SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
First, let's be clear about this: The Heat, long-term, is not a better team without Chris Bosh. Teams often thrive in short sample sizes without an All-Star, as the Clippers have done without Blake Griffin.
But here’s what’s also clear: Bosh’s absence has allowed players either to move into roles that fit them better or to maximize offensive talents to levels that some Heat players previously deemed unrealistic with this team.
Some of the recent success of Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Luol Deng is simply the byproduct of the fact that more minutes and shots are available. But there's more to it than that.
Here’s what the Heat and the rest of the NBA have learned in Bosh’s absence:
### That Hassan Whiteside can be a high-volume scorer.
When Charles Barkley suggested Whiteside could average 20 points, Bosh scoffed at that, saying even 18 a game was unrealistic for Whiteside with a full roster. But since Bosh was sidelined by a blood clot, Whiteside is averaging 18.5 points since the All-Star break, compared with 12.2 before the break.
That’s a byproduct of playing bigger minutes (31.4 since Bosh’s health scare, 28.2 before) and taking more shots (11.9 field-goal attempts per game after to 8.2 before). “My numbers went up because my role went up,” he said.
But it’s also the result of the development of his mid-range jumper. Though the Heat doesn’t want him taking his jumper early in the shot clock, he’s shooting 48 percent from 10 to 19 feet since the All-Star break, compared with 40.7 percent before (22 for 54).
Whiteside said he comes to AmericanAirlines Arena to work on his jumper at 10 or 11 p.m. about twice a week when the Heat is home. He said he came to the arena to shoot jumpers in the middle of the night (around 2 a.m.) one night during the All-Star break.
“You have to close out a little more” on his jumper now, Chicago’s Pau Gasol told our Manny Navarro, “because he's proven that he can knock it down."
It also helps that Whiteside, who shot 50 percent on free throws last season, is 28 for his last 30 and “shooting [free throws] better than everyone on our team right now,” Dwyane Wade said.
Whiteside has been laser-focused since a 90-minute meeting with Spoelstra, in his office, during the All-Star break. So what happened in that meeting?
“He told me I'm a top-15 player talent [wise]. It's just if I'm willing to come out and play like it every night,” Whiteside said. “Spo's motto is 1 percent better. I can come out here and have 10 blocks. It doesn't matter.
"He talks about being a better defender, being a better offensive player, being a better teammate, being a better person. We have an understanding of each other. We talked for so long. Me and coach Spo, we worked our way up to get here. Spo is my guy.”
Teammates notice a difference. Dragic said Whiteside is more engaged, “more focused. Sometimes you tried to tell him something [previously] and he didn’t listen too much. Now he’s doing that. The communication goes both ways.
“It's not only about listening, it's about talking --- to give information out and receive information. He's listening to the players and coaches and he's doing his thing. It's the most relaxed I've seen him. He's just happy. He's found that last step he needs in his game.”
Wade said Whiteside came back from the All-Star break “a different person on the floor and really focusing and being dominant night in and night out."
### That Deng is better suited to power forward.
In 44 starts at small forward this season, Deng averaged 12.2 points and 5.3 rebounds and had one double-figure rebounding game.
In nine starts at power forward since the All-Star break, he has five double-figure rebounding games and is averaging 17.4 points and 9.3 rebounds.
So does Deng see himself playing power forward the rest of his career?
“Definitely,” he said. “No matter what happens from here on out, the rest of my career, I will play some at the four [power forward], maybe a lot more at the four. Golden State is made of guys with similar heights. It makes the game faster and dynamic in terms of spacing. You have so many good guards in this league now and they want space.”
Golden State’s Andre Iguodola says Deng’s value at the four epitomizes what teams are trying to achieve: “Can you be versatile with supposedly a perimeter guy at the four?” Iguodola said.
With Deng at power forward, the Heat has “a little more speed, they’re a little more perimeter oriented, they spread the floor a little better," Iguodola said. "The guy can knock down shots. He's got good size and height where he can go down there and be really versatile.”
