Despite a chippy fourth-quarter comeback that saw the Heat cut an 18-point Sixers lead to single digits, in the end, Miami couldn’t match Philly’s overwhelming talent, losing 104-91 on Tuesday night. It was an expensive first-round exit. Pat Riley spent everything he had on this Miami Heat team last summer after Gordon Hayward chose Boston over South Beach. The franchise escaped the overspending offseason of 2016, watching organizations like Portland sign players to fat contracts and experience immediate buyer’s remorse, only to make similar mistakes in 2017. In lieu of getting a superstar, Miami spent $157 million on Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Wayne Ellington.
But a gaggle of gritty role players isn’t equivalent to a superstar—watch any of Ben Simmons’s highlights against any number of Heat players in the series and you’ll quickly be reminded of that. Miami just didn’t have enough: First-time All-Star Goran Dragic’s impact was inconsistent, and the only superstar Erik Spoelstra did have, 36-year-old Dwyane Wade, can’t go for more than 25 minutes a game.
Miami was a ferocious first-round test for Philadelphia; at the very least, the Heat had the tools to keep up with the Sixers’ modern attack. Each game was hard fought and full of drama. They played playoff basketball; imagine pitting the Heat against the Thunder, the Wolves, or the Blazers. But the Sixers held up a mirror, and what the Heat saw was a team that just didn’t have the talent to match up for a full series. Philadelphia has the personnel to build an empire in the East; the Heat, already over the 2018-19 cap projection and without any draft picks this summer, struggled to keep pace with a 21-year-old Simmons and a 24-year-old Joel Embiid, two soon-to-be superstars nowhere near their primes. Back to the drawing board.
Here are the four big questions Miami faces in the offseason ahead:
What Can You Do About Hassan Whiteside?
There isn’t a clear-cut strategy to match up against a team like Philadelphia. Whiteside has only two inches on its starting point guard; his assignment at center, Joel Embiid, has a tendency to leave the painted area, where Whiteside is most comfortable, and explore beyond the range of a typical 7-footer, where Whiteside is helpless. In crucial moments this series, it wasn’t Whiteside’s name that Spoelstra called. With the way the game continues to change, that lack of faith in their $98 million man could be the new normal.
Chalk it up to a lack of rhythm if you’re feeling charitable. Whiteside was injured for three stretches throughout the season, missing a total of 28 games. But even when he was active, the Heat’s numbers were better with him off the floor. Whiteside started every game he’s played this season but was limited to 25 minutes per game in what amounted to keep him happy playing time. In the playoffs, his already-winnowed minutes average shrank to 15.4. Without those minutes keeping him happy, there was nothing stopping him from looking like this:
This dude is miserable pic.twitter.com/3CMVie53L7— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) April 20, 2018
“We got one of the best centers in the league,” Whiteside said of himself in April when Spoelstra sat him during a close fourth quarter. “Why we matching up? … That’s bullshit.” The “bullshit” continued in the first round, as Spo opted again for other frontcourt lineups. Whiteside played just a tick above 10 minutes in Game 5. With the game out of reach by the end of the third quarter, it’s surprising, in a way, that Whiteside didn’t see more action to close the series, if only to raise his all-time-low trade value with more TV time, the way QVC gets you to buy that angel figurine set if you see it enough.
Dumping him is the best solution, but with the 28-year-old making $52 million over the next two seasons, it might be impossible.
Will Wade Be Back? And If So, What Role Will He Play?
For the third time in three years, Wade will be a free agent this summer. Before Game 5, he and Udonis Haslem said they hadn’t thought about retirement yet but would chat this summer on the golf course. This is where I reiterate that Wade was arguably Miami’s strongest player this series.
The 15-year vet clearly has more to offer, but unlike when Manu Ginobili decided to return to the Spurs last season, the Heat don’t have a set path to title contention. And unlike Dirk Nowitzki, Wade has never gotten his “pay me my dues” money from the Heat. It’ll be worth watching this summer if he asks for the team’s exception money, which would be more than the veteran minimum they would otherwise offer. Wade has said he won’t be leaving Miami again—it was hard enough the first go-round—even while BFFs LeBron James and Chris Paul are still ring hunting. (No, Carmelo, not you.)
His time as a Cavalier proved that Wade takes no issue with coming off the bench; his second stint with the Heat proved that he’s still valuable as a second-unit leader. He won’t be Haslem, who is a guru for younger players more than a player himself, but Wade seems to have bought back into what the Heat “family” expects of its elder statesmen.
How Can the Heat Take the Next Step?
Cons: As of now, Miami owns two picks over the next four NBA drafts. It has zero in the 2018 draft, and in the season that follows, it will be $21 million over the cap.
Pros: It’s warm in Miami.
With the risk of NBA old heads coming at my head: Riley couldn’t have picked a worse time to blow his budget. James, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins will all be available this summer; even if the Heat had the dowry, the NBA is so exciting and talented right now that a situation like Utah might be more attractive for a free agent. Philadelphia’s miraculous postseason is all the recruiting it’ll need to do—although you can bet Embiid will get right into the DMs if he has to. Landing someone this offseason will take more than ample free cap space. The Heat don’t even have that.
Trading a big contract like Whiteside’s is the only way to escape the purgatory they’ve put themselves in. (But like everything else this season, Whiteside isn’t making that easy.)
What About the Young Guys?
They might not be godfather free-agent pitches at Liv or draft ping-pong balls, but Miami does have something to look forward to in Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson. Adebayo has brought relief to the Whiteside situation, already proving capable in many ways as a rookie (for one, he looks much more comfortable guarding on the perimeter, which might as well be in a center’s job description these days). Richardson is already one of the league’s best wing defenders, and a full mentoring session from Wade could unlock more of his offensive weapons. And after Winslow’s statement-making postseason, the question mark hovering above his head might finally begin to straighten out to an exclamation point—if Winslow’s jump shot proves legit, the Heat still have enough interesting young talent to stay competitive in the East. They just need to find their star.