BOSTON—Dwyane Wade glanced around the Miami locker room on Wednesday, a thick ice bag wrapped around his left knee, an all too familiar feeling lodged in the pit of his stomach. To Wade’s left was Hassan Whiteside, a strong candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, wearing a thick wrap to protect the 10 stitches doctors wove onto his right hand a day before. Across the room he eyeballed Chris Andersen, Whiteside’s backup, who was walking gingerly with a banged up left calf. In a far corner was Goran Dragic, the newly acquired point guard Wade has worked tirelessly with to build chemistry on the fly. Not seen: Chris Bosh, the All-Star power forward who is out for the season following treatments for a blood clot in his lung.
Ideally, Wade would share the floor with all of them. Instead, Miami’s M.A.S.H. unit—28 different starting lineups and counting—finds itself trying to string together a group of games that feature at least two or three of them. Asked if the Heat’s recent run of injuries was another chapter in what has been a tumultuous season, Wade smiled and said, “Not a chapter. One page of the book.”
In some ways Miami’s struggles—the Heat are 33-38, snugly sandwiched in the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference between Milwaukee and Boston—are to be expected. LeBron James’s defection last summer forced Miami to regroup quickly, and though the Heat did a nice job in picking up Luol Deng to pair with a re-signed Wade and Bosh, LeBron is, well, LeBron; there simply was no replacing him. That’s especially true defensively, where James’s ability to single-handedly disrupt opponents' offense with his athleticism is a big reason why Miami has dipped from No. 11 in defensive efficiency last season to No. 20 this season. Even the presence of the shot-swatting Whiteside—the greatest South Florida discovery since Ponce de Leon hit its shores—can’t overcome that.
Still, Miami expected to be better than this. The Bosh injury hit the hardest. The acquisition of Dragic—who, not for nothing, delivered a textbook lesson on how to force your way out of town last month, when his agent, Bill Duffy, informed Phoenix that Dragic would not re-sign two days before the trade deadline and Dragic napalming the situation 24 hours later—created an enviable starting lineup of Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside. Privately, the Heat believed that if all five could stay healthy the team could challenge in a top-heavy conference. That hope vaporized quickly after Bosh was diagnosed with his season-ending ailment.
The news likely hit Wade, 33, the hardest as he inches slowly, sometimes painfully, toward the end. It won’t come anytime soon, of course. Wade is averaging 21.6 points—his highest in three years—on a respectable 48.1% shooting. This month, he's averaging a season-best 25 points, some of which have come from a season-high 6.9 free throw attempts per game, evidence that, when needed, the old Flash can still make an appearance. In typical fashion, Wade credits his teammates for passing, screening and setting him up; but there is no question that, with Miami in the thick of a playoff race, Wade has ratcheted his game up.
For what though? Deep down, Wade has to know that mid-April is likely going to lead to a first round defeat from Atlanta, Cleveland or Chicago. Full strength, Miami could upend all three; this battered bunch though, featuring at times the once-ballyhooed Kansas State tandem of Michael Beasley and Henry Walker, is probably five or six games and out, at best.
The silver lining? The Wade-Dragic combination has teased an enticing future. The duo is shooting a combined 49.4%, best of any backcourt in the NBA. In Miami, Dragic picked up right where he left off in Phoenix, averaging 17 points, 5.6 assists and hitting 52.8% of his shots, which in a full season would be a career best. Against Boston, Dragic, effectively put on a one-man show, carving up the Celtics for 22 points and seven assists.
Considering the assets Miami gave up to get Dragic (two first-round picks) it’s a safe bet that Pat Riley will pony up the $20 million per year it will likely take to keep Dragic in South Beach. That result will sit just fine with Wade, too.
“I’m very comfortable playing with Goran,” says Wade. “He’s easy to play with. He’s always on the attack. He’s going to get in the paint and finish or he’s going to create a lot of traffic and be able to kick it out to guys in open space. (In) transition he likes to get off the ball; he runs pretty fast.
“It’s an adjustment for everyone. It’s an adjustment that our team needs and that we’re wiling to have, especially with someone as unselfish as Goran who scores as efficiently as he scores. You don’t mind it at all. It’s an adjustment; sometimes you get used to playing a certain way. But it’s the nature of the business.”
