The honeymoon was all set — down time in Italy after a long, long year of work. But two weeks before the nuptials, the groom’s professional world spun out of orbit.
His best employee, the guy he’d counted on for 13 years, left for another job.
And coach Erik Spoelstra needed time to process that.
“I was preparing for my wedding, and my wife finally said, ‘hey, we’ve got a wedding to prepare for. You’ve got to get on to the next thing. You preach that all the time,’ ” he said last week. “I said, ‘good point.’ I also got to a point where it’s okay in this business for it to feel strange, and to admit it. I think that’s fine.”
It wasn’t just Spoelstra and the rest of the Miami Heat that couldn’t believe Dwyane Wade was really leaving them for the Chicago Bulls. The whole NBA was stunned. Yes, Wade was born on the South Side of Chicago, and grew up just outside of the city. But Wade was the Heat, ever since team president Pat Riley took him with the fifth pick of that incredible 2003 Draft.
For all that the formation of the SuperFriends brought, Wade had propelled the Heat to its first title, in 2006, when he was young and threw himself at defenders in the paint. He had been the only guy worth paying to see when Miami laid low in ‘08 and ‘09 to get ready for its pursuit of LeBron James, sacrificing his body for two seasons. And he’d turned down the Bulls in ‘10, when he was in his prime and they had a much better team to put around him.
Everyone assumed that, ultimately, Wade and the Heat would figure something out, just as they had last year, just as they always had. Stars had come and gone from South Beach for more than a decade. But No. 3 was always there on opening night.
But on July 6, Wade bolted, for two years and $47 million, $6 million more than the Heat had offered him. He’d taken less than the max to make the signings of James and Chris Bosh work in ‘10. He’d taken less than the max to make sure the Heat could max Bosh out in ‘14. He was done taking less than the max.
“It was even weirder listening (to the Bulls’ introductions at their preseason game last week) and hearing ‘from Chicago, Illinois,’” Wade’s longtime former teammate Udonis Haslem said. “I’m happy for him, as a brother. I’ve had the opportunity to play for 14 years in my hometown (Haslem grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami) and represent my city and my state, and there’s no better feeling.”
Wade’s departure was the stiff jab to a franchise that would, three months later, get the overhand right, when the team announced just before the start of training camp that Bosh had failed his physical.
As with most one-twos you don’t see coming, it put the franchise on its back.
“I was in Orlando,” Justise Winslow, Miami’s first-round pick last year, said. “I was actually having dinner with Josh (Richardson) and a couple of the summer league guys. No one really saw it coming. We saw the stuff about D-Wade planning to meet with Milwaukee, planning to meet with whoever. But nobody thought it would happen. It helped me understand the league, put it that way, understand the business side of it.”
There’s always been a part of Riley, Spoelstra and of most in the organization that spoils for a fight. Well, they’ve got one now. If expectations within are as high as ever, they’re gone outside Miami’s locker room. All the reporters who moved down to the 305 in ’10 to breathlessly record and regurgitate every facile offering of what was the hottest show in town have left.
The Heat Index? Cold. Very cold.
There is so much that the Heat has had to replace in the last two years. For the first time since ‘02, they need a new shooting guard. For the first time since ‘10, they aren’t planning on having Bosh, whom Spoelstra frequently called the team’s irreplaceable player during the golden years, stretching the floor on offense and solidifying the defense. Miami also had to replace last year’s starting small forward, Luol Deng, who bolted for a lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Heat’s last Finals appearance was just two-plus years ago. But Haslem is now the only player remaining from that team.
“You know, I look at it this way,” guard Goran Dragic said. “I did not have control over that. I cannot have it. So the only thing I can control is on myself, to be prepared for this season. Of course, the offseason went the way it went. But I’m happy with my teammates. I think we had a great training camp. Some changes, but we’re a young team that wants to prove to the league that we can play basketball.”
True. But Dragic did not come from the Phoenix Suns two years ago via trade to not play with Wade and Bosh. He did not sign a $90 million extension last year to not be on a championship contender. This is not what he signed up for.
“You’re right,” he said. “But the main thing is, I want to win games. Of course, I want to win the championship. But, how you say: you need to go one step back to go two steps forward.”
The current roster is a mélange of vets on short deals (Derrick Williams, Beno Udrih, Wayne Ellington and James Johnson) and younger guys who’ve been in the Heat’s program – like Richardson and Tyler Johnson (Miami matched the four-year, $70 million offer sheet the Brooklyn Nets gave Johnson in July) – alongside the new nucleus of Hassan Whiteside, Dragic, Winslow and Dion Waiters (plucked from Oklahoma City after the Thunder rescinded its qualifying offer for him).
