Heat preview: Miami is hoping continuity, youth development lead to further success

There were two very different versions of the Heat last season. After starting off 11-30, Miami managed to reverse its first-half record with a ridiculous 30-11 run to finish at a very respectable 41-41 mark. 

Whether it was a matter of needing time to jell and/or changing their identity, the Heat flipped the switch on their season. They upped their 3-point attempts and allowed players like Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters to just get out there and run. The formula worked, and they almost earned a playoff berth but ultimately fell short.

The Heat entered the offseason feeling great about a roster that once had more questions than answers. Miami decided it was time to double down on what worked, and re-signed Waiters and James Johnson — two key cogs in the team's second-half surge — to long-term deals. Miami also tried signing Gordon Hayward, but once he chose Boston it had to pivot and added Kelly Olynyk instead.

So after coming off a Jekyll and Hyde season, which version of the Heat is real, and what can we expect from this intriguing team entering 2017-18?

Buying in

The Heat are banking on virtually the same roster to do what it did during the second half of last season ... for an entire season. There's risk in that decision as Miami is relying on continuity and the growth of its players to raise their ceiling. It's certainly possible. 

Miami committed to Waiters and Johnson, who each received four-year deals in the summer. Both also had career years, and the Heat are gambling on them to continue to play just as well moving forward. Waiters will have the same head coach two years in a row for the first time in his NBA career. He provided the spark — and numerous clutch shots — the Heat desperately needed. The key for him is staying healthy as his late-season absence surely hurt Miami down the final stretch. 

Johnson, meanwhile, has gone through so many different roles in his career that his head was spinning. Some players just need that consistency on a year-to-year basis, so perhaps staying in the same system will benefit Johnson. The Heat also invested $50 million in Olynyk, who they pounced on once the Celtics made the floor-spacing big man an unrestricted free agent.

Re-signing Waiters and Johnson and adding Olynyk is one thing, but Miami will need its young players to take the next step in their development. That is where the youth comes in.

Miami's young core

Miami needs its youth to develop into key players if it ever intends to be more than a lower tier playoff team in the East. However, this shouldn't be a problem as there are few organizations better in player development. The Heat gave Josh Richardson a four-year, $42 million extension and picked up Wayne Ellington's second-year, $6.27M option. The Heat also make sure to groom players they bring in as they'll either be playing in Miami or for Sioux Falls, the team's G-League affiliate. The Heat care about developing not only their top picks, such as Bam Adebayo, but also their undrafted free agents like Matt Williams

There are concerns about one of their young players' long-term prospects. Winslow is in a very awkward situation. Miami went on its impressive run without him, and some have argued that his absence is part of what sparked that impressive turnaround. Winslow is an interesting player that has already shown great defensive skills with potential to do more. However, his lack of range limits the Heat offensively and their desire to use him as a creator takes the ball out of more capable hands.

On the other hand, Winslow has probably taken too much blame for why the first half of last season didn't work out. Did his skill set limit Miami in ways? Yes, but the Heat also chose to be a slow-paced, grind-it-out team early on. He even missed a chunk of games from mid-November to mid-December with a wrist injury and the Heat were still struggling. Winslow going down is not why the Heat had their renaissance. It just happened to work out that way.

Whiteside and Dragic

While the Heat try to build continuity and raise their ceiling through youth, they still need players to hold the foundation as everything around them is built. This has become the role of Hassan Whiteside and Dragic. Whiteside did show progress last season despite concerns that he had already peaked as a player. 

Defensively, the Heat were still better with Whiteside on the bench with Miami, giving up 105.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor as opposed to 102.2 when he was off of it, However, his offensive contributions far outweighed his defensive shortcomings last season.

Whiteside has improved as a defender, but he still has a tendency to chase blocks at times. Offensively, he's really expanded his game from when he took the league by storm. He's still at his best near the rim, shooting over 60 percent when he's within eight feet of the rim. He also wasn't afraid to step away from the basket last season, which opens up space. The Heat were also far better offensively with him on the floor, scoring 106.7 per 100, but only 102.7 per 100 when he was on the bench.

It's debatable which player is most important for the Heat, but an argument can be made for Whiteside or Dragic. When Whiteside impacts a game, it's hard to stop him. Dragic also played a huge role for them, especially in the second half of last season. He was just as important to Miami as Whiteside on the offensive side of the ball, and the Heat really took off when they gave him an open floor to run in.

Dragic is at his best when he's given space and room to push the ball. He can be very situational like that, but Miami has been finding better ways to use him since he signed his huge contract back in 2015. As the Heat try to build up their foundation, they'll continue relying on him to help keep the offense running.

What is the goal of the season?

Considering the weak state of the Eastern Conference, this is a likely playoff team with room to grow even further depending on what the youth do. They're going to rely heavily on Dragic and Whiteside to carry the load with much-needed contributions from Waiters and Johnson. The Heat also boast a deep rotation that will greatly help keep their players fresh throughout the season.

This Heat team should finish around the .500 mark similar to last season. Continuity will probably push them north of that mark, but their ceiling is entirely dependent on the growth of their youth. Don't be surprised if players like Winslow, Richardson and Adebayo have big roles at the end of the season. That might be what Miami wants. A playoff season where all its young players take a huge step forward? That would be an overwhelming success. 

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