No reason the Heat should be doing what they’re doing, and the ride’s not over yet

 

Can’t think of one reason why the Miami Heat should still be flirting with a playoff spot.

There’s only one active Miami player who even ranks in the top 10 of any significant individual category. That would be Hassan Whiteside, who leads the NBA in rebounding with an average of 14.1 per game, but nobody else on the team is even in the top 50.

Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside dunks against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, March 6, 2017, in Cleveland. The Heat won 106-98. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

As for scoring, which is kind of important in a basketball game, Goran Dragic is tied for 31st in the league at 20.2 points per game. The Heat, overall, ranks 24th.

You know the rest. Chris Bosh hasn’t played at all, and won’t. The team was 11-30 midway through the season, which is like being midway to the landfill in a garbage truck. Erik Spoelstra has been coaching his brains out with not enough good players, and not enough players of any kind who are consistently available.

Somehow, though, it’s happening, with Monday’s win over LeBron and the Cavaliers in Cleveland as the latest fireworks display shot from a supposedly empty cannon.

So they’re 30-34, and that’s not enough to get in, but it’s close enough to stare at the schedule pretty hard and see what’s coming up. Danger, that’s the short answer.

The long answer is try to get to that March 28 game at Detroit without falling into a hole and disappearing. The Pistons are one of the teams Miami is trying to catch for that final playoff spot in the East, and Detroit already has won two of three against the Heat.

It can still go either way, of course. Miami’s playing as well as anyone at the moment. On the other hand, the first Heat team after the Big Three era was 30-36 at pretty much this same point in 2015, and coming off an upset of the Cavs, too. What followed, however, was a 5-9 stretch that ended the suspense.

[NCAA berths weren’t so automatic for UM in Rick Barry’s golden era]

[Reliving Wilt’s 100-point game with two Palm Beach County eyewitnesses]

[Durant injury shows how fortunate Miami’s Big Three era was]

 

 

Durant’s injury shows how fortunate Miami was to keep Big Three up and running for so long

 

Kevin Durant’s knee injury, in combination with the uncertain timetable on his return, has people wondering if Golden State’s supersquad has been stripped of its unstoppable power.

No telling. Durant could be back in time for the playoffs. He could be fine, which means the Warriors could be fabulous, once the real banner-raising season gets here.

Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) poses for a photo on media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida on September 26, 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) poses for a photo on media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida on September 26, 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Makes you realize, however, that championships are not won in the offseason, no matter who gets signed or traded or otherwise stockpiled on any one team at any one time.

We already understand that because the Miami Heat won two NBA titles with the Big Three and not the fistful that LeBron James cheerily promised at the outset.

Could it be, though, that the franchise would have been shut out altogether during that superstar era if even one of the Big Three had been injured or otherwise unavailable at just the wrong time?

Think, in particular, of Chris Bosh. If his deep vein thrombosis issue had become a serious problem earlier in his career, say one year into his stay with the Heat, what might have happened?

Maybe Miami outclasses Oklahoma City in the 2012 NBA Finals anyway, but the seven-game Eastern Conference championship round with Boston required every possible contribution from everybody on the roster.

LeBron kept it alive with 45 points and 15 rebounds to win Game 6 and avoid elimination by the Celtics, but he couldn’t be expected to produce back-to-back games on that epic scale. Bosh, who had already missed nine playoff games with an abdominal strain, came back to provide much-needed relief in Game 7, scoring 19 points with eight rebounds off the bench and making 3-of-4 from three-point range.

Miami moved on and, after stopping the Thunder in five games, the championship celebration was on.

Sure, it’s all speculation what happens if one player is in and another is out for a significant stretch. You can play the same games with LeBron and Dwyane Wade at any point in the Big Three run. Wade’s injury status and how he might overcome it was a continuing theme back then.

Let’s keep it specific to Bosh in this case, however. Real specific.

The second of Miami’s back-to-back titles was all but lost in 2013 when San Antonio took a three-point lead to the final seconds of a potential Game 6 clincher in the NBA Finals.

Ray Allen pushed the game into overtime with a glorious three-pointer from the corner, the greatest shot in Heat history, but you probably remember who grabbed an offensive rebound and quickly passed the ball to where it absolutely needed to be in order to save the season. Chris Bosh.

[Who are the must-have autographs for PB County’s 4 spring-training teams?]

[Lane Kiffin says FAU’s new QB is moving past his old troubles]

[Wondering if Dolphins’ No. 22 overall draft position is haunted]

Timing is essential when it comes to replaying and discussing these coulda, shoulda, woulda been scenarios. I’ll go back to my original premise, though.

