for 47 now, though their minus-50 point differential is alarming) and a playoff round — hell, maybe two rounds.

But even some around the team consider that scenario optimistic. They know they face major questions about their ceiling. Expect Miami to be active in trying to address them as next month’s trade deadline approaches. They are projecting optimism that they could move those pricey new contracts, according to sources around the league. Rivals are skeptical.

A lot of those questions surround Whiteside, who hasn’t looked right since returning from a bone bruise in his knee. The Heat play a crisper style with Olynyk at center, and they have left Whiteside on the bench in crunch time of almost every recent game.

“It’s tough, but I don’t want to get caught up in it,” Whiteside says. “We’re winning. But of course you want to be out there.”

Johnson is Miami’s best power forward, and spacing gets cramped when he and Whiteside share the floor; defenders slough away from Johnson to clog Whiteside’s rim-runs:

Spoelstra has upped the shooting by starting Olynyk and Whiteside together, and bringing Johnson off the bench. It’s awkward. Olynyk has to defend power forwards or wings. The Heat are minus-24 in the 118 minutes Whiteside and Olynyk have shared the floor, per NBA.com.

Olynyk’s shooting unlocks the Dragic-Whiteside spread pick-and-roll, but the Heat offense — still just 23rd in points per possession after fattening up on an easy schedule over the past month — can’t subsist on a steady diet of that. Spoelstra prefers more ball and player movement. He has even nudged Whiteside toward some playmaking, with, umm, varied results:


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