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51 Q: Are the Heat contenders?

MIami Heat against the Washington Wizards 10/29/2014

MIami Heat against the Washington Wizards 10/29/2014


Over a year later, the Heat are still in the process of figuring out life after LeBron James. Last season was plagued by injuries, most notably Chris Bosh’s season-ending blood-clot scare. A midseason trade for Goran Dragic and the out-of-nowhere emergence of Hassan Whiteside as a force at center weren’t enough to overcome their health problems and lack of depth. This year represents a fresh start with this core, along with some intriguing new pieces they added over the summer.

When fully healthy, the Heat’s starting lineup of Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh and Whiteside is as talented as any starting five in the league. Everyone is at least competent on the defensive end, and Bosh and Deng are very good. Offensively, there’s diversity and plenty of firepower. Wade can’t reasonably be expected to play an 82-game season anymore, but when he’s on the floor, he’s still a highly effective scorer. The Heat have been conservative with his minutes in recent years, resting him on back-to-backs and limiting his workload on a nightly basis, and that will be the program going forward.

Beyond the starters, there’s more depth than there was last year, but there are a lot of question marks. The minimum signings of Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green make sense in theory — they’re both solid veterans who can contribute in limited roles. But neither can defend, and Stoudemire is still a huge injury concern. Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem can’t be counted on for more than bit roles at this point, and Mario Chalmers is no longer the asset he once was after a disastrous 2014-15 campaign (the Heat shopped him at the deadline and couldn’t give him away). But Green and Stoudemire are upgrades on the bench.

The most intriguing new piece for the Heat is Justise Winslow, who somehow fell to Miami at No. 10 in this June’s draft. His offensive game has a long way to go, but he’s viewed as a long-term replacement for Deng at small forward, and he could even take his spot in the starting lineup as soon as this year.

The other major question mark for the Heat is Whiteside, who has been injured for much of camp and only returned to action recently. His stunning success last season was found money for Miami, but he still has to prove he can keep it up over a full season.

It’s not out of the question that the Heat could make a deep playoff run. With the Hawks taking a step back by losing DeMarre Carroll, there’s an opening to win the Southeast Division. Short of a healthy Cavs team (the clear favorites in the East), the Heat are as good when healthy as any of the second tier of teams, including the Bulls, Hawks and Wizards. It’s going to take a lot for any of these teams to knock off the Heat in a playoff series, but an Eastern Conference Finals series for any of them wouldn’t be a shock. Including the Heat.