Google the terms “Miami Heat” and “tank” and you are as likely to get results about Hassan Whiteside’s fish tank with the spinning Heat logo as the Pat Riley-led franchise trying to play the lottery game.
So, no, this is not about this uneven start by Erik Spoelstra’s team.
But it is about the unusual focus this season, with France’s Victor Wembanyama seemingly standing as a LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Tim Duncan level of No. 1-pick prize.
Commissioner Adam Silver has gone on record about concerns, going as far as to offer off-the-cuff comments about soccer-style relegation, as if the NBA ever would/could promote the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Fort Wayne Mad Ants or Lakeland Magic. (Can you imagine Los Angeles Lakers vs. Delaware Blue Coats at the arena formerly known as Staples Center?)
But the tanking prospect is real, with concern already in San Antonio, Utah and Charlotte about squandering early-season wins (yes, you read that correctly).
In a sport where only five play, one can make all the difference — as was the championship case with LeBron and Shaq, and, in San Antonio, was the case squared with Robinson and Duncan.
Which brings us back to the Heat, a team that insists during the Riley regime it would never drop to the depths of a tank, but already has done so at least twice.
The first time was in 2008, when the thought was that Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley could be such ultimate lottery-level prizes. The Heat by the end of that season were playing the likes of Stephane Lasme, Blake Ahearn and Kasib Powell, falling to No. 2 in the lottery and settling for Beasley (with a less-than-super-cool outcome).
Then came the 2015 season finale that the Heat thought they had to lose to retain better odds for the rights to a top-10 pick. That one was a doozy, with Beasley, Henry Walker, James Ennis and Tyler Johnson playing all 48 minutes that night against the Philadelphia 76ers, and with Zoran Dragic limited to 41 only by foul trouble (Udonis Haslem played the other seven minutes, as the Heat’s lone substitute).
As it was, even with a victory over the even more loss-desperate 18-64 76ers, the Heat still were able to maintain their lottery position.
As Silver pointed out in an ESPN interview, with the league since 2019 flattening the lottery odds, with the three worst records each receiving a 14-percent chance for the first pick, tanking no longer has to be taken to the 15-67 extreme of those 2007-08 Heat. Last season, 23 wins still shared among the top odds.
“It’s one of these things where there’s no perfect solution,” Silver said, “but we still think a draft is the right way to rebuild your league over time.”
But as the start of this season has shown, players still play to win, be it former Heat guard Josh Richardson in San Antonio or former Heat center Kelly Olynyk in Utah, both of whom have had their early-season moments.
To a degree, with 20 of the 30 teams at least being given some type of playoff opportunity when counting the play-in round, it makes it easier for teams at the start of the season to play it both ways.
But as Haslem said during the Heat’s three-game western swing, there still is empathy for players on teams playing more for French fare than a diet of victory.
Because, yes, he was on both those 2007-08 and ‘14-15 must-lose Heat rosters.
“It got to suck, that’s got to suck, I couldn’t imagine. I wouldn’t want to be a part of a team like that,” he said of this season’s lottery chasers. “Unfortunately, sometimes the business side of things takes precedence over the athletic part or the competitive part. Sometimes the business comes first.”
Instead, Haslem has been part of plenty one-and-done Heat rosters when it has come to playoff rounds.
“I would hate to be in a situation like that,” he said of rosters expected to lose, and lose a lot. “I love the fact that we’re competitive every year. I love the fact that we do our homework and do our due diligence and we find guys outside of the lottery that can come in and contribute, and we compete every year.
“If it wasn’t for that, there wouldn’t be opportunities for undrafted guys like myself.”
The slog to the finish line in 2008 was one he would not wish for any of this season’s tankers.
“I wanted to be part of that season,” he said, insisting he could have ruined the Heat’s lottery odds. “When I had [foot] surgery, I cried, because I wanted to go out with those guys.”
Still, there will be games like this coming Friday in Indiana, where it is clear the Pacers are playing for the future and the lottery and, hopefully, international intrigue.
“I understand, once again, the business side takes precedence over competition,” Haslem said. “I look around and see what Utah is doing. I see the pattern. But it sucks to be the guys there right now, in that position.”