Using a three-man power rotation of Whiteside, Bosh and Deng would be ideal next season, but there might not be cap space to achieve that.
### That Dragic is still capable of putting up the type of numbers he produced during his third-team All-NBA season in Phoenix two years ago.
Dragic averaged 12 points, 5.3 assists before the All-Star break but began to play better before Bosh was sidelined. Dragic's averages since the All-Star break: 18.8 points and 7.4 assists.
Because the Heat is playing at a faster tempo, he’s said he’s genuinely comfortable for the first time as a member of the Heat.
“I feel like the old Goran,” he said Friday night, after his third double-digit assist game of the season. “It’s helped me to increase the pace.”
Deng’s move to power forward and Joe Johnson’s acquisition have helped. And Wade’s willingness to play up-tempo has, too.
Here’s a story: After the Heat, without Wade, scored 115 points against Atlanta in its first game after the All-Star break, Wade got up and gave a “speech” to teammates the next day, Dragic said.
The message? According to Dragic, Wade "said: 'We want to play like last game. Play your game. I am going to adapt, don't worry about that.’”
Dragic’s play has made it far less likely that Miami would trade him this summer and try to sign Mike Conley.
If Miami continues playing this well without Bosh, the question is inevitable: Shouldn’t having Bosh make this team substantially better than it was in the first half of the season?
It’s a question Pat Riley will need to reconcile when he mulls whether to use most of his ample cap space on players from his own team.
### Mario Williams had breakfast with the Dolphins this morning and leaves Miami today, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson, who said yesterday that Williams wants to visit with four or five teams. The Giants are reportedly among them.
Regardless of whether they sign Williams or not, one thing is clear: The Dolphins' current $15 million in cap space won't be enough to address myriad needs, plus sign a draft class and have a few million left over to sign a practice squad and have available as a late-summer safety net.
That's why it's vital that the Dolphins execute a restructure with Jordan Cameron to lower his $9.5 million cap number; talks are ongoing. If Olivier Vernon's transition tag is rescinded, or if he signs elsewhere, that will free up another $12.7 million in cap space.
### Feedback we get is that Dolphins players are now fully expecting Ryan Tannehill’s audible powers to increase in a meaningful way and for Adam Gase to be bold and aggressive on offense. We believe he is going to be different from Joe Philbin in terms of risk taking.
### The Dolphins have told people that a player’s character, passion for football and off-field comportment will be an even bigger part of the equation than past years in offseason personnel moves. They don’t want a repeat of the Dion Jordan fiasco.
### Drew Stanton is among those the Dolphins plan to consider for their backup quarterback job. They have not reached out to free agent incumbent backup Matt Moore, according to his agent.
### UM athletic director Blake James met with architects last week about a proposed indoor football practice facility, but Miami still needs a large donation to finance the $17 million project. It’s also a priority to Mark Richt, who is willing to help with fundraising.
James said UM has sold over 5000 season tickets since Richt’s hiring and is on pace for its highest-season ticket total since moving to Sun Life Stadium in 2008. UM is hoping to top 40,000.
### Marlins ace Jose Fernandez admits he was hurt by offseason stories (from WINZ’s Andy Slater and others) quoting teammates anonymously and suggesting some of them don’t like him.
“A lot of teammates called me [about that] and said, ‘We don’t know what’s going on,'" he said. "It’s not the case. If that was the case, it would be obvious. I’ve learned a lot. I try to be a good teammate, trying to teach [the young players]. [Former Marlins pitcher] Dan Haren taught me so much. You will make mistakes.”
Not every teammate gets along, and Fernandez’s brashness and cockiness have undoubtedly rubbed some the wrong way, as Slater correctly noted.
But Fernandez seemed more subdued early in camp.
He said he’s pleased he wasn’t traded: “I love being a Marlin. I love pitching at home [where he’s 17-0]. I’m really happy. If we can work out [a contract beyond 2018], great.”
But the Marlins believe he likely won't be here after that because of agent Scott Boras’ expected demands.