- Two and counting... – (SportsNetwork.com) - Changes are coming to the Miami Heat.
Of course, the reigning four-time Eastern Conference champions lost the best player in the world, LeBron James.
The man who led the Heat to two championships and four NBA Finals appearances allowed his heart to take him home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. James is gone and the Heat have to put the pieces back together.
"It was a big change this summer," said head coach Erik Spoelstra. "The chapter on that team was going to close. We're looking forward to this challenge. It's been a different process than we had the last four summers.
"I'm looking at this as a blank canvas."
There is no way on Earth anyone can replace James. He is the best player in the universe for a reason - his total package of basketball skills on both sides of the ball.
"Rebuilding" is not the correct word to describe what is going on in South Beach in a post-LeBron world. The other two members of the Big Three - Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh - both elected to stay with the Heat. That's two top-20 players in the league, but in trying to adequately replace James, Pat Riley and the Heat brass did admirably.
First, before James decided to leave, the Heat brought in Josh McRoberts from the Charlotte Hornets. He will move into the starting power forward spot and brings solid shooting and passing.
But, the primary replacement for James will be Luol Deng, formerly of the Chicago Bulls and Cavaliers of all places.
"Everybody's going to talk about him being gone and me being here," Deng said. "But I'm not trying to be LeBron James."
He's right, no one can step into the lofty sneakers of James, but Deng does some similar things as the four-time MVP.
Deng is a two-time All-Star and former member of the All-Defensive team. He can do a little bit of everything offensively, just none of it as well as James.
That's fine. The Heat are very well aware of the fact that one man isn't going to make everyone in Miami forget about James. It will be a few players with expanded roles that have to account for his production.
Wade is first on that list.
At 32, with bad knees and a lot of late postseason runs on those legs, Wade played only 54 games during the 2013-14 campaign. He did, however, average almost 20 ppg and that was with the bad legs and plenty of rest.
"My role is going to change a little bit," Wade told NBA TV. "I'm excited."
Bosh may be the one to assume more of the scoring role. He indicated that he no longer wanted to bang around in the post like his Toronto Raptors days, but he might have to maximize Miami's best opportunities. And how will he do that?
"Digging up what I had before and that's as far as aggressiveness, volume of shots, minutes, rebounds, leadership this team is going to require from me in the absence of LeBron," Bosh explained. "It's a different challenge."
The reality in Miami is that title aspirations are pie in the sky. James is too big a hurdle to overcome, but the Heat did very well to get the pieces they did.
Miami would have had a difficult offseason if James had decided to stay. The Heat were embarrassed by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. San Antonio showed what team basketball was all about and Miami's remaining big-time producers, Wade and Bosh, did not.
Spoelstra will have an entire season to work out rotations and figure out how to get the best production possible. If everything works accordingly, the Heat could be a tough out in the postseason.
A lot of Miami's hopes rest on Wade and his health. That's a gigantic question as is can Bosh reclaim his past success. Can Deng fit in and produce after a few injury-plagued seasons? Can McRoberts continue to flourish?
There are a lot of potential problems in Miami, but there is still talent and pedigree. One thing there is not in Miami is James.
2013-14 Results: 54-28, 1st in Southeast; Lost NBA Finals to San Antonio
ADDITIONS: F Josh McRoberts, F Luol Deng, F Danny Granger, G Shabazz Napier, G Shannon Brown, G Reggie Williams, F Shawne Williams, F James Ennis
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Mario Chalmers SG- Dwyane Wade SF- Luol Deng PF- Josh McRoberts C- Chris Bosh
KEY RESERVES: F Udonis Haslem, C Chris Andersen, F Danny Granger, G Norris Cole, G Shabazz Napier, G Shannon Brown, F Shawne Williams, F James Ennis
FRONTCOURT: Bosh averaged 16.2 ppg and in his four seasons with the Heat, his scoring production has declined. Same goes for his rebounding, assists and overall presence as an interior force.
Bosh expanded his range out to 3-point range and shot an admirable 34 percent from beyond the arc. Now, the expectation is that Bosh will return to the low post, yet still remain productive from the 3-point line.
In his five final seasons with the Raptors, Bosh never averaged fewer than 22 ppg. He had three seasons during that span with 10-plus rebounds per night. Of course, those years came in his early 20s, but Bosh is only 30, so he might be able to handle a heavy load.
Deng has career averages of 16.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 2.5 apg. Those aren't near LeBron levels, especially in the play-making department.
But Deng is versatile offensively, not to mention great defensively. He can shoot the three respectably (33 percent for his career), is a great slasher and decent ball-handler.