The Heat will fight to the finish, right up until one of the top three seeds sends them packing. It will be disappointing, but understand this: The real run will begin in the fall, when Wade and Dragic are re-joined by Bosh, when Whiteside has another year under his belt, when the shrewd Riley has a few months to flesh out a weak second unit. Nothing can remove the scar left by the loss of James, but with the right moves and a little luck, Miami can be right there contending with its former star.
The Dallas Dilemma
Regardless of what happens the rest of this season—and judging by the Mavericks' mediocre play since acquiring Rajon Rondo a deep playoff run seems unlikely—Dallas is going to face some difficult decisions this offseason.
Rondo, 29, will be an unrestricted free agent, as has been well chronicled. Monta Ellis, whose production has steadily declined since Rondo’s arrival, could opt out as well. Ellis was 7-of-31 from the field in back-to-back losses to Memphis and Phoenix last weekend before rebounding with a 38-point outburst against San Antonio on Tuesday. Rick Carlisle has continued to show faith in Ellis, but since the All-Star break the results have been mixed, at best.
“He’s the one guy who can get clean shots,” Carlisle recently told reporters. “He’s getting good looks, and I always believe he’s going to make the next one. My responsibility as a coach is to make sure we get shots. We can’t go places where clear shots are not going to be generated. And he’s been too good in these situations all year long.”
Numbers don’t lie though, and statistically the five-man unit of Rondo, Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler has been considerably less productive than the one with Jameer Nelson from earlier this season:
|<p> <br><strong>Lineup</strong> </p>||<p>Offensive rating</p>||<p>Defensive rating</p>||<p>AST/TO ratio</p>||<p>Net rating</p>|
There’s not much Dallas can do in the short term, save for hoping that the playoffs will ignite something in Rondo that the Celtics are used to seeing. Long term? That’s a little different. To retain Rondo and Ellis—not to mention the incredibly valuable Chandler, who will also be a free agent this summer—the Mavericks will have to make a significant financial investment.
Fiscally, that won’t be prohibitive. Yes, with a cap spike coming in 2016, teams will be a little more liberal with their spending this summer, if for no other reason than a bad deal in ’15 won’t look so bad in ’16. That could mean inflated deals for Ellis and Rondo, the latter of whom can max out on a five-year, $100 million deal. And while the market for Ellis is unclear, for Rondo there is one obvious suitor: The Lakers, a team flush with cap space, led by Rondo’s bizzaro buddy Kobe Bryant and coached by Byron Scott, who is much less heavy handed with the play calling than Carlisle. The Mavericks may not want to pony up $18-$20 million per year for Rondo but if the Lakers inject themselves into the mix—and it’s widely believed they will—Dallas may not have a choice.
But the Mavericks books are clean—even after the Rondo deal the Mavericks are under the luxury tax, meaning they won’t be in line to pay the dreaded repeater tax next season. And as tumultuous as the Rondo experiment has been, it will be difficult for Dallas, which traded many of its most movable assets to Boston in the Rondo deal, to find someone to replace him. The safest bet may be re-signing Rondo, giving it another go next season and if it doesn’t work, look to deal him somewhere else.
Want value? These five players have been worth every nickel this season. A disclaimer: Players on rookie deals were not eligible.
PG – Mike Conley, Memphis ($8.7 million)
It's become impossible to piece together an underrated/undervalued list without Conley. Seriously: Underrated will be in the first sentence of his obituary. Conley continues to be remarkably consistent, quarterbacking Memphis to the second-best record in the Western Conference.
SG – Evan Turner, Boston ($3.3 million)
Every coach wants to be the one who unlocks the talent in Evan Turner; Brad Stevens has come the closest. Stevens has tapped into Turner’s playmaking, handing him point guard responsibilities alongside the still-developing Marcus Smart. Turner has delivered, averaging a career-best 5.1 assists per game.
SF – Kyle Korver, Atlanta ($6.2 million)
There was a time when the four-year, $24 million deal Korver signed with Atlanta in 2013 seemed rich. Not anymore. Korver’s lethal three-point shooting (49.9%) is one of the Hawks best weapons and is a big reason why Atlanta has run away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
PF – Nick Collison, Oklahoma City ($2.2 million)
Thanks to a nifty bit of salary cap gymnastics by the Thunder, Collison—whose salary dropped from $13.2 million in ’10-11 to around $2 million the last three seasons. Collison isn’t a starter but he is—a recent sprained ankle aside—a durable role player who can play 15-20 minutes per game for a contender.
