Just as quickly as success landed in Miami, with the signings of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in that landmark summer of 2010, it has blown away as quickly, like dry sand on South Beach.
The Heat were the league’s villains for four years, a team constructed to win immediately through free agency and a slew of complementary players on discount contracts. And the Heat reached the NBA Finals all four seasons James, Bosh, and Dwyane Wade played together, winning two championships.
But James stunned the basketball world by returning to Cleveland, Bosh began experiencing career-threatening blood clots, and Wade signed with his hometown Chicago Bulls after becoming the most heralded Heat player of all time.
So coach Erik Spoelstra, still youthful-looking despite the stress, is left with a gutted, injury-riddled roster that is headed for the draft lottery. The Heat didn’t anticipate Wade leaving or Bosh continuing to be sidelined, so the transition has been rough.
What’s more, the incumbent players haven’t stayed healthy. Second-year forward Justise Winslow is out for the year after shoulder surgery. Josh McRoberts is out indefinitely with a foot issue. Goran Dragic has battled back problems.
Spoelstra is essentially starting from scratch, relying on a base of young players such as Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson, along with a group of journeymen, to stay competitive. That’s been difficult for Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley to digest.
“You’d have to ask the players if I’m different, but we’re trying to develop this team,” Spoelstra said. “There’s big ceilings with a lot of the guys. But we’re all in the process every single day of getting this team better, developing. I’m invigorated by it, regardless of what the record is. But we’re able to step back and put it in perspective and look at the big picture and the team is getting better.
“We’re forming an identity. We’re getting more consistent. In terms of learning how to win, learning how to make winning plans, sometimes when you have veteran players, a lot of that is understood, but a team like this, it has to be developed. It’s an invigorating process.”
Spoelstra took over the Heat after they went 15-67 under Riley in 2007-08. The club then drafted Michael Beasley second overall — which didn’t work out — but Spoelstra was able to guide a Wade-led team to consecutive playoff appearances before James and Bosh joined on.
The Heat’s current situation is moderately similar, but Spoelstra doesn’t consider it a retooling effort. Whiteside signed a maximum contract to become the team’s cornerstone center. Winslow is a keeper if he can stay healthy. Tyler Johnson signed a five-year contract extension and could develop into a solid shooting guard. There is hope, but the regeneration of the Heat will take time.
“I don’t use the word ‘rebuild,’ ” Spoelstra said. “We’re developing this team. It’s easy for me to step back and have perspective. I am humbled and absolutely grateful to be coaching in this profession. We’re always trying to put together a team that can compete for an NBA title. This is my 22nd year with the Heat and we’ve been to the Finals five times and won three championships, so what about all those other years? There’s a lot of other years that you’re not winning it, you’re not the last team, you’re not where you want to be, but ultimately this is a profession I am grateful and humbled to be part of.
“To be part of an organization that has those expectations and standards every year, whatever word you want to use, we’ve had to do it before, several times, retool, rebuild, and we’ve done it quicker than most. That’s because of the commitment to develop and build these standards.”
The Heat have drafted well, are headed for another lottery pick, and will have a healthy Winslow next season. The club will have to come to a resolution with Bosh, who wants to return, but the Heat have no plans to clear him to play.
Bosh has two years and $51 million left on his contract and the club can waive him Feb. 9 and apply for a medical hardship for salary-cap relief.
Miami will then have a chance to pursue a major free agent, jump-starting its return to respectability.
“It’s a competitive league and everybody wants to be that last team, but who has a coherent plan? Who’s committed to that plan? Who’s disciplined for that plan when there’s a lot of noise and it’s not necessarily getting the results that you want?” Spoelstra said. “We’re able to see great promise, hope, and progress with this team. If you know anything about our organization, we have a plan.”
Kings’ Barnes showing growth
Your surprise No. 8 seed in the Western Conference entering the weekend: the Kings, led by the mercurial DeMarcus Cousins and an array of personalities on the bench. One of them is swingman Matt Barnes, who is in his second tenure in Sacramento and his 11th NBA stop in 14 years.
