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The Heat are failing to fail

Three weeks ago, Miami was setting up to earn a shot at a superstar in the NBA draft. Then the Heat decided to win 10 straight. What now?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat should not be on a 10-game winning streak. When 2016 ended, they were 10-24 and had just learned that Justise Winslow would be out for the season with a shoulder injury. Accordingly, Miami lost six of its next seven games to fall to 11-30.

On Jan. 13, the Heat had the second-worst record in the entire league. They own their first-round draft pick, and were looking ahead to an opportunity to pick up a potential franchise-changing talent like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, or Josh Jackson.

This had all been telegraphed by Heat mastermind Pat Riley. In mid-December, before Winslow went down and the team fell below .300, Riley started talking openly about rebuilding, flexibility, and the fact that the Heat owned their 2017 pick. This was an acknowledgment that the Heat were preparing to tank out the season by potentially trading veterans and aiming for a superstar in the draft. It was all going according to plan.

And then the Heat went on that 10-game winning streak.

Instead of the second-worst record in the NBA, the Heat have the 10th-worst record in the league. Miami has gone from a strong chance at Fultz, Ball, or Jackson to scouting players like Malik Monk and Miles Bridges. This isn’t to say you can’t land a superstar in the No. 8-11 rage. It’s just much more unlikely than when you have a top-five pick.

There is good news here for Miami. Winning is rarely Pyrrhic in sports, which tends to be a binary environment. (The phrase “winning at all costs,” in fact, dismisses the idea there can be Pyrrhic victories in sports.) This success is boosting the value of Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, two highly tradeable players. Dragic is quite good but pricey, while Waiters is a dice roll but affordable. This winning streak helps Riley sell other teams on these players, if he wants to go that route (which he absolutely should).

There’s also the matter that the bottom of the standings are quite mushy. Miami has plenty of time to nose dive back into prime lottery territory. Two West teams with worse records than Miami (the Mavericks and Kings) are within three games of the No. 8 seed in that conference, which is insane and frankly sad. Miami is just one of eight teams with between 30 and 32 losses. A couple of games will likely separate who picks No. 4 from who picks No. 11.

But Miami is showing no intent to dive back to the bottom.

The Heat have ramped up their defense, which was always going to be their strong suit. Over the past 10 games, Miami has the league’s best defense and the No. 8 offense. (Golden State still wins the net rating war despite an 8-2 record. The Warriors are so freaking good.)

Hassan Whiteside is proving to be worth every penny of that massive contract he signed in the offseason — he had 30-20 in 27 minutes over the weekend, which are straight up Moses Malone numbers. James Johnson is a strong supplemental defender when he’s in shape (he’s in shape), and Rodney McGruder and Willie Reed are doing their jobs.

Meanwhile, Dragic and Waiters have been playing free and shooting the lights out during the streak. Wayne Ellington and Luke Babbitt have resuscitated their careers, and Erik Spoelstra is putting together his best coaching performance ever. If only a few of these things were clicking right now, Miami would still be in the 15-win zone and in line to pick high in the draft. But everything is going right, and that’s driving the tank further into the rear view mirror.

History suggests that unintentional winning doesn’t work out, though.

The best example, in fact, featured Dragic’s old team: the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns. They were widely expected to tank — GM Ryan McDonough made a number of moves obviously intended to sacrifice short-term success to stockpile future assets — but miraculously won 48 games as Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and the Morris twins thrived together. The 48 wins weren’t enough to make the playoffs in the vicious West, but they were enough to prevent the Suns from picking up a high draft pick.

McDonough pivoted and tried to strengthen the Suns for success in the now. It failed miserably, but by midseason of 2014-15, Dragic and Isaiah Thomas were both out on a rail. A year later, just about everyone but Bledsoe and the draft picks were gone, too. Now the Suns are in line for a second straight top-five pick after another bad season.

That one season of success completely derailed the Suns’ plan and ended up extending the rebuild timeline. Phoenix never got a single playoff game out of it. The Suns look set up well now, but that’s because Bledsoe continues to thrive, McDonough nailed the Devin Booker pick in 2015, and the Dragic trade should pay dividends down the line as Miami owes Phoenix two picks. Still, the Suns would be closer to real success if not for the accidental and ephemeral success of 2013-14.

This 10-game win streak must feel good for Miami, especially for the 15 players and the half-dozen coaches in the locker room. But it is fool’s gold. Riley must know that, and odds are he’s looking for an opportunity to ensure things get gloomy again in Miami soon.

Unfortunately for him, the upcoming schedule is soft as Miami Beach sand.

There is a non-zero chance the Heat could run this win streak up to 15: the next five opponents are the Timberwolves, Bucks, Nets, Sixers, and Magic. Only Milwaukee is ahead of Miami in the standings, and the two teams have been going in opposite directions over the past couple of weeks.

In another week, if they keep playing like this, the Heat could actually be sitting in the East’s No. 8 seed, setting up for ritual sacrifice at the hands of LeBron instead of preparing sacrifices for the NBA draft lottery gods. Perhaps we don’t appreciate just how hard it is to actually tank in the NBA.