"He's a very underrated, multi-skilled offensive player," Spoelstra said of Deng. "The type of person he is, qualities he embodies are similar to the type of player we want here."
The type of person Deng is came into question a bit this offseason. Deng was the player mentioned by Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry in his now infamous reading of a scouting report that questioned Deng's character in some way because he is of African descent.
Deng took the high road publicly and it's hard to imagine it bothers him terribly. He didn't sign with the Hawks and it looks like Deng is keeping expectations relatively small in terms of replacing James.
McRoberts was signed early in the offseason and he does a little of everything, all decently, none great. He averaged 8.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 4.3 apg with the Hornets last season and shot 36 percent from deep. He's a solid NBA professional.
BACKCOURT: Wade's 2013-14 season was odd. He missed 28 regular-season games due to injury or rest, but produced at a big level - 19.0 ppg, 4.7 apg, 4.5 rpg, 1.5 spg and 55 percent shooting.
Come the postseason, those numbers all dove. In the Finals, Wade looked bad. He averaged 15.2 ppg and only managed 10 and 11 in Games 4 and 5, respectively. Wade looked tired and worn down.
That happened the year before as well, but James overcame it. During the 2013-14 regular season, James had to do almost all of the heavy lifting with Wade in and out of the lineup. James just couldn't overcome the Spurs this time.
What does Spoelstra do with Wade this season? His plan always seemed to be to get Wade as much rest as possible to keep him fresh for the playoffs, but can that really be the plan in 2014-15? The Heat aren't a title team, and with James in Cleveland, can Spoelstra afford to rest Wade as much as the last two seasons? What would be the point? The Heat will need as many regular-season victories as possible to make the playoffs.
Wade needs to play well when out there to give the Heat any chance. Can he still do that 70-75 nights a year? That's a lot to ask of him.
Chalmers was retained via free agency and if Wade looked bad in the Finals, Chalmers was even worse. Chalmers managed 4.4 ppg and played just a shade under 15 minutes in San Antonio's clinching Game 5 win.
When Chalmers is playing decently, he's a solid floor general who can shoot and defend a little. He might thrive a little without James constantly hounding him. Or, Norris Cole could finally unseat him, or maybe even rookie Shabazz Napier.
BENCH: Cole is a great change of pace guy off the bench. He's got stones and isn't afraid to take shots. His minutes jumped in his third season and could see the bulk of the action at the point.
Andersen is a fantastic backup big man. I think the Heat don't use him enough, but in the Finals, when Gregg Popovich inserted Boris Diaw into the starting lineup, Spoelstra had to stay smallish and keep Bosh on the floor. Andersen is a good defender, underrated offensive guy and master agitator.
Haslem reminds me of the Traveling Willburys' song - "End of the Line."
Granger is far from his prime, but still might have something left. He hasn't played a lot in the last two seasons due to injury, but he's the kind of veteran Miami has gotten a lot out of in recent history.
Brown has impressed in training camp, and, as Wade's primary backup, he could be needed quite a bit.
James loved Napier and tweeted about him several times during Connecticut's surprising run to an NCAA title. Napier may not see a ton of minutes early on, but he's a great floor leader.
Ennis spent last year in Australia, but has really wowed Spoelstra in practice. The coach said he expects Ennis to get time at both wing positions.
Williams had a decent year on the injury-ravaged Los Angeles Lakers last season.
Overall, this group is thin and that's not great considering Wade's playing time in recent seasons.
COACHING: Spoelstra is a very good coach who got nothing out of his guys in the Finals. Every move he made, Pop countered and when Pop made the first move, Spoelstra didn't have the answers.
Still, Spoelstra has two rings. He's one of the best in the sport.
Spoelstra said the Heat got over LeBron leaving in "less than 10 minutes," but filling that void will be a massive undertaking. He wants the Heat to be a strong defensive team, but it's not a strength of Bosh or Wade.
And how he handles those two men, now in major alpha positions, will go a long way to define the Heat's season.
OUTLOOK: There is a lot of talent still in Miami, so much so, the Heat should comfortably make the playoffs. They may even win the Southeast Division if they can hold off the Washington Wizards and Hornets.
It would be easy to dismiss the Heat with James gone, but Miami has an outside chance at hosting a first-round series, even if the Heat don't win the division. Problem is, with the three division winners, Miami would need the next-best record in the Eastern Conference and the Heat aren't as good as either the Cavs or Chicago Bulls.
Something in the five-seven range is probably a more realistic expectation for the Heat this season. That being said, no one will want to play them in the postseason, not with that pedigree and talent.