Heat ready to move on without LeBron

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
8:03
PM ET
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com
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MIAMI-- For the past four seasons, so much was consistent about the Miami Heat.

Four seasons of championship expectations. Four seasons of coach Erik Spoelstra’s catch phrases repeated time and again. Four seasons of questioning Chris Bosh's role. Nearly four seasons of Dwyane Wade's health being examined. Four seasons of being everyone's favorite enemy. And, most notably, four seasons of LeBron James in his absolute prime.

So much of that changed between July 11, when James announced he was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Friday, when the retooled Heat held media day on the eve of their first practice.

The expectations have fallen from championship or bust to essentially being projected as just another playoff team. Bosh has suddenly gone from an All-Star-caliber role player to quite possibly the top option in a revamped Heat offense.

Wade's health concerns are still there, as evidenced by the first question to him being, "How’s your knee?" But no longer is he viewed as a fragile piece of crystal that must be kept in prime condition until the postseason. Wade has returned to being an absolutely vital piece, one that won't be afforded nearly as many days off, if he can avoid it.

That much change could be jarring, especially for a core group of players and a franchise that have become quite used to winning at the highest level.

But Wade said the past 2½ months have been plenty of time to adjust to the idea of, once again, playing without James.

"I think everyone in the organization had enough time to get used to the idea that it's going to be a different team," Wade said. "We can't replace LeBron. We're a different team. Everyone's opportunities will be different. Everyone's responsibilities will be different."

The only problem for Wade is, he's not sure exactly how his responsibilities will change.

Other than the uncertainty of his troublesome knees, Wade also faces the question of just how close he can get to his form of four or five seasons ago.

Without knowing that, he can't honestly answer how his role will change this season.

"I'm not sure," Wade said. "Obviously, I'll have the ball in my hands a little bit more. I've always been a playmaker for this team, and I'll continue to be that. I've always been somebody who scored the ball at a high rate, and I will always try to do that.

"I'm not coming in thinking I have to do anything that LeBron did, or that I have to do anything that I did before the Big Three. I'm coming in with a new mind, with a new thought of, 'What’s going to be my role on this team?'"

Among Wade's offseason highlights was, of course, marrying Gabrielle Union, and among the lowlights was a 30-day paleo diet stint that left him moody but also noticeably leaner.

"It was bad," Wade said of the mood swings. "I had to tell my wife, 'Excuse me if I'm not the guy that you're used to.'

"There were some days where I just couldn't take it, but I stuck with it for 30 days, and from there it just becomes part of your lifestyle."

Wade wouldn't divulge his current weight, but he did indicate it was somewhere between 212, his weight as a rookie, and 225, his playing weight last season.

"My goal this year is to be available as much as possible," he said.

The other remaining member of the former Big Three has more detailed goals.

Bosh never expected to return to a primary scoring role. He assumed that James would stay in Miami for the long haul, leaving Bosh as an outside-shooting big who watched James and Wade dominate the post.

Now, armed with a healthy, new $118 million contract, Bosh is downright giddy about the opportunity to show off a refined, well-rounded game that will allow the Heat to remain among the best teams in the league.

"I've had to play a role the past four years, but moving forward, I can show the city and the organization what value I can bring, how much I can turn up the intensity, how much I can put more weight on my shoulders and really hold that load and bring more wins to Miami," Bosh said.

One aspect of the Heat that won't necessarily change is the players' feelings about James.

While you could easily find reasons for Wade, Bosh and a handful of others in the Heat organization to have animosity toward James because he left everyone in the dark while making his free-agent decision -- or simply for leaving a team that could've maintained a long, championship-level run -- no one displayed even the slightest bit of bitterness.

Spoelstra said it took him and the front-office staff about 10 minutes to shift moods from disappointed to invigorated.

Udonis Haslem said he was plenty satisfied with two titles in four seasons during James' time in Miami.

Even Danny Granger, who briefly reopened his free agency after hearing of James' return to Cleveland, said he decided Miami was still the best fit for him, even without the four-time MVP.

Among players, Wade probably has the most reason to be upset with James, given that the timing of it all cost Wade millions, and he was considered James' best friend on the team.

Wade said he understands there are reasons for him to be angry if he chose to be. He simply chooses not to.

"I don't want to focus on none of that," he said. "I want to focus on moving on. That’s my friend, at the end of the day. The rest of it, I'm just focused on moving on and doing what I can. I can't focus on disliking somebody and all that. That's putting too much energy on the wrong thing."

Besides, given how much the Heat have to adjust now that James is gone, there's probably not enough time to even hold a grudge.

"I was disappointed," Bosh said. "There was a letdown initially for not being able to keep that going, but you have to get over it. You can't stay in the past.

