Whether the Miami Heat want to acknowledge it or not, the uncertainty of the future will trail them throughout this season.
That is a natural byproduct when 14 of the 15 players on the roster are scheduled to be free agents or can opt out of their contracts at the end of the season. Considering they’re the two-time champs, it’s a situation that hasn’t been seen since the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.
But there’s a flip side to that reality and it appears the Heat are going to benefit from it. The combination of players thinking about their next contracts and the respect being paid to an improving Eastern Conference has led to a fit and focused team from the first day of training camp. It looks to have blown any championship hangover right off. Signs of malaise or contentment, typical symptoms of success, were not to be found around the Heat over the last month.
Compared to last season especially, the Heat have been generally all business and appear to be intent on avoiding an uneven start like they experienced in 2012-13.
“Just about everyone came to camp at about the same weight and body fat they had during the Finals or less,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is an extremely focused group and they came into this season with a work mindset.”
The Heat finished 66-16 last season, which certainly was impressive. But their performance was a little lopsided. They started the season 25-12, which was just fine, but below their own expectation. Of the first 18 games they played against eventual playoff teams, they were just 10-8. Over the first 20 games of the season, they were giving up nearly 100 points a game.
Of course they finished the regular season a breathtaking 41-4 and by March they’d sliced off eight points a game from their opponents’ scoring average.
But as they look around the East with the Bulls getting Derrick Rose back plus the upgrades the Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers made, the Heat players have made it a mission to avoid what they considered a sluggish start last year.
Last year Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen had offseason surgery and eased their way into the season. LeBron James had an exhaustive summer playing for Team USA and only had a few days off between the end of the Finals and the start of training camp. Spoelstra decided to skip two-a-days to give his ailing and aging players some rest and midway through the preseason the team went to China for a week and was thrown off their schedules.
That and some satisfaction from winning the Finals 4-1 over the Oklahoma City Thunder was a recipe that saw the team not play at its best very much over the season’s first three months. Their reaction to various losses, even against contenders, was usually a collective shrug. In the end, it didn’t matter, because the Heat ended up going on one of the hottest streaks in league history to secure the No. 1 overall seed and eventually get two deciding Game 7s at home.
The veteran-laden team is not giving off the impression they assume that’s how it’ll work out again. The No. 1 seed this season may be harder to attain and therefore even more valuable.
“We won games early last year and didn't look good,” Shane Battier said. “We dropped a few that, looking back at it, we should have won. We know the Eastern Conference is highly competitive. We scraped by to get out of the Eastern Conference last year. Obviously, we want to play our best basketball at the end. That doesn't mean we can't start at a higher level and build toward that.”
The difference in the team’s attitude this year has been palpable. Spoelstra was gassing players with defensive drills in two-a-day workouts from day one and the players made it a theme throughout training camp.
“We didn't start off the season like we wanted to defensively last year,” James said. “But we knew. I think when you have a problem and you face it, it's very correctable, and we knew that. So one thing we talked about was defending. Everyone has bought in to what we’re trying to do.”
Wade and Chris Bosh came to camp in the best shape they’ve been in since the team was formed in 2010. Allen switched to a new diet and lost 10 pounds. Mario Chalmers gave up fried food and got into a weight-loss bet with Allen, which is a losing proposition but hardly the point. He has also given up crab dip unless it’s in his native Alaska after a bad batch before a preseason game in Washington ruined his night.
Nonetheless, there’s no questioning they’re all motivated to win a third title but there’s no missing the fact that all of them have the personal motivation to make a statement before contract negotiations. The circumstances are all different but these players have various things to prove before the Heat or another team makes them offers.
As for James, he took extended time off for the first time since the 2011 lockout but still is playing at his lowest weight in several years. James has closely guarded his weight for various reasons. At one point he went over 270 pounds but is back down to around 260 even though he’s been listed at 250 for years now.
Some nagging injuries and planned rest didn’t make the Heat’s preseason games look all the impressive. But they treated a game in New Orleans last week as a full dress rehearsal and the team’s core of James, Wade, Bosh and Allen combined for 75 points, 18 rebounds and 17 assists in a 13-point win in a game that very much resembled the team that blitzed through the league in the second half of last season.
That performance alone sent enough of a message. There’s way too much at stake and too much unpredictability to mess around. Just in case, the Heat have the look of a team that intends to play this season with no guarantees of another chance.
“Guys did an unbelievable job with as little time that we had off to get their rest a little bit, but also come in in great shape and come in prepared for a season,” Wade said. “We approached training camp the right kind of way.”