Barnes, 36, is known for his hard fouls, brash personality, and constant flirtation with trouble. But in Sacramento, there is more of a need for a voice of reason. This is not to say Barnes has become the Kings’ sitcom dad, but he is trying to become more of a calming influence than in years past, when he spoke his mind.
The Kings again brought in a new group of players with hopes of supporting Cousins as they seek success in their new arena, the Golden 1 Center. The franchise was close to relocating to Seattle before Sacramento’s then-mayor, Kevin Johnson, and team owner Vivek Ranadive saved the team and put together an arena plan.
Barnes is a Sacramento native. He came home to uplift his team, but Barnes’s image doesn’t scream “uplifting.” He has spent years at the top of the technical foul and flagrant foul lists. He has spent his career being a staunch defender on the edge, testing his limits, talking tough, fouling hard, and always ready to defend himself.
He is definitely old school in a league where players dap each other before games and exchange jerseys and shoes afterward.
Barnes shakes his head in disappointment at this NBA buddy system.
“The league is just too soft, too chummy,” he said.
Barnes believes he’s a target of officials, but he has lasted in the league so long because of his defensive intensity. An NBA coach once said every good team needs a “crazy guy” on its roster, one who plays with unmatched passion and vigor, unafraid of any challenge, and pushes the emotional envelope. That describes Barnes.
“I hope it’s just contagious, the energy I play with, the defensive mentality I bring; from everything I’ve heard, it’s been a good carryover,” he said of his first season back in Sacramento. “We want to continue to grow. Everything is new. Half the team is new. New coach and we’re trying to build new habits here and nothing happens overnight.”
Barnes played 43 games with the Kings in 2004-05, his second NBA stop before being traded to Philadelphia. “It’s a blessing to be back, period. The first time I was here is when the Kings were really good. When they had everybody, and then I was part of that [Chris] Webber trade that kind of broke that dynasty up,” he said. “So the second time around I’m the old guy. Before I was the baby. To be the old guy and be coming home and trying to help this team get back on the map, it’s been great.”
Last summer, Barnes signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with a player option in the second year. There was a market for Barnes, who shot a career-low 38.1 percent from the field last season with Memphis.
“It came down to the Clippers, Warriors, and Sacramento kind of jumped in late,” he said. “[Coming home] was always something I wanted to do. I just didn’t know it was going to happen. I just happened to be home for the Fourth of July visiting my family and I signed. It was kind ironic that I just happened to be in Sacramento when they called.”
Barnes said he was close to returning to the Clippers, although it was Doc Rivers who traded him to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson in 2015. Ten days later, the Hornets traded Barnes to Memphis.
“I thought it was a done deal, I was going to the Clippers,” said Barnes. “The day before I was supposed to meet with Doc, they decided to go in another direction with Wesley Johnson. That was obviously my first choice at the time, to be close to my kids. Golden State was always a choice; they just didn’t have very much money. I’ve always been the guy to take less money to play on a better team, but the price gap was too far on this one.
“It’s always been a dream and a goal of mine to come back home at some point. To get a chance to play with DeMarcus, Rudy [Gay], and some of these guys has been a great experience.”
The Kings have played well of late, which likely takes Cousins off the trade block. Barnes admires Cousins’s skills, and the two definitely carry a similar mind-set.
“I’ve played with a lot of Hall of Famers, a lot of great players, but to me, as far as big men go, [Cousins is] probably the most skilled, versatile big man I’ve ever played with,” Barnes said. “So to be able to play with him, night in and night out and know that he’s a nasty big guy, it’s fun.
“Me and him on the same team has been a lot of trouble for the referees this season. But it’s fun. We’re both still growing as we play and we’re going to make something good out of it.”
Barnes has collected four technical fouls, a low total for him considering Russell Westbrook leads the NBA with 10.
Barnes has limited his controversial on-court moments, but he said being volatile is his nature. As a second-round pick in 2002, Barnes was considered a long shot to stick in the NBA. That was 15 years ago.