Putting talent together in the offseason does not win championships. Keeping great players healthy and working together against what always will be difficult odds is the challenge, and it’s the same one that Golden State faces now.

Plucky Heat crew approaching some of the Big Three’s best streaks

 

A bit of perspective on the Miami Heat’s eight-game win streak, which might stretch longer but stretches the imagination either way.

The Heat only topped this streak five times during the Big Three era.

Miami Heat's Dion Waiters passes the ball in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
Miami Heat’s Dion Waiters passes the ball in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)

One of those times they absolutely crushed it, ripping off 27 wins in a row in February and March of 2013, but the rest of their runs were more in line with what Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic and the fellas are doing now.

Twelve in a row a couple of times for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company, plus single streaks of 10 and nine games each.

I don’t have to tell you that those Heat teams were worlds better than this one. Four straight trips to the NBA Finals. Two championships. Yeah, worlds better than the 2016-17 crew, which against all odds has pushed the record all the way up to 19-30, still outside the wide playoff net.

That’s what blows your mind. Eight straight wins are exceedingly tough to get in any major sport. What’s needed is a highly talented group on a hot streak, not a roster running on fumes.

Here is a listing of the most recent streaks of eight wins or longer for South Florida’s other pro franchises.

Miami Dolphins – Eight wins in a row, 1985. That team was quarterbacked by Hall of Famer Dan Marino and played in the Super Bowl the previous season. The streak included seven in a row to end the regular season plus a playoff win over Cleveland.

Miami Marlins – Nine wins in a row, 2008. We’re going back to the old football-stadium days here and a Marlins payroll that was the lowest in the major leagues. Still, there was a talented group of players on the roster, like Hanley Ramirez and Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson and Dan Uggla, and the final record of 84-77 showed that.

Florida Panthers – Twelve wins in a row, 2015-16. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this streak was the longest ever for a team that didn’t qualify for the playoffs the previous season. The Panthers had plenty of talent, though, enough to win the Atlantic Division and reach the postseason for just the fifth time in franchise history.

Does Erik Spoelstra have a playoff team at the moment, or a team that should surpass .500 by season’s end, or a team led by a Hall of Famer? Certainly not, but the Heat have won eight in a row just the same.

South Florida fans have seen some astonishing win streaks, of course, like 34 in a row by the Miami Hurricanes from 2000-02 and 18 in a row by the dynastic Dolphins (17-0 in 1972 and a win to open the next season).

[Palm Beach County is state’s spring-training showcase now]

[A little candy to treat Dolphins fans sick of Patriots in Super Bowl]

[College football scoring average tops 30 points, and Gators aren’t close]

Can’t let this current Heat run get lost in the shuffle, though. It shouldn’t be happening. No matter the quality of the competition during the streak, from Golden State to lowly Brooklyn, it shouldn’t be happening. The franchise, left behind by LeBron and Dwyane, is making something uncommon happen with a fairly common cast of characters, a specialty of Pat Riley’s organization for some time.

Zo’s story taught Pat Riley all he needs to know about waiting on answers with Chris Bosh

 

The news on Chris Bosh’s recurrence of blood clots is shocking. He needs to wrestle with life issues first and everything else, including basketball, somewhere down the line.

The Miami Heat, of course, are a basketball team, so that establishes their priority of going on, playing games, building long-term personnel and payroll strategies, with the assumption that Bosh won’t be a significant part of it anymore.

Miami Heat vice president, player programs Alonzo Mourning, center, presents guard Dwyane Wade, left, and forward Chris Bosh right, jerseys for the NBA All-Star Game, before the start of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Miami Heat vice president, player programs Alonzo Mourning, center, presents guard Dwyane Wade, left, and forward Chris Bosh right, jerseys for the NBA All-Star Game, before the start of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

This all falls at the trade deadline, which winds the clock even faster. This team wasn’t going to win an NBA championship this season, however, even if Bosh played every game at a career-best level. It’s a stretch to think that any new, reshuffled lineup would get very far in the playoffs with or without Bosh returning at less than his polished best.

Better just to play out the season for whatever it is worth rather than dangling Justise Winslow or Goran Dragic or even Hassan Whiteside as trade bait for a half-season of veteran help.

Give Pat Riley time to sweep away all the broken pieces of his offseason free-agency plan. Give him the chance to come up with another plan for another year or two in the future, plus the chance to decide if he even wants to try again.

