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The Heat are about to tank. Sorry, 'rebuild'

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Pat Riley basically admitted it without using the exact word. Now, we see what happens with Miami’s veterans.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are bad. With designs on another playoff berth despite losing Dwyane Wade and ruling out Chris Bosh, Miami is foundering at 10-22, on pace for a 22-win drop-off for the season. That’s currently the biggest projected drop-off in the league, edging even the disastrous Dallas Mavericks (19-win projected drop-off).

Losing Wade and Bosh hurt Miami badly. The offense finished slightly above average a year ago, yet currently sits at No. 27 in the league. Goran Dragic is indeed putting up much more representative numbers, freed from the yoke of Wade’s ball control. But with the exceptions of Dragic, Josh McRoberts, and Tyler Johnson, no one on the team can shoot. Hassan Whiteside is the rare modern center who, despite putting up numbers, hasn’t attempted a single three this season.

This is a especially relevant problem considering that no one can get to the rim, either (with the exception of Willie Reed, who is indeed still in the league). You’d be hard-pressed to find a set of four heavy-rotation guards more perimeter-oriented than Dragic, Johnson, Josh Richardson, and rookie/D-league import Rodney McGruder. Dion Waiters is the one Miami guard who gets to the rim, but he is a well below-average finisher once there and is not at all adept at drawing fouls.

So, the Heat can’t shoot and they can’t get to the rim.

The team’s defense has slipped, too, though it remains respectable on the backs of Whiteside, Justise Winslow, and Richardson. But the offense is so bad there’s just no digging out with this roster. Injuries have given Erik Spoelstra an inconsistent toolbox to pull from, too. Whiteside can dominate in the paint against many teams, and Dragic is more efficient than your average point guard. Winslow is a stellar wing defender. But there’s just not enough there.

Los Angeles Lakers v Miami Heat Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It is in this context that Heat boss Pat Riley made the following comments on Miami sports talk radio last week (emphasis mine).

"[W]e love our young core. And what we have is flexibility. And you need flexibility in this league to be able to move quickly. You can't get paralyzed by the cap or not being able to make room and being able to trade players. I think the No. 1 asset that we have right now is our flexibility moving forward. We have a first-round pick this year. So we're dealing with it. We're dealing with that word that you hate to use – that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild quick. I'm not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami. We have great, great fans. They're frustrated. They've been used to something great over the last 10 years and so right now we're taking a hit. I think we can turn this thing around. As I said, if five of those [close] losses were turned into wins we could be in the playoffs right now. But they didn’t.

“You can use that word rebuild. But we're going to do it fast.”

This is as bald an on-the-record admission that the tank is coming as you’ll find outside of Sam Hinkie’s Philadelphia. The acknowledgment that Miami has its pick is a tell. The word Riley really means when he says the Heat are “dealing with that word that you hate to use” is tanking.

That Riley also acknowledges that flexibility is the Heat’s top asset, and mentions trade flexibility in the same breath, means that we’re going to see a repeat of 2007-08 here.

The Heat started 8-24 that season, two games worse than the current situation. Thanks to offseason surgery for Wade and a general malaise over the roster, Miami was one of the worst teams in the league. By midseason, Riley decided to trade Shaquille O’Neal for Shawn Marion and re-acquire its own first.

More importantly, Riley sent Wade off to get surgery in early March. (How important was it to get surgery right then? Wade played in the Olympics that summer. You do the math.) Wade had been around for a 15-game losing streak in January and an 11-game skid in February, but his exit helped Miami finish 4-17 down the stretch. And that helped them win the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft.

Unfortunately, Riley whiffed on that one by taking Michael Beasley instead of Kevin Love or Russell Westbrook. (Let us count our lucky stars Westbrook ended up in Oklahoma City, but — no offense to Minnesota — what a nice picture Love in Miami with Wade would have been.) With Wade healthy over the next two seasons and playing like an MVP contender, Miami slipped into the comfort of a low playoff seed. Then The Decision happened as Riley had leveraged flexibility (ding ding) to make a coup. It led to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships.

Miami Heat Introduce LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

Riley pulling off the same twist is improbable. There’s no Wade to recruit fellow stars, and new extension rules are going to make the idea of pulling both a Chris Bosh and a LeBron James at even steeper discounts very difficult to sell. The Heatles were not a business plan, they were a miracle.

But Riley knows there are other paths to a quick rebuild that don’t involve pulling off the basketball coup of the century. He tells on himself in that interview last week. He acknowledges that he missed on Westbrook in ‘08. It worked out because of Bosh and LeBron, but he still knows that draft was a missed opportunity. You get the sense — as much as one can reading tea leaves — that he wants another crack, that he won’t make the same mistake again.

The obvious play is to trade Dragic, who at age 30 is obviously not a featured player on the next great Heat team. Dragic also happens to be propping up Miami’s win total as the only true point guard on the roster. Johnson is a hybrid who skews heavily toward the two-guard side; Waiters is shockingly the second-best passer on the team. Trading Dragic and starting Johnson at the point guard would make the Heat worse while helping test Johnson’s limits and stretch him. Win-win at this point.

McRoberts is also expendable, especially considering he has a fat $6 million player option for next season. Dragic can surely pull a first-round pick and perhaps a decent prospect on top of that; McRoberts might be worth a conditional future first. But Riley could be willing to take a haircut on either, since losing them will help the Heat be worse right now. (It doesn’t help that McRoberts suffered a stress fracture in his foot).

NBA: Orlando Magic at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Whiteside is the more interesting dilemma. He’s 27 with low mileage. He’s pretty high-maintenance. He is not a modern offensive center in any sense of the word — he can’t shoot, he can’t pass, he can’t drive the lane. He’s due $75 million over the next three years. But he’s leading the league in rebounding, he’s a game-changer around the rim on both ends, and — despite sulking about getting enough touches — he’s not so ball-dominant he disrupts the team flow.

Whiteside is almost assuredly overpriced, even in this market. But it’s not egregious, he’s fairly young, and replacing him long-term would be tough. He’s also not getting you many wins on his own this year, so moving him to tank isn’t as big a payoff as it is with Dragic.

It’s hard to imagine the Heat will end up as the worst team in the league just by trading Dragic, potentially McRoberts, and dealing with normal injuries. Miami’s scoring margin has them around the ninth-worst team in the league, though their record is tied for fifth-worst.

But being among the three worst teams is likely good enough for Riley in a promising draft with multiple potential All-Stars. He’ll get another crack at it, nine years after picking Beasley. The intrigue now shifts to Dragic, who could shake up a playoff race in a new city.