"It's a huge opportunity, not only for this team, but for every individual that's here."

The split personalities of the 2007 NBA draft

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
6:46
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Greg Oden and Kevin DurantJennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images)A tale of two draftees: While injuries sunk Greg Oden's career, Kevin Durant rose to superstardom.
Al Horford could see it. Playing against Ohio State in the 2007 NCAA championship game, the Florida Gators big man could tell Greg Oden was going to be something special in the NBA.

"I just knew I was looking at a guy that was going to be like a 10-time All-Star -- was going to be in the discussion as one of the best centers, for sure," Horford said. "I have no question in my mind, looking back, that he was going to be a great player."

Almost three months later, Oden was selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft while Horford went third.

Seven years later, Horford is the one playing in All-Star games while injuries and other issues have derailed Oden’s career, to the point where he has openly described himself as “one of the biggest busts in NBA history.”

The 2007 draft’s legacy is one of rare extremes. And not only the ever-diverging gap between Kevin Durant's path to prominence and Oden's tumultuous tumble toward obscurity.

For every major hit that turned out to be an elite-level talent, such as Durant, Horford, Mike Conley Jr. (picked fourth), Joakim Noah (ninth) and Marc Gasol (48th), there were massive lottery misses on the likes of Oden, Yi Jianlian (sixth), Acie Law (11th), Julian Wright (13th) and Al Thornton (14th).

The 2007 class boasts both the league's reigning MVP (Durant) and defensive player of the year (Noah), marking the first time that has happened since the 1999-00 season. But it also produced a class in which seven of the first 21 players selected are no longer in the NBA. Oden would become the eighth if he's out of the league again this season.

Oden's arrest also places him among a far more disturbing distinction associated with that draft's first round.

Sean Williams, selected at No. 17 by the Nets, saw his career mired by a string of arrests on drug, trespassing and felony misconduct charges. He has been out of the league since being cut by the Rockets in 2012.

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesSeven years after being picked second overall, Kevin Durant became the league's most valuable player.
Javaris Crittenton, picked two spots later, was arrested in December 2009 along with Gilbert Arenas for their roles in a locker room gun incident while teammates with the Washington Wizards. Both players were subsequently suspended for the remainder of the 2009-10 season. Crittenton never played another NBA game after the gun incident in Washington. His life allegedly took an even more heinous turn in recent years as he awaits trial on multiple murder, drug and weapon charges.

Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, is among those still trying to make sense of the 2007 draft’s many postscripts.

"It's such an interesting one, with sort of all of the weird things that have happened," Blake said. "There were a lot of differences in terms of guys with upside, guys we thought were better and guys that just didn't pan out ... just a lot of risks in that draft."

Horford, though, cringes when he sees Oden ridicule himself or measure his plight of misfortune against Durant's meteoric ascension. Though Horford’s Atlanta Hawks have made the postseason in each of his seven NBA seasons, he has endured his own injury problems, causing him to miss 116 games over the past three seasons.

"I think it's unfair for Greg," Horford said. "There were a lot of expectations on Greg, but we all knew it was just a matter of time before Kevin was going to blossom and become the player he is today. With Greg and everything he had to go through, he shouldn't compare himself to Kevin. When he's been able to play, he's been able to do OK.

“I can tell he's a good guy, a good person. It's just been a tough road as far as injuries and even this off-the-court situation. At the end of the day, we're all humans that make mistakes."

Wade's loyalty warrants royal Heat response

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
12:43
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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The hashtag spread quickly the moment Dwyane Wade used his Instagram account Tuesday to confirm he signed a new contract and planned to be a Miami Heat for life.

#LoyaltyoverRoyalty.

The symbolism is hard to miss.

That message, which instantaneously served as a stamp to hundreds of social media posts, was a way of embracing Wade for recommitting to the only NBA team for which he has ever played in his 11-year career. It was also a parting shot at LeBron James, aka King James, from a still grieving group after the four-time league MVP bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland as a free agent last week.

It was equal parts love for Wade and loathing LeBron.

The truth is Wade was never going anywhere after he opted out of the final two years and $41 million left on his contract to help the Heat shore up the roster after last month’s loss in the Finals to San Antonio. This round of negotiations for Wade, 32, was only a matter of how much less he’d be willing to take and how long the Heat would have to fork over significant -- and potentially crippling -- cap space.

Wade did the Heat a huge favor on both fronts Tuesday by signing a reported two-year deal worth at least $31 million, which includes a player option for the second season. It was widely believed Wade would push for a four-year, $60 million contract that would essentially guarantee he’d retire as a member of the Heat and never go through high-end free agency again.