Riley’s got experience, after all, in dealing with an unpredictable health threat striking a cornerstone Heat player. It happened to Alonzo Mourning in 2000, when he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease.

[Dolphins thought they had their very own Von Miller when they drafted Dion Jordan]

[Honda Classic gets Fowler and Matsuyama fresh off emotional playoff duel]

[If Shaq gets his Heat jersey retired, why not cornerstones like Rice and Seikaly?]

In August of that year Riley made some big changes, collecting Eddie Jones, Anthony Mason and Brian Grant for what he hoped would be a run at the Heat’s first Eastern Conference title. Then a couple of weeks before the season opener Zo made his announcement. Everyone rallied around the great star, hoping Zo would get help on his mysterious health issues and return.

Well, he did, in late March, starting three games and playing in 13 for a 50-win Miami team that climbed all the way to No. 3 in the East’s playoff seedings. Then came a first-round playoff loss to the Charlotte Hornets, and a three-game sweep, no less.

The next season was much better for Zo, almost making you think that he had willed his body back into line. In 74 starts he averaged 15.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, earning one last trip to the All-Star Game. The team, unfortunately, was starting to fall apart. Riley traded away Tim Hardaway, whose skills were diminishing at 34, before the season even began. By the spring everything had become drudgery, with Riley missing the playoffs for the first time in his career.

Of course, you know how well the story ended for Zo, with his glorious return to the Heat following a kidney transplant and with the NBA championship ring he won as Shaquille O’Neal’s backup in 2006. What can’t be forgotten now, though, and what won’t be forgotten by Riley in dealing with Bosh’s situation, is the way the whole franchise waited on him and hoped for a miracle when the kidney issue first arose.

Mourning missed the entire 2002-03 season, left the team when his contract was not renewed and went through a fruitless experiment with the New Jersey Nets before his body finally demanded a reboot with the transplant.

Zo is as tough physically and as stubborn mentally as any athlete who ever has played a professional sport. The Heat believed in him so much that they banked on his recovery longer than logic and medical science suggested was realistic. Zo couldn’t be counted upon any more, no matter how much he and the team wanted it to be otherwise.

Bosh can’t change his stars either. He will be paid, and paid well, by a franchise that doesn’t want to see him go but must accept that he also can’t be counted upon any more for any appreciable length of time.

Shocking to say, sad to think, but there it is. Best wishes now to Bosh, a big man in every way and enough of a believer in Riley that he re-signed with the Heat after LeBron James bolted.

If it turns out he comes back to the team later this season or beyond, I say hallelujah to that, but it won’t ever be the same. It can’t be.

Like Zo was at the time of his mysterious ailment, Bosh has no more real say in delivering on his promises.

 

If a short-timer like Shaq gets his Heat jersey retired, why not cornerstones like Rice and Seikaly?

 

 

If the Miami Heat are retiring Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 32 jersey, as announced on Tuesday, you know what that means.

One day they’ll be raising LeBron James’ No. 6 to the rafters at AmericanAirlines Arena, too. Whether that becomes a warm and fuzzy moment for anybody really doesn’t matter. It has to happen, because Pat Riley is determined to give all-time credit to Miami’s all-time talents. It is a strength of his that puts the game above the gossip.

CHICAGO - MAY 4: Shaquille O'Neal #32 of the Miami Heat shoots against the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 4, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2006 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
CHICAGO – Shaquille O’Neal of the Miami Heat shoots against the Chicago Bulls in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2006 NBA Playoffs at Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Now I’m not convinced that Shaq deserves so warm a hug from a franchise that he slimed pretty liberally on his way out the door in 2008.

He only spent 3 ½ seasons in Miami and played for three more teams after that while skidding to the end of his career. Commitment to the Heat’s brand of basketball was never the commitment for Shaq that it was for, say, Alonzo Mourning. Shaq’s commitment has always been to Shaq, the supersized persona, the great entertainer, the brilliant manager of so many marketable assets.

It all starts, however, with Shaq’s transformative impact on the game. He was a load physically and a bull mentally, commanding as much respect in the lane as anyone since Wilt Chamberlain has. In 2006, at the age of 33, Shaq still had enough to average 18.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in the long playoff run that earned Miami its first NBA title. Dwyane Wade was the reason the Heat finished the job but they wouldn’t have gotten within realistic range of a championship without Shaq.

Wade’s jersey will eventually be retired, though they really ought to hang about three of his up there, one in white, another in red and another in black. That would reflect his multiplied importance to this organization, and the three NBA titles he has won with the Heat.

