Manso: Heat heading to NBA Playoffs with better seed than you think

MIAMI – The Heat ended the 2016-2017 season wishing they had played even more basketball.  To a man, every player in Miami’s locker room felt they could have made some noise in the playoffs and had more to prove with this team.

They’re finally getting that chance.

While the Heat didn’t make the playoffs last season, they played like a playoff team over the final 41 games.  That 30-11 record was impressive, but it still wasn’t enough to extend the season.

It was enough though to show Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra that this core deserved another shot.

Miami returns virtually the same team with just some minor tweaks.  

Newcomer Kelly Olynyk and first round pick Bam Adebayo are welcome additions to the rotation. Olynyk, particularly, was an interesting move.  While fans were hoping to land a “whale” in free agency, Riley and gang surprised most by signing the former Celtics center/forward.

Spo has raved in camp about the addition, as have Heat players who couldn’t stand playing against him when he was in Boston.  They love having him on their side now.  He will give Spo a solid player in the rotation off the bench or even as a starter.  As usual, the Heat head coach isn’t tipping his hand.

As for Adebayo, he showed glimpses of his potential in training camp and in exhibition games, but I would temper by expectations.  The Heat have a very deep roster, and he’ll have to earn any minutes he gets.  I was impressed by his physical stature and even his ball-handling, but he’s still raw.  The Heat won’t force feed him into the rotation.

Miami gets a healthy Justise Winslow back, which is essentially an addition to the roster.  The 3rd year forward barely played last season before having shoulder surgery that ended his sophomore campaign.

I’ll say this now because I know Heat fans will read this and wonder the same thing; Did Winslow improve his shooting?

I honestly have no idea.  That’s not avoiding the question, but the reality is Winslow can only keep telling us he’s improved so much.  We have to see it.  

The exhibition season didn’t show us much on his shot, but what we did continue to see is how dynamic he can be as a defender, rebounder, finisher and even ball-handler.

Winslow has skills.  Miami hasn’t given up on his potential at all.  They expect him to be a key contributor this season, and I would tell you to do the same.  

Like last season, he is likely the “x-factor” for the Heat entering the season.

As for the mainstays on the roster, the Heat has no superstar player, but what they do have is a deep, versatile roster that gives Spo a lot of options.

Waiters Island is back!  

It can be argued that Dion Waiters was the most important player on the team last season.  Miami was 8 games over .500 in games he played, and the Heat likely missed the playoffs because of his late season ankle injury.

When healthy, he’s still the same wildly confident player who isn’t afraid to take the big shot.  That used to be a knock against him, but the Heat used it as his strength.  On the Heat, Waiters is the alpha dog.  The guy Spo explains has “irrational confidence,” is the player who Miami will turn to in the biggest moments.

Meanwhile, James Johnson also returns, like Waiters, after signing a big offseason contract.  The Heat believes they have a find in Johnson.  He’s a player who showed limited potential during his NBA career until Miami, but the Heat got him in the best shape of his life, and now he’s a building block.

Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are the leaders on this team from a nightly expectation and production standpoint.  Each is so good at what they do.  

Dragic makes the offense go with his ability to play at a fast tempo and attack the basket, while Whiteside can set the tempo early with his inside game and defensive ability.

I expect both to have even bigger seasons for Miami as they get more comfortable with their roles are players the team counts on.

The younger core is where I’m really curious to see what happens. 

Josh Richardson will likely step into a starting role with Rodney McGruder out for a few months because of ankle surgery.  Richardson had a strong finish to last season after dealing with injuries, and the Heat rewarded him with a new long-term contract.

Meanwhile, Tyler Johnson will continue his role as a spark off the bench and key finisher in late game situations.  

I mentioned Winslow earlier as an “x-factor” who could really help this team with his all-around game.

That young trio could be the difference between a solid team and a team that surprises in the Eastern Conference.  You can add the rookie Adebayo to that list, if he finds a way to make the most of his minutes.

Spo has made it no secret he loves to play a “positionless” type of game.  

We could see a lot of Olynyk and Whiteside on the court at the same time, while the so-called “Johnson Brothers” will likely work better together off the bench, like last season.

Nothing is set in stone for Spoelstra, and I like that.

There’s no reason this team should have to go in with the same plan every night.  Some nights this will be Dragic leading the charge.  Other nights it will be Whiteside dominating, and each of Waiters and both Johnson’s can also take over a game.

That’s’ what makes this team so intriguing.  In a league dominated by superstars, the Heat don’t really have one, but the funny part is these players don’t think they need one.  They truly believe in each other and their coaches.

In a way, this entire team has that irrational confidence.

To call the Heat a title contender would be an exaggeration, but I don’t feel it’s a hyperbole to think Miami can make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs as a Top 4 seed.

Bottom line, this will be a fun team to watch.

Season prediction: 47-35 record.  4th seed in the Eastern Conference.

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