MIAMI (AP) — There was no need for introductions when the Miami Heat got to work this season.
It’s the same team as last year.
That won’t be the case next year.
Dwyane Wade‘s 16th NBA season, almost all of which was spent in Miami, will be his last — and the Heat are determined to send the franchise’s career leader in just about everything out the right way. Miami slogged its way through injuries to make the playoffs last season, and in an Eastern Conference that seems more open than it has now that LeBron James has moved West the Heat are hoping to send Wade off with a deep postseason run.
“I’m going to treat it with the appropriate respect,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Wade’s final season. “I want him to know that I’m going to give it everything I have to make sure it goes the way that he wants it to — and then in turn, for him to give everything he has to make sure this team goes the way we want it to.”
Wade wouldn’t have it any other way.
He labored over this decision to come back or not, spending most of the summer leaning heavily toward retirement. But the idea of one last full season in Miami, one more series of moments, one more year to impart wisdom on a locker room that rallies around him, it was all too much to ignore.
“They want to be competitive,” Wade said. “We’re not just coming in saying, ‘Hey, we’re just going to keep growing every year.’ No, they want to get to the playoffs, they want to win in the playoffs, they want to go further and further. That’s what we’re going to go through this year.”
Miami won the Southeast Division last season, but had at least five players dealing with injuries by the time the playoffs started. The Heat postseason run ended in five games with a quick ouster by Philadelphia.
“We know, with the guys we have, we can be better,” said point guard Goran Dragic, Miami’s lone All-Star last season.
Wade won’t start, but he’ll still lead — and like Dragic said, he sees no reason why Miami can’t exceed what it did a year ago, especially since the entire rotation that ended last season is back.
“I know my game,” Wade said. “I know what I’m still capable of.”
Here’s some of what to know going into the Heat season:
ONE LAST DANCE
Wade’s final season will have some victory-lap, farewell-tour elements to it — but neither he nor the Heat are viewing this as entirely ceremonial. He’s going to be a critical part of what they do on the floor, in terms of finishing games. Spoelstra may rest Wade in some back-to-backs, a move that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the 12-time All-Star turns 37 in January, but when it matters most No. 3 will most likely be the No. 1 option.
Miami opens with seven of its first nine games against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season, which could provide the Heat — who won’t be at full strength when the season begins because of injuries to James Johnson and others — with the chance to get off to a good start. The finish could be challenging, since Miami has nine of its final 13 games on the road.
It might be several weeks before Heat guard Dion Waiters, who had surgery to fix his long-problematic left ankle, is ready to get back into the Miami rotation. Waiters has played in only 76 games in his first two Miami seasons. The Heat have no shortage of wings with Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Derrick Jones Jr., Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson and Wade all among those primed for minutes, so Waiters likely won’t be rushed. When he comes back, Spoelstra’s challenge of managing minutes will only get tougher.
Last season was better off forgotten for Heat center Hassan Whiteside, who had three extended absences because of injuries and was a total non-factor during Miami’s five-game playoff exit against Philadelphia. Whiteside averaged 5.2 points and 6.0 rebounds in those five games, spending most of his time on the bench. The Heat need Whiteside engaged and happy this season, both of which have been constant challenges. An example of how impactful he can be: When Whiteside blocked multiple shots in a game last season, Miami was 19-9. When he played and had less than two blocks, the Heat were 11-15.
The Heat set a team record for 3-pointers made last season, and Wayne Ellington set a team record for 3s by an individual by making 227 — even though he started only two of the 77 games in which he appeared. Miami was 18-5 when Ellington made 50 percent or more of his 3s in a game, 24-30 when he played and missed more than half of his attempts from distance.