C – Hassan Whiteside, Miami ($764,000)
The easiest choice, Whiteside bounced from the NBA to Europe to China before settling in Miami, where he has emerged as a force in the middle. A relentless shot blocker (2.5) Whiteside has been showered with praise all season, none higher than by Bob Cousy, who told the Worcester Telegram & Gazzette that Whiteside reminded him of a former teammate: Bill Russell.
Quote of the Week I
“You can play bad defense [and win], but you don’t mention it when we win. But when we lose, you mention it. I’m just a little confused.” — Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook, responding to a reporter’s question about poor defense after a 130-91 loss to San Antonio.
The interactions between Westbrook and the media continue to get stranger. For the most part, coverage of Westbrook has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly during the second half of the season, when Westbrook has thrust himself into the MVP race. But the relationship between Westbrook and the press continues to be adversarial. Much of it is deep rooted; Westbrook smarts at the suggestion that he shoots too much, that he’s not a point guard, that it is his duty to be more deferential to Kevin Durant. Even during one-on-one situations—and I have had a couple of those with him—Westbrook can be startlingly guarded, often interpreting questions as criticisms. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much; Westbrook’s teammates love him, which is far more important than any testy, five-minute post game gaggle. Still, it’s puzzling to see Westbrook so consistently agitated by seemingly benign questions.
• MORE NBA: Thunder finally on track thanks to Westbrook
Quote of the Week II
"We knew if we hit them, if we got a couple stops they would start arguing with each other and quit.” -- Warriors forward Marreese Speights after Golden State’s 107-76 win over Washington on Monday.
It’s getting ugly in DC. Two nights after Speights called out the Wizards, Washington coach Randy Wittman said his team quit playing defensively in the fourth quarter of a narrow home loss to Indiana. The Wizards have lost four straight and have fallen to fifth in the conference, two games back of Toronto.
Quote of the Week III
Questions about George—fueled in part by Indiana president Larry Bird’s recent suggestion that he expects George to play this year, in part by erroneous reports of George’s return date—have become a daily ritual for Vogel, who has consistently said the team is going about its business with no expectation of George playing this season. More importantly: Whenever George comes back, his injury and lack of conditioning will likely limit him to a 15-20 minute per game player.
Tweet of the Week
A fond farewell to Nash, one of the greatest point guards of all-time—no top-10 list is complete without him—and one of the nicest guys in the sport. It’s a shame that after defying the odds for so long in Phoenix that Nash’s Lakers career was derailed so quickly. Think about it: If Nash doesn’t break his leg early in the ’12-’13 season, a season where he was limited to 50 games, do the Lakers look different today? Could a healthy, Phoenix-like effective Nash have been the glue that bonded Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard together? Probably not. But never underestimate the impact of a great point guard. Nash’s unselfishness and ability to create offense for others might have eased the palpable tension between Bryant and Howard that season.
• MORE NBA: The overflowing legacy of Steve Nash
Can we stop dissecting every word out of Kevin Love’s mouth? So he thinks Russell Westbrook deserves the MVP—is he required by the Cavaliers to throw his support behind LeBron James, who may not finish higher than fourth? And when asked about his relationship with James, should Love say they are karaoke buddies on the weekends? Dissect Love’s role in Cleveland’s offense; that’s more than fair. But the other stuff is just overkill … Lakers-Sixers on Monday could be interesting. Los Angeles is tied in the loss column with Orlando for the fifth worst record in the NBA. That’s notable for Philadelphia, which owns the Lakers pick if it falls outside the top-five. I'm half expecting Sixers GM Sam Hinkie to hold Invincible-style tryouts for this one … Call me crazy, but I still like the Bucks deal for Michael Carter-Williams. Short term, the trade detonated Milwaukee’s chances to win a first round series. Long term, Carter-Williams size and skill level are a unique blend for Jason Kidd to mold … You knew it was coming: Andrea Bargnani is playing his way into a new contract somewhere next season. After missing the first 51 games this season due to injury—and providing nothing that validates the Knicks decision to ship a ’16 first round pick to Toronto for him two years ago—Bargnani has come on the last two months, averaging around 15 points per game. It’s possible the Knicks could even re-sign him; in theory, Bargnani’s ability to stretch the floor could be an asset in a triangle offense … Denver executives have been very happy with the job done by interim coach Melvin Hunt, per sources. And while the Nuggets will conduct a thorough search for a new coach after the season, Hunt’s performance since taking over for Brian Shaw earlier this month will earn him some consideration for the job.