It has certainly been an enjoyable past month for Miami Heat fans as the team has coalesced at the perfect time with a 42-30 record and spot as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference just as the playoff picture begins to solidify. The team’s success however (while a pleasurable respite from the struggles of the prior year) actually bodes an identity crisis for the Heat roster… One that presents a philosophical and stylistic quandary for Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to decide: fast or traditional basketball?
Let me preface this by saying that Chris Bosh is my favourite current player in the NBA. I sincerely hope that he returns to the court soon, and that his blood clot issue is completely resolved to the tune of a perfectly clean bill of health. He is a model both on the court and off it, and his service for the Heat franchise has been invaluable. But that being said… There is a sobering truth that Heat fans and executives must realize: the team has played better without Bosh this season. Miami’s record with Bosh this season was a solid 29-24, but without him thus far, it’s 13-6. That is a 54.7 winning percentage with Bosh against a 68.4 winning percentage without him. Now at surface level, those statistics would seem to imply that Bosh has simply had an unproductive and all around bad season, but that is simply not the case as he had averaged 19.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. This is not a case of a slumping player conveniently becoming injured… Bosh was having a great year. There lies a far deeper conflict here, a stylistic one.
The Miami team is one that front office mastermind Pat Riley has stacked with talent, but it is also one, that he is inadvertently split into two. Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside are outstandingly talented big men that practically any team would covet, but they are big men who must play on a traditionally paced NBA team. Bosh and Whiteside aren’t the kind of players who can aptly adjust to a Mike D’Antoni fast and furious style of basketball designed to allow players to run the floor. But yet, the majority of the rest of Miami’s roster is built to run exactly that type of system. Stud point guard Goran Dragic has shown throughout his career that a fast, transition based offense is the only one in which he can have sustained success as shown by his vast improvement after Bosh’s departure after a severe early season slump coupled with his rise to fame in a blistering fast Phoenix offense. At the same time, the roster boasts players like Joe Johnson and Amare Stoudemire, wily veterans whose primary career successes came running a fast transition offense. Dwayne Wade and Luol Deng meanwhile have the benefit of being versatile enough to adapt between both systems as shown by their fairly consistently excellent production over the past two years. What we are left with here is a team with a split identity, two major stars (Bosh and Whiteside) are designed to operate within a traditionally paced basketball team but another star with two fellow crucial players (Dragic, Johnson, and Stoudemire) are designed to operate within a breakneck fast transition offense.
The Heat have fared better since the departure of Bosh and Whiteside’s move to the bench because it has allowed them to steer wholeheartedly into one philosophy: fast. It has allowed Dragic, Johnson, and Stoudemire to excel because the system is now one that puts them in a place to succeed while Wade and Deng still achieve their usual highs due to their versatility. Bosh’s unfortunate health issue has in essence allowed the Miami squad to revamp its style by eliminating one of the odd men out prior to moving the other to the bench in a sixth man role. And for the present, this is highly positive as the Heat have played great basketball over the past few months, but going forward, Riley and company face difficult choices… Whiteside’s contract expires after this year as do those of Stoudemire and Johnson. At the same time, Bosh is staring down an uncertain NBA future due to his serious health concerns. What all this amounts to is the fact that this offseason Riley and Spoelstra must choose between the two styles: traditional and fast. One would involve potentially moving Goran Dragic while allowing Stoudemire and Johnson to walk while the other would be even more radical with a potential Bosh trade or retirement combined with allowing Whiteside to walk. The late season success of the Heat despite its highs has illuminated a startling truth to the fans and the team… They are facing an identity crisis, and that crisis will be forcedly resolved this offseason.