Over the summer, Haslem attended Olynyk’s wedding. With Olynyk on the rebuilding Detroit Pistons at the time, Haslem mentioned trying to get his friend back to the Heat, Instead, Olynyk became part of Danny Ainge’s teardown in Utah.
“In those situations, I would tell those guys to play as hard as they can,” Haslem said. “Because at the end of the day, you’re still auditioning for another team in another situation.”
IN THE LANE
CASH SAVINGS: It turns out the Heat regained (at least temporarily) about $30,000 of salary space under the luxury tax with the NBA’s one-game suspensions of Caleb Martin and Nikola Jovic for last Saturday’s fracas against the Toronto Raptors. Teams receive salary-cap relief from NBA suspensions but not team suspensions (such as those doled out by the Heat to Dion Waiters during the 2019-20 season). However, that extra cap relief in such cases as Martin and Jovic can be lost if a player successfully appeals such suspensions, with that total then reinstated against the cap, even if well after the fact.
SURVEY SAYS: The NBA’s annual survey of opening-night rosters offered several interesting perspectives on the Heat.
— With Udonis Haslem at 42 the NBA’s oldest player, the Heat stand as the league’s second-oldest team, at an average age of 28.13 years on opening night, just behind the Milwaukee Bucks’ 29.47. In fact, four of the NBA’s oldest players have spent time with the Heat, when factoring in 38-year-old Andre Iguodala and 36-year-old P.J. Tucker and LeBron James.
— In terms of longest tenure, Haslem and James are tied at 20 seasons, with Heat point guard Kyle Lowry tied for fifth at 17 seasons.
— With Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, the Heat are part of Kentucky’s league-leading 27 players on NBA rosters, with Duke second at 21. On the other end of the spectrum, the Heat’s Haywood Highsmith, out of Wheeling University, is one of two players directly out of NCAA Division II school in the league (with Houston Rockets guard Trevor Hudgins, Northwest Missouri State, the other).
— The Nos. 3, 5 and 8 are tied as the NBA’s most popular, each worn by 22 players. The Heat have retired No. 3 in honor of Dwyane Wade, with Nikola Jovic wearing No. 5 and Jamal Cain No. 8 this season.
— The Heat’s Caleb Martin and Charlotte Hornets twin Cody Martin are one of 13 sets of brothers in the league.
TIME TRAVEL: While there is no betting line about how far on the court Erik Spoelstra will wander to gain a referee’s attention to get a timeout, it again became problematic for him during the two-game series against Toronto, when Spoelstra could not avert a late-game jump-ball situation with Tyler Herro. And it’s not as if Spoelstra didn’t try. “Tyler did see me, Tyler the official,” Spoelstra said of when he and Kyle Lowry were attempting to get a timeout from referee Tyler Ford. “But we were screaming timeout. It’s tough.” In an Oct. 2019 game in Milwaukee, Spoelstra famously darted across the court in an attempt to signal a timeout after being ignored, almost reaching the opposite sideline before being noticed. “That’s why I have made the point when I’ve gotten scolded for running out on the court,” Spoelstra said. “How else can you get somebody’s attention at that point? I know I can if I get on that wood. And everybody says, ‘Oh, OK.’ ” The solution? A buzzer a coach hits that makes a distinct noise not to automatically stop play, but alerts officials that an immediate timeout is being requested.
ROLE PLAYER: Among the bright spots amid the unexpected solid start by Portland has been the play of former Heat forward Justise Winslow, who has gone from the Heat to the Memphis Grizzlies to the Los Angeles Clippers to the Trail Blazers since being dealt by the Heat at the 2020 NBA trading deadline. “I think he has fit in,” Spoelstra said of Winslow’s reserve role in Portland. “I think the most important thing with Justise is his health. He’s been battling injuries the last couple of years, so it’s been tough for him to find a role where he can really make an impact. But he does so many of the intangibles defensively.” Like the Heat had, the Blazers are utilizing Winslow across the positional spectrum. “I think they’ve really brought out his strengths, on both ends of the court,” Spoelstra said.
23. Age gap between Heat rookie Nikola Jovic (19) and Heat captain Udonis Haslem (42), when the two appeared in the same game in Wednesday night’s victory in Portland. The only other time an NBA team had players in the same game with at least a 23-year age gap was the 2004-05 Atlanta Hawks, in games when they featured Kevin Willis (42) and Josh Smith (19).