Barring a shocking run to the Eastern Conference finals, Dwyane Wade’s farewell tour will overshadow most anything else the Miami Heat do this season. The end of Wade’s sure-fire Hall of Fame career deserves the proper send-off. And what better way to usher the franchise’s best player into retirement than with another playoff campaign, preferably one that ends deeper than last season’s first-round tussle with the Philadelphia 76ers?
Heat boss Pat Riley is convinced that Wade can serve as a catalyst for a huge season, much as he has throughout his career with the Heat. Riley said as much when Wade signed his final contract with the franchise a week before the start of training camp. And since it remains unclear who will fill Wade’s role as the face of the franchise moving forward, perhaps another season with Wade as the most high-profile member of the team makes sense. So what if he’s no longer the Heat’s best or most impactful player? He’ll be their unquestioned leader, along with good friend and Heat stalwart Udonis Haslem, who also signed as a free agent for one final season with the franchise.
The celebration of Wade’s storied career allows Riley one more season to prepare for the future and the transition to the next era.
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The Heat took their time putting the finishing touches on the roster for training camp. They didn’t know for sure what Wade was going to do, waiting until his Sept. 17 announcement that he was returning for another season to present him with a new contract … Wayne Ellington’s new deal came much earlier. The Heat kept their veteran sharpshooter in the fold with a new deal signed in early July … Dion Waiters’ return from foot surgery that limited him to just 30 games last season will not come before training camp or the start of the season. Riley announced that Waiters is “unlikely to be ready” for the start of the regular season in mid October. He made that statement the same day Wade’s deal was signed, which was no coincidence. Granted, the Heat don’t have a shortage of bodies to work with in their wing rotation. But Waiters is certainly expected to be in that mix at some point this season.
1. Can the Heat remain patient with Hassan Whiteside? His uneven playoff performance last season was just the latest and most glaring example. Whiteside wasn’t up to the challenge against Joel Embiid in the first-round series against Philadelphia, averaging a pedestrian 15.4 minutes and being thoroughly outplayed by the Sixers’ All-Star center. Even with confirmation from both sides that the plan going forward is for Whiteside to serve as the Heat’s low-post anchor, there will be plenty of skeptics.
2. If Whiteside can't work, other options available at center. If the Heat explore more of the “small ball” lineups that have become all the rage in the league, second-year center Bam Adebayo continues to make huge strides in his development. He has exhibited the mentality that seems much more in tune with the Heat’s culture. Should there be a crisis of confidence in Whiteside at some point this season, Adebayo is waiting in the wings.
3. James Johnson could be poised for a breakout season. Johnson was a monster in the playoffs, ranking No. 1 on the Heat in assists and was second in rebounds and fourth in scoring. He did all that while showing off the fierce competitive nature that has made him a staple in Spoelstra’s rotation. Don’t be surprised if he locks down the starting job at power forward.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Goran Dragic is the leading scorer and floor general for the Heat. Wade is the soul of the franchise. But the Heat’s most versatile and perhaps best player this season just might be Josh Richardson. He certainly qualifies as the Heat’s true unsung hero last season, starting all 81 of his regular-season appearances, doing the dirty work on the opposing team’s best perimeter player while also serving as the emotional game-changer they needed when Waiters was lost for the season. Richardson is another product of the Heat’s storied player development program. He can play multiple perimeter positions and continued to expand his offensive game to well beyond the 3-point line, making him a greater threat on that end. He’ll be crucial to Spoelstra’s maintaining his rotation integrity as the season goes along.
Goran Dragic | 17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg, 4.1 rpg
The Heat operate at the tempo set by Dragic, who has blossomed into a fantastic floor leader.
Josh Richardson | 12.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.9 apg
An underrated and versatile two-way player that serves as the linchpin to a variety of different lineups.
Hassan Whiteside | 14.0 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg
Talent galore and a huge contract don’t always produce superstar results. Whiteside still needs polishing on and off the floor.
Justise Winslow | 7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.2 apg
Rugged swingman plays bigger than his listed size and is an improved shooter from long range.
James Johnson Jr. | 10.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.8 apg
Pound-for-pound the Heat’s, and perhaps the league’s, toughest, and most competitive player.
Dwyane Wade | 12.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.1 apg
The future Hall of Famer could just as easily start at shooting guard. He will be on the floor to close out games.
Kelly Olynyk | 11.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
The quintessential stretch four, Olynyk is a better all-around player than he’s given credit for.
Tyler Johnson | 11.7 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.3 rpg
Feisty but undersized guard who plays quality minutes at either backcourt spot on both ends of the floor.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With quality depth at every position and an aging superstar ready for his last round in the league, the Heat might be the best underdog story in the Eastern Conference this season. A full and final season with Wade should be an emotional ride for the franchise and its faithful. But the reality, as the Sixers exposed in the playoffs last year, is that the Heat still have some work to do before they challenge for a top four spot in the playoff chase. Wade’s going to go out with a bang, provided he holds up physically (which shouldn’t be an issue with an extremely detailed maintenance plan in place). There is just enough raw talent in the youngsters to provide the energy boost needed to fuel Wade’s last ride. And the Heat will ride that wave to a 46-36 finish.