Dwyane Wade’s return has not significantly improved the Heat in the only stat that really counts

It was so much fun getting Dwyane Wade back last month, but now you have to wonder. Are the Miami Heat any closer to making some real noise in the playoffs with this 12-time All-Star and former NBA Finals MVP on their roster?

The numbers say no, and they suggest there’s an early playoff exit coming no matter what.

Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade (3) shoots over Washington Wizards’ Mike Scott (30) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 10, 2018, in Miami. The Heat won 129-102. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Miami was 29-26 when Wade, the most productive and popular player in franchise history, returned to the Heat in a Feb. 8 trade with Cleveland. Since he joined the team, Miami is 9-7 in all games and 7-6 in games that Wade has played. Nothing special either way.

At different times in a Heat uniform this season Wade has been everything from brilliant (27 points in a 102-101 win over Philadelphia), to mediocre (4-for-13 shooting in a close loss to the same team) to inactive (a hamstring strain has kept him in streetclothes the last three games).

Of course, there are other moving parts that must be considered when it comes to the team’s overall record. Hassan Whiteside plays like an All-Star some nights but doesn’t on others and lately he hasn’t been playing at all. Different players take the scoring lead in different games, a reflection of Erik Spoelstra’s lack of a true closer without Wade in top form. Injuries continue to change the chemistry and the rotation every week of the season, too.

Overall, it feels good to think that Wade is saving up some of his steam at the age of 36 and will begin to dominate parts of games once the postseason gets here. He’s still capable of getting some big shots to go and of stealing or blocking a ball in critical situations.

There just doesn’t seem to be anything truly transformational about it, though. Wade is working hard to contribute and making no complaint about coming off the bench. He probably has a few 20-point explosions in him, too, if he isn’t pushed too hard in a string of consecutive games, and there’s always the wealth of experience and leadership he brings to help the Heat through the tight spots to come.

Back, though, to the original question of how much difference Wade makes in potentially pushing Miami through the first playoff round against Toronto or Boston or Cleveland and into something more serious.

The answer, or at least my answer, is not enough of a difference.

The Heat are tough and versatile and capable of digging very, very deep, as demonstrated in Monday’s epic double-overtime win over Denver, a win that came without Wade or Whiteside.

I would have said all those things about Miami before Wade’s return, and it’s a mouthful. There is little more to be said, however, with Dwyane at Spo’s disposal, other than it is comforting to have him around, and that every little bit of emotional strength counts at this anxious stretch of the season.

And if there’s more to it than that, we’ll probably know it March 27, when LeBron and the Cavs come to town. That’s the kind of challenge that brings the best out in Wade, and if he’s healthy by then, it will be a good showing of what his best is these days in terms of production and emotion and turn-back-the-clock magic.

[March Madness star Eric Musselman got his break with West Palm CBA team] 

[Like Zach Thomas and Wes Welker, Amendola is a Texas Tech tough guy]

[Marlins’ inaugural spring training 25 years ago was a Space Coast blast]

Key to Heat’s rebuilding season will be handling teams like the Kings

“We should play like that every game,” Goran Dragic said Sunday after the Miami Heat pushed hard in a 106-99 loss to regal San Antonio.

If they do, they will win all the games that they should win and surprise a few of the elite teams along the way.

Miami Heat's Goran Dragic tends to Hassan Whiteside after a leg injury in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic tends to Hassan Whiteside after leg cramps struck the center against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)

Tonight’s home game with Sacramento qualifies as one that Miami needs to get in order to keep on pace with any kind of distant postseason fantasy. The Kings missed the playoffs last year at 33-49 and have a 14-game losing streak at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Won’t be easy, though, for Heat big man Hassan Whiteside or anyone else.

Last Thursday Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins had 37 points and 16 rebounds in a 102-94 loss to the Spurs.