Chris Bosh will be honored somewhere down the road, too, just like Zo and Tim Hardaway before him.

Is Shaq still really a part of that royal family? Doesn’t seem to matter to Heat ownership. Michael Jordan’s number is retired at AmericanAirlines and he’s related to this franchise by NBA bloodlines alone.

More than worrying about Shaq, though, it would be nice to pay more attention to Glen Rice and Rony Seikaly, two Heat greats who might be getting higher priorities if they had played for Riley.

Rice averaged 19.3 points per game during his six Miami seasons. That’s No. 4 in franchise history, right behind LeBron, Dwyane and Shaq. What’s more, Rice drove the Heat into the playoffs for the first time, back when he carried a far greater load than any of the Big Three did individually during Miami’s later championship run.

Seikaly, meanwhile, holds a special place in franchise history because he was there from the start. Miami took the Syracuse center in the first round of the Heat’s inaugural draft in 1988 and received in return six seasons of overachievement.

Seikaly averaged a double-double during his time in Miami – 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. Nobody, not even Shaq, averaged as many rebounds in a Heat uniform. Seikaly blocked a ton of shots, too, coming in third in franchise history behind Zo and Shaq at 1.4 per game.

Now maybe I’m too liberal with my view of which numbers should be retired, but no more so than Riley is in honoring Shaq.

Maybe we’ll be in agreement one day in retiring Udonis Haslem’s number. It’s not always about stats when it comes to identifying a franchise’s most valued members. Udonis is the soul of the Heat, a gritty force from Miami, of Miami and for Miami.

Shaq, he was just a traveling star, and LeBron a manipulator of rosters and of minds. Both came to Miami to get what they wanted, championship rings, and both left when it was convenient to them.

Here’s hoping Dwyane Wade can recapture the fun and the finish of his rookie season

What do you want for Dwyane Wade this season, understanding that there aren’t many seasons left?

Oh, sure, a fourth NBA title would work just fine for the franchise’s most enduring star, but that’s not happening. Pretty tough figuring out how to get one win right now, much less a string of playoff series wins, even in the relatively weak East.

What, then, is realistic to hope for right now, in his 12th season in the league and in his 34th year on the planet?

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 19: Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade #3 talk during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at American Airlines Arena on January 19, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL – Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat and Dwyane  talk during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks at American Airlines Arena on January 19, 2016. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

I’m looking back at Dwyane’s rookie season, all the way back in 2003-04. It makes a pretty nice bookend for a discussion like this and in a few ways it kind of looks familiar.

Miami was bumping along at the season’s midpoint with no real reason to think a division title was coming and no guarantee of making the playoffs at all. It felt like a transition period, even with some pretty talented players on the team, just as it is today.

There was no 10-time all-star like Chris Bosh, but 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom was a pretty smooth operator for a guy in his fifth pro season. Odom averaged 17.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game that year. (Bosh scores a little more, rebounds a little less and brings the bonus of good three-point shooting).

Eddie Jones was a veteran guard who made a ton of three-balls for Miami, third-most in the league, during Wade’s rookie season. There was no defensive monster in the middle like Hassan Whiteside, but that 2003-04 Heat team had a scrappy rookie named Udonis Haslem, who put up numbers like rookie Justise Winslow does now. Brian Grant played good defense and grabbed rebounds, too, in the basic manner of Luol Deng today.

Then there was Wade. He had none of the polish as a rookie but so much raw energy and such a head for the game. The numbers aren’t as different as you might think.

As a rookie he averaged 16.2 points per game, shot 47 percent from the field and contributed 4.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game.

Jump ahead to this season and Wade is averaging around 18 points per game. His shooting percentage isn’t any better than it was in that debut season and his assists are pretty much the same. The steals are down just a bit.

Anyway, with Pat Riley looking on from the office and leaving the coaching to Stan Van Gundy, Miami finished 42-40 in Wade’s rookie season. That was good for a No. 4 playoff seed in the relatively weak Eastern Conference.

Next came a seven-game win over the New Orleans Hornets in the opening round, with Wade hitting a 10-foot runner with 1.3 seconds remaining to make his first career playoff game a winner.

Then there was a match with top-seeded Indiana in the conference semifinals. That didn’t go so well. The Pacers won it in six. Still, Wade led the Heat in scoring in the series with 21 points per game and kept it interesting.

