MIAMI - The Heat returned to practice for the first time in the new year on Tuesday, and the buzz word of the day was something that defined the team's play over the final few months of 2017 -- inconsistent.
Watching the Heat play over the first 36 games has been maddening, and trust me, the fans aren't the only ones frustrated.
Just last week, Erik Spoelstra said his team is a hard team to figure out. Most of his players agree and understand this team isn't going to accomplish any of its goals if they don't find some form of consistency.
Miami has been the kind of team to lose to the worst team in the league one night and bounce back the next game and beat one of the best. Or they'll lose an ugly game at home and then make a big comeback on the road the following game.
The Heat have avoided the long losing streak, but they haven't been able to put together any kind of impactful winning streak.
Basically, they've been the definition of inconsistent, and their 19-17 record reflects that.
So what needs to change into 2018?
There are two schools of thought with the Heat. The first is that this team is what it is. They're inconsistent because the roster is made up of a number of solid veterans and young players who will just have their ups and downs. We all know Miami doesn't have one superstar player, so they won't have that nightly constant who can dominate and get the team rolling.
It's not an unfair logic. While I don't necessarily agree with the theory, Miami hasn't done anything this season to disprove that possibility. Meaning, this is a .500-or-so-type team that will just have good and bad moments on its way to a solid season, but they'll be far too inconsistent to be anything more than that.
I tend to side more with the theory that this team can be more. I projected before the season that the Heat would be a 47-win team that could win a playoff series. I still feel that way, though I understand while people may think I'm crazy for believing that.
I see a team that hasn't been completely healthy all season to find a real rhythm, and I also see some young players improving every day in leadership and closing roles.
Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Bam Adebayo have all exceeded my expectations into 2018. Each player has been given more responsibilities because of injuries to others and has made the most of it.
Meanwhile, the magic provided by Dion Waiters and James Johnson in the second half of last season has all but disappeared, largely because of injuries.
What happens when those guys return to the mix?
To me, James Johnson is the key. He's the one player Miami doesn't have a duplicate of. Waiters can sit out while getting healthy, and Tyler can step in without missing a beat. Miami doesn't have that type of player for JJ.
Hassan Whiteside is the wild card for Miami, as bizarre as that sounds. He needs to be a dominate force inside now that he's healthy.
When Miami plays aggressive defense and effort, it can play with just about anyone.
We know the limitations of this team. No one expects this team to be an NBA title contender this season, but that doesn't mean they can't be better than they've been.
Consistency will be the key. Health will be a big part of finding that consistency.
Pat Riley will also have some interesting decisions as the trade deadline approaches on what direction he wants to take with this team.
Riley is never afraid of pulling the trigger, if a star player becomes available. That's something that's hard to predict, but it's definitely something to watch over the next couple of months.
For now, Spoelstra can only control what's in front of him with this roster, and that means finding consistency.
Considering where the Heat was after 41 games last season, two games over .500 and as a seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race isn't a bad place to be entering 2018.
Spo and the players feel they can be more, and I can't blame them.
But, the new year should signal a wakeup call for Miami. It's now or never. Is this a team that "is what it is" or is there more growth to come?
Now is the time to find out.
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