Whiteside also was great against the Spurs on Sunday, matching a career-high of 27 points and adding his usual 15 rebounds, but the Spurs rested LaMarcus Aldridge that night. Cousins didn’t get that break when he played San Antonio.

Maybe the best way to do this is to carve up the schedule into pieces.

Miami plays seven playoff teams from last year in the month of November and seven that didn’t qualify. An 8-6 record against that group would be great. To get only five or six wins, on the other hand, would be pretty discouraging since coach Erik Spoelstra is going all out for victories this time of year. The better teams can afford to put it into overdrive later.

[Is FSU over USF the best college football win in our state so far?]

[Unless you’re smarter than me, predicting Dolphins is a coin flip this year]

[Tough recognizing America the last time Indians or Cubs won World Series]

Consider this pregame quote from Sunday when Spo was told that Gregg Popovich would be resting Aldridge and Danny Green against the Heat. Long-term maintenance only.

“Well, we won’t be resting tonight,” said Spo, who got 39 minutes out of Justise Winslow and 35 from Whiteside. ”We know well enough that they can have guys out and it really does not matter.”

File this away, meanwhile, under encouraging signs for the 1-2 Heat.

Dragic scored 10 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, really asserting his leadership. That hasn’t been the case in the past against the Spurs. His career average against San Antonio was only 9.0 points coming into this game.

Also, Winslow just missed his career high for points. He scored 18 against the Spurs, two short of the 20 he scored as a rookie against Denver last March.

“That is about as many calories as you can burn in a 39-minute game,” said Spo, “because you’re going up against an MVP-caliber player (Kawhi Leonard). You have to defend and get through all the screens, and on the other end he is required to make a lot of plays.

“He has great maturity for a young player.”

The upside on Whiteside, just in case you think nothing’s going right with the Heat

(UPDATE: Dwyane Wade agreed to sign with the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night)

It may seem like Dwyane Wade is the Miami Heat’s ultimate answer to every question right now but Hassan Whiteside actually was the No. 1 priority on Pat Riley’s free-agency shopping list.

Toronto Raptors center Bismack Biyombo (8) battles for the ball against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during first half NBA basketball playoff action in Toronto, Thursday, May 5, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Toronto Raptors center Bismack Biyombo (8) battles for the ball against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) during first half NBA basketball playoff action in Toronto, May 5, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

First offered. First to reach agreement. First to sign once NBA rules allow on Thursday. Hassan leads in all categories with a Heat team that may be on the verge of a major makeover, and of course none of that makes Wade feel as prized as he deserves to be.

So what exactly does Miami have in Hassan? A guy who just got a max-contract reward of $1.3 million for each of his 75 career NBA starts? A backup to Amar’e Stoudemire for big chunks of last season? Yeah, that’s young Whiteside.

Here’s where it really starts to get cool, though. Riley wanted Whiteside back here in the same way that he wanted Shaquille O’Neal to join Miami in 2004.

Remember the fuss when Shaq arrived at AmericanAirlines Arena for an introductory press conference? He rode up in an 18-wheeler, jumped out of the cab to cool down thousands of waiting fans with a water gun and went inside to entertain the media with his usual oversized promises of championship greatness.

That first season in Miami Shaq was pretty great. Averages of 22.9 points, 2.3 blocks and 10.4 rebounds per game and a league-leading .601 field-goal percentage. Dunks, dunks and more dunks for the Hall of Famer, who was 32 at the time.

Compare Whiteside’s 2015-16 numbers, though. He averaged 14.2 points, significantly less, but led the league in blocks with 3.7 per game and averaged 11.8 rebounds. Also, Hassan’s relatively raw offensive game produced a shooting percentage of .609, right behind DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard.

Not a bad starting point, and that’s all this is for Whiteside. Compare Hassan’s first postseason to that inaugural Shaq-Heat playoff run, too, remembering that an injury stopped Whiteside after just 10 games.