It was enough to get Riley busy again, trading away Odom and Grant and Caron Butler to get Shaquille O’Neal and start ramping up for a title run. Who knows what Riley might be working on this offseason to reel in a big free agent as a supplement for Bosh and Wade?

[Something to remember about concussions, from an ex-NFL player who has trouble remembering]

[It’s not true that Joe Philbin never called plays during his Packer days]

[Mark Richt wasn’t that far behind another of Nick Saban’s championship teams]

So that’s my most optimistic picture of what could happen for Wade this year, a mid-range playoff seed, a first-round series win and a rumble of an effort in the Eastern semifinals that ultimately falls short.

Not entirely realistic, perhaps, the way Miami is playing and the way the roster has been shredded of late. Wade’s shoulder problems are a part of that. Get some guys back from injuries and it can get better, though how much better than 42-40 is just a guess.

If you see a deeper run in the playoffs, it’s probably just a little of that Dwyane Wade love bubbling up. He’s done so much for the Heat. To think of it slowing down or even stopping is more than most of us are in the mood to do.

The comeback of Chris Bosh is as much mental as physical

Chris Bosh doesn’t have to play basketball anymore.

The man’s got money. They don’t call those deals “max contracts” for nothing.

Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) poses for a photo on media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida on September 26, 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) poses for a photo on media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida on September 26, 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Bosh has got a beautiful family, too, and intelligence and creativity to spare. This is a guy you could see charming a television audience as an analyst, or a halftime studio panelist, or a talk-show host, and never even breaking a sweat in the process.

Still, he’s getting ready to return to training camp this weekend with the Miami Heat, more excited than ever about what the game means to him and what he means to his team. If the pulmonary embolism that could have killed him last year ever comes up in conversation, it’s because some interviewer asks a question about it.

How do you forget severe pain coursing throughout the left side of your body, prompting an extended stay in the hospital and the scare of a lifetime for everyone close to you? You don’t, and Bosh won’t, but he isn’t thinking about a chance of careers at 31, either.

“It’s given me a different attitude about life and about basketball,” Bosh said in a recent ESPN radio interview.

Is it possible to separate one without the other? There is no certain answer to that one, at least not for those of us who can change the channel on games that aren’t working out, those of us who never have and never will push ourselves as far as these guys do physically and mentally and voluntarily.

[Heightened anxiety just part of the package with Ndamukong Suh]

[I’ll say the Hurricanes finally win the ACC Coastal, but then I’m an idiot]

[Jack’s majors record may not be the only one that Tiger can’t quite reach]

Elite athletes in any sport are born to compete. The worst thing they can imagine is being denied that. Without that drive, they wouldn’t be who they are, climbing higher than all the rest. Without it, they wouldn’t be willing to accept a list of occupational risks that the average person doesn’t find reasonable, from football concussions to NASCAR crashes.

Think of Heat legend Alonzo Mourning returning to play in the NBA after a kidney transplant. That’s incredible, but it’s rarely the first thing that comes up when discussing his Hall of Fame career.

One day Bosh will reach the end of his career, too, about a million sprints up and down the court from now, and we will count his championships rings and add up his statistics and thank him for playing.

This comeback from blood clots in his left lung in 2014? It will be forgotten by most fans just as soon as Bosh gets back to averaging 21 points and seven rebounds, which he where he was last year when a medical emergency interrupted.

These guys never cease to amaze me, not only for the way they play, but for the way they play on, as if there really isn’t a choice.

Miami Heat training camp only a month away and it sure doesn’t feel like 37-45 anymore

The Miami Heat are coming off a 37-45 season and it feels pretty darn good.

That’s not the sort of sentiment normally tied to a record like that, but training camp is just a month away (Sept. 26) and it’s time to start ramping up the expectations for the vision of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside finally all running the court at once, plus A’mare Stoudemire and top draft pick Justise Winslow ready to come rumbling in off the bench.

That doesn’t sound or feel like a 37-45 team. That feels like the playoffs.

Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) poses for a photo on media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida on September 26, 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Miami Heat center Chris Bosh on 2014 media day at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Just to show the difference, psychologically and emotionally, think back to the last Heat team with a similar record.

Miami went 36-46 in the 2001-02 season. Eddie Jones led the team in scoring at 18.3 points per game but he was 30 and looking back on his former all-star years. Alonzo Mourning, one of the toughest players in Heat history, was still a top-five shotblocker and averaging 15.7 points per game but Zo’s days as a Heat regular were coming to a close. He missed the following season because of kidney disease so urgent that it necessitated a transplant.

