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June 14, 2011
Improving from Within
Projecting the Heat

by Kevin Pelton


No team has more riding on the outcome of negotiations between the NBA and its players union on a new collective bargaining agreement than the Miami Heat. In a worst-case scenario, it might eventually force Miami to break up its current roster.

The Heat locked up stars Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, as well as role players Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, for the long term last summer. In 2013-14, those six players are under contract for more than $71 million, far and away the most committed salary in the league. Only one other team, the Los Angeles Lakers, has a payroll of more than $50 million that far out. Should a new, hard salary cap be set below $70 million, Miami would have to get creative, to say the least.

For next season, staying below the salary cap is unlikely to be a problem for the Heat. As Wade noted in his news conference after Game 6, Miami's payroll was some $20 million less than that of the champion Dallas Mavericks. Still, a hard salary cap could dash the Heat's hopes of adding talent through free agency. Under the current rules, this season's team was likely to be Miami's worst roster over the next few years because of its ability to sign rotation players using the mid-level exception.

For a team like the Heat, where depth is at a premium, the midlevel exception could be a valuable weapon. Yet it may be a thing of the past under the next CBA. That would limit Miami's options for improving the current roster. The Heat's lone draft pick, the first selection of the second round (No. 31 overall) probably will not yield immediate contributions. Miami may be able to count on no more than a new round of the minimum-salary veterans that dotted the team's bench this season.

So how can the Heat get better next season? The list starts with improved health. Because of injuries, Haslem and Miller combined to play fewer than 1,200 minutes during the regular season. Both could easily top that mark next season. Though Haslem and Miller were back in the Miami rotation by the Eastern Conference finals, they weren't at 100 percent. Haslem was gradually building back his stamina, while Miller's injured wrist caused him to struggle as a shooter.

The injury was largely responsible for holding Miller to 36.4 percent three-point shooting during the regular season, his worst mark since 2002-03. In the playoffs, Miller was even worse, dropping to 29.7 percent beyond the arc. Based on his performance over the last three years and the career arc of similar players at the same age, Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE Projection System anticipates Miller climbing back above 40 percent from three-point range next season--and that's before accounting for the open shots created for him by the Heat's go-to players.

Miami might also get improved shooting from Mario Chalmers, assuming the Heat can retain him as a restricted free agent under the CBA. Chalmers' 38.1 percent mark on threes during the playoffs was one of many ways in which he stated his case to be Miami's starting point guard. While Chalmers is just a 35.0 percent career shooter from long distance during the regular season, he's at an age where most players tend to develop their range. SCHOENE sees him shooting up all the way to 38.7 percent.

As for Haslem, just having him on the floor makes the Heat a better team. Haslem, Anthony and Bosh give Erik Spoelstra three reliable frontcourt options. To fill out the post rotation, Miami would need only to sign a veteran free agent capable of handling the 5-10 minutes per game Juwan Howard played during the NBA Finals. Finding an upgrade on Howard should not be difficult, even for the minimum.

The Heat's other big need in free agency is a backup for Chalmers. Again, almost anyone Miami could find would be better than Mike Bibby was during the playoffs, when he posted a PER of 3.6--the worst, according to ESPN Insider's Tom Haberstroh, of any player with at least 400 minutes in postseason history.

The most interesting source of possible improvement comes from the Heat's stars themselves. For James and Wade, playing alongside another go-to guy of equal talent was an adjustment. Just when it seemed Miami had found a solution during the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Mavericks exposed how the Heat's offense could bog down when one star took control and the other sat in the corner.

From a statistical standpoint, neither James nor Wade was nearly as dominant this season as they had been separately in previous years. Basketball Prospectus' per-minute win percentage rating shows how much both players dropped off. In part, this is inevitable. The reason players like James and Wade use so many plays for their teams is their ability to do so without losing efficiency. The reverse aspect of that is when stars are put into smaller roles, they do not see their efficiency improve as much as role players do. A similar trend was evident with Kobe Bryant when the Lakers added Pau Gasol.

Year            James    Wade
2008-09          .839    .792
2009-10          .828    .761
2010-11          .748    .705
2011-12 (pro.)   .785    .704

Still, the magnitude by which James and Wade dropped off suggests that there is the opportunity for them to learn better how to play off each other and match their SCHOENE projections. In Wade's case, this is tempered slightly by his age. At 29, Wade is gradually transitioning out of the prime of his career. Still, the experience of the players most similar to him should be encouraging for Miami. Wade's closest statistical match at the same age is Michael Jordan, who was winning the second of his six championships at the same age. Next is Bryant, who led the Lakers to three consecutive NBA Finals starting at age 29.

Should the Heat enjoy that kind of success in June, this year's loss to Dallas will be long forgotten. But Miami's ability to get there will depend primarily on improvement from within.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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