But there is no time for mourning — unless Alonzo wants to come out of retirement.
“There’s been enough change over the years that I think we’ve proven that we can compartmentalize, and put it in the appropriate box,” Spoelstra said. “This team that I’m coaching right now, what they deserve is my full commitment and attention. And that’s what they’re getting. But that doesn’t take away, if you’ve been with somebody for 13 years, that discounts all the history that you’ve been through.”
At present, the immediate future now centers on … the center.
Two years ago, the idea that the Heat’s chances for long-term success would hinge on Whiteside would have been laughable. He was a journeyman, a former second-round pick who hadn’t stuck anywhere on the basketball map around the world since turning pro in 2010. His was a journey of scuffling – the NBA Development League, China, Lebanon.
“I’ve never been on a basketball team longer than two years,” Whiteside said.
But Whiteside’s skyrocketing second go-round with the Heat — 13.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.2 blocks in 121 games over two seasons — changed everything. Suddenly, he was not only rebounding, but blocking shots (a league-best 3.7 per game last season) and finishing at the rim. Retaining him when he hit unrestricted free agency was Miami’s priority last summer, not re-signing Wade. Though the Dallas Mavericks tried mightily to pry him away, Whiteside immediately accepted Miami’s max offer of four years and $94 million.
Now 27, Whiteside can stop packing his bags. Riles wants to — needs to — build his next great team around him.
“It wasn’t really a relaxing moment. It was more security,” Whiteside said. “I feel like the Heat wanted me here for four more years, so it was more like stabilization. I can buy my first house. So it was really an opportunity for me to know where I’m going to be … For somebody to take that and say we want you for four more years, it was, it was really humbling.”
For Miami to excel, Whiteside must evolve even further. Offensively, he may never be an elegant low-post player, feasting on duck-ins, rim runs and lobs from Dragic. That’s okay. But he’ll have to do more of all of those. He came to camp in outstanding shape and as the preseason started last week, looked like he could run all night.
Defensively, Whiteside’s numbers last season covered up his inconsistency guarding the pick and roll and boxing out, along with a proclivity for cheap fouls. No one doubts Whiteside’s skill sets on defense — they are prodigious. But he has to display them every night.
“We need him to continue to progress,” Spoelstra said. “I’m not putting a number on it, I’m not putting a goal on it. If you look at where he’s come, from two years ago to now, while I don’t want to put a ceiling on him, in terms of how high he can go and how far from here, with more responsibility will be more expectations of other things. And he’s really stepping forward on that, in terms of leadership, showing the guys how much this matters to him.
“He’s a great example of somebody who’s persevered, who’s committed to the process and who’s gotten better.”
It is now Whiteside, of all people, who is the master of process.
“I can bring these guys in and tell them, ‘hey, man, we’re supposed to do it this way,’ ” Whiteside said. “’Cause a lot of them don’t know. I think we’ve got, like, nine new guys. Whereas in the past, it was those guys bringing me in. D-Wade, Bosh, they was telling me. So now the tables are turned. I’m kind of like the older guy in the organization. It’s a lot of new faces. And I can talk to them.”
Said Winslow: “to be honest, last year, he wanted to win, obviously, but he wanted that paycheck. Now that he has it, he’s so locked in, and he just wants to win. We’ve got guys here that are on those one-year deals, and Hassan knows what it feels like. He’s just telling them to go out there and win. He wants to win right now. Just the way he affects the game, we need him to be in that mindset. He wants to win. He wants to be a Hall of Famer. He got the cheddar, so this is the next step now.”
Winslow was an All-Rookie second team selection last season, and believes he has to push himself to do even better in his sophomore campaign. He will have to shoot better from 3-point range (27.6 percent last season) for the Heat to have any chance of consistently excelling in the halfcourt.
“I’ve got to get out of my comfort zone,” Winslow said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, and I’m going to make myself vulnerable. That’s something I’ve got to do, and that’ll be the next step to maturing and becoming an elite player. We do a lot of stuff just to piss you off, just to make you uncomfortable. Coaches kind of do that to test you, to see where your mind is. Sometimes you don’t realize it in the moment. It takes a teammate to check you, or get you in the right state of mind. It’s great.
“That’s how you grow. Not to bring it up, but I think that’s part of the reason certain guys went certain places this offseason, just to get out of their comfort zone, try something new, regardless of what the outside thought. If you stay in the same place (mentally), you’re not going to go anywhere.”