Pat Riley was coaching the team at the time and depending on veterans like Brian Grant, Rod Strickland and Kendall Gill to play great defense collectively. They did that, but Miami couldn’t find any offensive flow, finishing last in the NBA at 87.2 points per game.

There was little reason to be excited about the following season. Even with promising draft pick Caron Butler joining the team, the Heat bottomed out at 25-57 in 2002-03 and Riley soon stepped aside as coach to start building for a championship run from the front office. Couldn’t see Wade coming in the draft just yet. Couldn’t see much of anything.

[The wide, wide world of football is headed toward 400-pound players]

[Jim McElwain really rolled the dice by not signing at quarterback at UF]

[With Pat Riley, the Heat are never far from raising a banner]

The franchise’s current situation has nothing in common with that dismal outlook. Even though Miami missed the playoffs last year, breaking a six-season string that included two NBA titles, there’s no reason to expect it will happen again.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers are better than Miami. The Chicago Bulls might be. That’s about it in the Eastern Conference.

If something is still needed to whet your appetite, the Heat’s opening preseason game is Oct. 4 vs. Charlotte at AmericanAirlines Arena. Sure, that’s a Sunday, but the Dolphins are playing the Jets in London at 9:30 that morning so there’s no conflict with the 6 p.m. basketball start.

At times like this, it seems South Florida sports fans really can have it all.

Not to dampen NBA draft enthusiasm, but has anyone seen Darko?

Where are you, Darko Milicic? More specifically, how could the 7-footer who got drafted ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in 2003 get lost in the first place?

These are important questions as we prepare to spin the roulette wheel of another NBA draft next Thursday. Here’s another one. Do you know the only player to be drafted ahead of Milicic, the Serbian skyscraper who started with Detroit and in 12 NBA seasons averaged 6.0 points per game?

His name is LeBron James. Like Milicic, LeBron never played a minute of college ball in this country. Like Milicic, he had an NBA body as a teenager.

[Deciphering ‘Nerdgate,’ the St. Louis Cardinals childish hack job]

[It’s better this way, with LeBron coming up short in NBA Finals]

[A tip of the cap to Ichiro Suzuki, Japan’s gift to the Marlins]

NEW YORK - JUNE 26:  Darko Milicic is selected #2 overall in the first round by the Detroit Pistons holds up a Pistons #31 jersey during the 2003 NBA Draft at the Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden on June 26, 2003 in New York, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) ORG XMIT:   ORG XMIT: MER0705071350323490
Darko Milicic was selected #2 overall in the 2003 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons.  (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The difference is that LeBron was and is so unstoppable that it comes as a shock all these years later when he doesn’t win an NBA title, even if the mission is to do it almost single-handedly.

Milicic? Not so much. An internet search turned him up playing these days for a Serbian pro team called Metalac Farmakom, which probably means something to Miami Heat point guard Goran Dragic but doesn’t mean anything to me.

The names Kristaps Porzingis and Mario Hezonja don’t mean that much to me, either, though it seems they each will be drafted in the top 10 next week by NBA teams that can’t resist their slick Euro moves and towering builds. With the buzz that’s growing in all the mock drafts, Porzingis, the 7-foot-1 Latvian, even looks like top-five.

This institutes added mystery to a draft process that already is baffling enough.

LeBron didn’t have to be LeBron, for instance. He could have turned instead into Kwame Brown, a player considered such a sure thing that he was the NBA’s first No. 1 overall pick drafted straight out of high school.

The Washington Wizards and team president Michael Jordan took Brown over all others in 2001 based on the shot blocker’s play at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga. That was a disappointment to Billy Donovan, who had Brown signed to a scholarship at Florida, but hardly a surprise. Brown was ready for the NBA, everybody agreed, but after bouncing around the league with seven different teams the 6-foot-11 project retired, uncompleted, with a career average of 6.6 points right in Milicic’s neighborhood.

Add it all up and I’m glad that Pat Riley is in charge of using the Heat’s No. 10 overall pick. He doesn’t get them all right, as we’re reminded every time Michael Beasley comes and goes in Miami, but he has a good feel for what players will be worth to the franchise a year or two from now.

That’s what the NBA draft is for most organizations, a facet of the team’s long-term development, an acquisition phase to be utilized in future trades.

Once a player’s been around the league for a while and showed himself adaptable and tough enough to stand out, then it’s time to get excited about him.

That’s how you tell the difference between Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran.

That’s how you learn to make your plans as if the draft might not work out at all.