On Jan. 13, the Miami Heat were 11-30. Three months later, they finished their season 41-41. This is the story of the NBA’s most ridiculous and difficult to believe turnaround of 2016-17 — a story that does not have a happy ending.
The Heat missed the playoffs. Many will blame the Brooklyn Nets for the most ridiculous DNP-Rest list in NBA history Wednesday vs. the Bulls. That’s not really accurate, given the Heat might not have been in this position without a few similar games.
It also misses the point. The Heat were 11-30 for half a season. Then they went 30-11 for the second half. That’s an insane thing to do, and they did it without adding anyone of substance to their roster. They did it behind a group of cast-offs and no-names and two second-tier stars who never get the credit they deserve.
It’s worth noting that the reason the 41-41 Bulls had the tiebreaker on the 41-41 Heat is because the Bulls beat the Heat in two of their three games. Both of those victories came in the first half, before the Miami magic took hold.
Let’s take the time to celebrate some of the people behind the Heat’s miraculous second half.
Waiters’ mid-March ankle sprain might have cost the Heat their playoff spot. Consider: They were 27-19 when he played, a rate that translates to 48 victories — good enough for the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. But he was a hero for major stretches this season. For the two-month stretch leading up to his injury, Waiters averaged 18.9 points and 4.9 assists as the Heat went 20-4 with him in the lineup.
This is Dion Waiters! This is the protagonist of Waiters Island, the player so selfish that the Cavaliers preferred dealing with J.R. Smith’s ego. The guy who used to jump up and down calling for the ball 35 feet from the basket. And this season, he was essentially Dwyane Wade.
The races for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player will be tough this year, as either Lou Williams or Andre Iguodala probably will win the first while Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to have the latter locked up. But if there were an award combining the two, Johnson would be the man for it.
Raptors fans — and stat-heads — long had an affinity for Johnson’s hard-nosed defense, but his offense sometimes kept him off the court. Then this year, he transformed into a point-forward with legitimate 3-point range. There were stretches where he looked like Draymond Green Light — or even more of a scorer, sometimes.
Here’s where we note that he’s a free agent. James Johnson is about to get paid.
McGruder finished up a four-year career at Kansas State in 2013. He spent a year in Hungary and two years in the NBA Development League. He was mostly forgotten. Now he’s probably deserving of an All-Rookie second team spot, having replaced injured Justise Winslow in the Heat starting lineup early in the season and held on to the role all year. There’s nothing he does that makes him particularly noticeable, but he came out of nowhere and held his role down when they needed someone to step up. That’s the story of the 2016-17 Heat in one player.
There’s probably no other team whose two best players get more flak. True, Dragic and Whiteside were not the ones to key off the second-half improvements. That’s because they were steady all season. Dragic had one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 20.2 points and 5.8 assists on 47.5% from the field and 40.5% on 3-pointers. Whiteside continued his ascent by leading the NBA with 14.1 rebounds a game and adding 16.9 points and 2.1 blocks.
Both are under long-term contracts,
Started 55 games, easily the most of his career. Still hits all his 3s. Still is Luke Babbitt.
We saved the best for last. Spoelstra should be on every Coach of the Year ballot. That rarely is the case for a coach whose team misses the playoffs, but the turnaround doesn’t happen without one of the NBA’s best coaches steering it. Spoelstra made all the right moves. Everything you just read comes back to Spoelstra, who entered this season likely planning to develop Winslow (out for the season since November) and figure out a bizarre backcourt situation.
It’s unclearly how much of the Heat’s success will translate to the future. Can they afford to keep Waiters and/or Johnson? Will those guys play as well on long-term contracts? What does Winslow have to offer if he’s healthy next year?
But with Spoelstra on the sideline, the Heat should be fine. He won his titles with LeBron James, yes, but he’s proven he can coach without him.