To have any chance this season, this version of the Heat will have to be in even greater shape, with even less collective body fat, than the Heat famously demand before you even report to camp.
“It’s … militant, if you want,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, they know how to have fun and make people enjoy it.”
If you don’t know already, Johnson is one of the guys in the league that you should not, under any circumstances, mess with. He’s a second-degree black belt. His parents are black belts. Each of his eight siblings are black belts. He fights in MMA. He’s already in insane shape. Now, he’s insaner.
“I wasn’t ready for the Miami Heat type of conditioning,” he said. “I was in shape — or I thought I was — until I came here. You see the before and after pictures they have on everyone and it’s like a magazine slide show. Regardless of whether they made millions after or they went to another team on a minimum, everyone who buys in here, you can tell that their body changes tremendously.”
And that’s part of why it would be foolish to completely dismiss the Heat’s chances of being relevant this season, even without Wade and Bosh.
Yes, players often come to Miami only for the nightlife, the weather, and such. But those guys don’t last too long. The ones that stay, the ones that buy in, often improve. Player development has gone hand in hand with acquiring high-profile players. For all the Shaquille O’Neals and Tim Hardaways and LeBron Jameses, there have been lots of Haslems and Joel Anthonys. The latest is Richardson, the Heat’s second-rounder last season who made 46 percent of his 3-pointers in 52 games.
Richardson is out indefinitely after tearing his MCL just before the start of camp. The next guy up may have to be Waiters, who impressed the Heat with his on-ball play last season in high-leverage situations for the Thunder — and who, frankly, was way more talented than anyone else they could have picked up when he became available. And Waiters came to camp down 12 pounds and 2.5 percent body fat.
“They tell you the truth — the cold, hard truth,” Johnson said. “And if that don’t open you up, you’re not a Miami Heat kind of guy. And I don’t think they bring in people they don’t think are Miami Heat guys. Everyone on the coaching staff worked in player development, and I think they carried that over, ‘cause their assistant coaches and head coaches, all of ‘em are up there, and they’re on the same page. It’s not one coach saying ‘you should try this’ and then you have another coach telling you ‘you should try this, or do this.’ They all know what they’re talking about. When they go talk to you, everybody has the same idea for you. And that’s different.”
Miami has a very productive center in Whiteside, a still-capable point guard in Dragic and a young wing in Winslow that can be a defensive demon. When Richardson comes back, the Heat will have one of the league’s best shooters. Waiters proved he’s improved in OKC. And Miami will be well-coached, as always.
But who will speak when that’s needed, and be credible with teammates? Who will challenge his teammates to do better, push through, make the sacrifices that have been taken for granted on South Beach for more than a decade, as Wade reinvented himself time and again despite balky knees and a butcher’s block of injuries?
Who will take the big shot? Or make it?
“I put a lot of it on myself,” Winslow said. “I want to fill that. But it’s not realistic for one person to fill that, or for me to be that Dwyane leader right off the grip. I’m going to grow. It’s going to take time … it’s do by example. It’s talking to guys. It’s taking criticism. It’s learning new things, seeing new things, learning how to talk to each teammate differently.”
Whiteside will take a crack at it if need be, too.
“I think the biggest surprise for me is that a lot of guys kind of look at my story, and is inspired by it,” he said. “They know how I was looked over for so long. They know I put in so much work. I think guys can hang onto that and listen to what I have to say a little more …”
Time will tell if this year’s team is any good. Assuming there’s no change of heart by Miami’s medical staff about Bosh, the remaining $78 million that he’s due could — could — come off the Heat’s cap right around the All-Star break, roughly a year after he last played for Miami. But that’s contingent on Bosh not playing 25 games for another team, either this season or next. If he did, his yearly salary would go back on the Heat’s cap and make any big-money acquisitions impossible.
If Bosh’s salary comes off the Heat’s cap in time for the summer of 2017, Miami could quickly be a player again in free agency. “You can always recruit people to come to Miami,” Whiteside said. “It kind of sells itself. So you know you’re always going to have a good team here.” But if not, the going will go slower.
Either way, the Heat has reached the acceptance stage of its tumultuous offseason.
“I’ve worked for my bosses long enough, for 22 years, to know that the expectations won’t change, what we’re playing for,” Spoelstra said. “We do have staff experience at developing players, and a consistent program. And what you hope is that while there’s a lot of change and, sometimes, instability around the league, that you can count on the stability of our organization. We feel that that really helps get a leg up on consistency, and when you have to change teams, to get back to a style of play that looks like a Miami Heat team.”
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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