“Just appreciating where I came from. I wasn’t supposed to make it. If I didn’t play with that chip, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I played football, too. I’ve always been a physical-type guy. Sustaining that chip and always trying to prove myself I think is what has had me last this long. I’ve always had a good head on my shoulders. I’m just a very passionate player. I play with my emotion and my heart on my sleeve.
“I think DeMarcus does the same thing and what I’m trying to show him now is we’ve got to keep our emotions and our energy focused towards the right things. It could be detrimental to the team if it gets out of hand.
“I’m the guy that people don’t like, which is fine with me. That drives me, it keeps the chip on my shoulder, keeps me with a high level of energy. It’s something I look forward to. I’ve been underpaid, that’s for sure. I’ve definitely been underpaid. No matter what, I’ve always been able to get quality minutes on the team and that’s all I really look for.”
So what has caused Barnes to tone down his on-court antics and become a voice of reason?
“I think I’ve lost like $600,000 over my career for fines, so it’s time to just kind of wake up and realize they don’t like you, so you’ve got to stick to the book,” he said.
Bennett’s best fit was in football
Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett is one of the NFL’s better tight ends and he has flourished under Bill Belichick. But did you know Bennett was a talented basketball player in high school and declared for the 2005 NBA Draft — the last year prep players could go straight to the pros — out of Alief Taylor High in Houston?
Bennett didn’t hire an agent and eventually withdrew his name and attended Texas A&M on a football scholarship. But if you ask him, Bennett could be an NBA star right now.
“I worked out for several teams and my mom really wanted me to go to college,” he said. “A lot of people told me I was a late first-round or early second-round pick and a lot of teams I would have to work out for [that were drafting] in the late first round were still in the playoffs. You had that deadline and my mom wanted me to go to school.”
Martellus joined the Texas A&M basketball team after football season.
“I was terrible,” he said. “I went from an outside guy to a tight end that had to lift weights and go to class. I didn’t have time to really [play] games. I never played with my back toward the basket [in high school].”
Bennett said he was nearly 260 pounds, which didn’t translate well to the basketball court. He said he stopped playing basketball in the middle of his sophomore season, but he considered playing again while preparing for the NFL Draft. Bennett said he got a call from a coach asking if he would play against archrival Texas, which featured a sensational freshman named Kevin Durant.
“I was like, ‘Let me think about it, Coach,’ ” Bennett said. “And my agent was like, ‘No don’t do it.’ All the [football] guys think they can play basketball. I still play in the offseason. It’s fun.”
There could be major changes in Atlanta after the Hawks decided to move 3-point sharpshooter Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers for a protected first-round pick. The Hawks were burned by Al Horford’s free agency — he left Atlanta for the Celtics, with the Hawks receiving no compensation — so management plans to turn its impending free agents into assets. Paul Millsap could be next to go as he as an opt-out clause this summer that he plans to exercise. Tiago Splitter, who has barely played because of numerous injuries, has an expiring $8.2 million contract. Kris Humphries, Thabo Sefolosha, and Mike Scott are also impending free agents and would have value around the league. Among non-rookies, the Hawks have only Dennis Schroder, Dwight Howard, and Kent Bazemore signed beyond next season. Would the Celtics be interested in Millsap? Some things would likely need to happen: Millsap would have to agree to honor the final year of his contract and the Celtics would have to offer the Hawks a chip for the long-term future — likely one of those Brooklyn picks — along with the expiring contract of Amir Johnson and likely another starter to match up salaries. It would be quite a sacrifice for the Celtics, and it would also mean Horford would have to move to center, a position he would prefer not to play . . . Celtics second-round pick Abdel Nader is faring well for NBADL Maine. He is leading the Red Claws at 21.8 points per game and shooting 38.2 percent from the 3-point line. He should get a long look for the Celtics’ roster next season.
There are a slew of free agents coming off injuries who could help teams for the stretch run. Jarrett Jack (torn ACL), Lance Stephenson (torn groin), and Mario Chalmers (torn Achilles’) are all nearing full health. Meanwhile, teams are beginning to clear roster space for available players.