[Even when they’re going good, the Marlins are bound to confound]

[Buddy Ryan always loved a good feud, even when it involved Shula]

[My utterly bizarre day with boxing Hall of Famer Macho Camacho]

During the 2005 playoffs, which ended for Miami in an Eastern Conference final loss to Detroit, Shaq averaged 19.4 points, 1.5 blocks and 7.8 rebounds with a .558 field-goal percentage.

Hassan’s first postseason run was better in every way but scoring. He averaged 12.0 points, 2.8 blocks and 10.9 rebounds per game and his shooting percentage, aided by all those lob passes from Wade, rose to .681.

In the longer view, Shaq never blocked shots at Whiteside’s rate. O’Neal’s best season in that category was 3.5 per game as a 20-year-old Orlando Magic rookie. His career average over 19 NBA seasons was 2.3.

Not saying that Whiteside is Shaq, who in his second Heat season contributed mightily to an NBA championship, or that he will become Shaq, or anything of the sort.

While everybody’s frantic about possibly losing Wade, however, it helps a little to know what Miami is building around for the next four years. Whiteside is going to get better, and Riley is going to be building future free-agency pitches around the chance to play with the NBA’s premier big man.

Have a heart, Warriors, and leave Kevin Durant to somebody else

Remember how much fun it was to watch the Golden State Warriors motor through a 73-9 regular season, flashy and efficient all at once?

Steph Curry was a genuine spectacle with his ballhandling and uncanny long-range accuracy, and on some nights Klay Thompson actually had the hotter hand. Then there was Draymond Green with his WWE moves, plus all those perfectly-suited role players.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors speaks with Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after their 96-88 win in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA – Stephen Curry (left) of the Golden State Warriors speaks with Kevin Durant  of the Oklahoma City Thunder after their 96-88 win in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Yeah, that was one great team, all ready to stack a second NBA title onto what surely would become a regular pile of them.

Then LeBron and the Cavs bumped Golden State off the pedestal. Then the Warriors, all neon and magic, started flickering a bit, like there suddenly was a short circuit or something.

Just like that, Golden State is feeling needy again, and a little greedy, too. Would the story be as cute if they suddenly snapped up Kevin Durant in free agency? It’s a far more likely scenario than KD coming to Miami. Makes so much more sense for him. Puts him so much closer to his first NBA title, and after nine years in the league that matters more and more.

Cute? No, that would be cruel, with Durant’s addition making a monster of the Warriors. A bully band on the order of Miami’s Big Three era. You remember how well that played outside of South Florida, right? The Heat were hated, and the Warriors will get there, too, if they snap up all the best available talent.

Oh, Golden State had its eyes on Hassan Whiteside, too, until he announced early Friday morning he’s sticking with the Heat. They need somebody to make LeBron and Kyrie Irving think twice about plowing down the lane and all the way to the rim and Hassan couldn’t have gone wrong there, with or without Durant as a teammate. It’s that kind of operation, one that has gotten used to winning and will not go back without a fight.

Seems to me that the best and most realistic option for Miami fans is for Durant to re-sign with Oklahoma City for another season. Let Pat Riley’s free-agency plans percolate until 2017. Let the Heat bulk up the roster for an all-out negotiating blitz, either with Chris Bosh back on board or his contract moved out of the way.

[Buddy Ryan always loved a good fight, even with a legend like Shula]

[Dick Sanford provided the soundtrack for baseball in PB County and beyond]

[Rate the Adam Gase offseason buzz against other Dolphins debuts]

Billy Donovan would be an ally in that circumstance. He did fine as a rookie NBA head coach and seemed to gain the confidence of Durant and Russell Westbrook. It should be enough to keep them all together in Oklahoma City, unless Golden State simply gets its way.

The Warriors aren’t a bad bunch. In fact, they put on a super show. What we don’t need is to see them bolted together as some kind of superteam. Keep them a little needy, like everyone else.

Keep them from turning downright nasty.

 

 

 

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.