But there’s a unique thing about this form of loyalty and sacrifice. By accepting a shorter deal for less money and greater flexibility for the Heat, Wade has locked himself into a lifetime commitment. NBA rules prohibit promises and agreements by teams to take care of players beyond their contracts.

[+] EnlargeHeat Fans
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsDwyane Wade's hefty contract give-backs show his dedication as the face of the Heat franchise.
Still, there’s no doubt Wade has only solidified his stake in this franchise, this town, for life. There are only four people getting reservations ahead of Wade at any establishment in Miami. Dan Marino. Don Shula. Pat Riley. Tony Montana. And Riley may have just gotten bumped.

“He has shown his commitment to the Heat many times over the course of his career and has always been willing to sacrifice in order to help build this team into a champion,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “This time is no different. I am ecstatic to have him back in the fold and I am confident that Dwyane, as always, will be leading this team as we look to contend for NBA championships.”

By taking a deal worth half as much and for half as long as Wade could have commanded, the Heat are in position to be a major player in free agency again in 2016. Leaving that much money on the table as part of plans to retain LeBron and upgrade the supporting cast this summer was the expectation.

The reality played out completely different. Wade’s sacrifice this time around allowed Miami to re-sign Chris Bosh to take a max deal worth $118 million over five seasons and to sign Luol Deng to replace LeBron at small forward for $20 million over two seasons. The Heat continued their recent run of signings Tuesday by bringing back Udonis Haslem, who opted out of $4.6 million due next season to agree to yet another team-friendly deal, and securing 2013 second-round pick James Ennis.

This seed planted by Wade was laced with loyalty and legacy.

All anyone needs to know about either of those coatings can be summed up by the bargains and sacrifices associated with Wade’s place in the team’s salary structure the past dozen years. A vital part of all three of the Heat’s championship teams, Wade is Miami’s all-time leader in points, made field goals, free throws, assists, steals, starts, games played and, now, dollars given back.

Yet, he has never been first in salary during any of the 11 Heat seasons.

Over the years, that distinction has gone to Eddie Jones, Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, LeBron and Bosh. The NBA’s rookie pay scale assured Wade would be a built-in bargain his first four seasons. When Wade earned $3 million during his 2005-06 NBA Finals MVP season, he was the lowest-paid player to earn that award over a span of 22 years. That stretch ended when Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP last month following a season in which he was paid $1.9 million.

But it was by choice the past two times Wade ended up with discounted deals in Miami. In 2010, he took less than a full maximum contract, also convincing LeBron and Bosh to pitch in, to make sure there was room under the salary cap to re-sign Haslem and other key role players.

This time, Wade did it again to give the Heat the best chance to recover from LeBron’s abrupt departure. But this is more than about money for Wade, who has $121.3 million in NBA career earnings and likely a matching amount in endorsement deals.

He’s not exactly starving.

Yet expect Wade to be as hungry as ever to prove he can lead a post-LeBron push to remain prominent, especially in a wide-open Eastern Conference void of a clear frontrunner. Wade benefited as much as anyone from playing with LeBron. When he missed 28 games last season, mostly due to knee issues, it was LeBron who carried the extra load and got the Heat to a fourth straight NBA Finals.

But when Wade was healthy, there was a recurring burden he carried at times through a difficult adjustment to a secondary role the past four years. Wade has also talked about dealing with perceptions his legacy has been overshadowed by LeBron’s breakthrough as a two-time champion in Miami.

“I think when all the smoke clears -- because right now, so much is viewed on LeBron’s legacy and I’m wrapped up into that,” Wade recently told ESPN.com. “Obviously mine doesn’t get talked about or seen as much, and rightfully so. I understand. But when all the smoke clears, you sit down and it’s something you can talk about in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish and how I’ve accomplished it.”

Wade compares his circumstances with those of other marquee players who have remained with one franchise their entire careers. He admires how the Lakers treated Kobe Bryant, 35, who was awarded a two-year, $48 million extension during an injury-plagued season because of what he has meant through the years.

Wade also respects how Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have been more flexible with their salaries in recent years to give San Antonio and Dallas, respectively, a chance to retain key players, remain in the mix for valuable free agents and stay in title contention.

“There’s a different way to look at things when you’re at this stage of your career, in terms of helping your team and your team helping you,” Wade said. “My way has been different than some guys'. But I’m just continuing to add to what I am, my so-called legacy. I’m fine with it, whatever it’s going to be.”

Giving back salary at a time when few could have blamed Wade for holding onto every dime of that $41 million he was due is the clearest sign of the lengths he’s gone to sacrifice for his franchise.

No player in NBA history has opted out of that much money to take that steep a cut.

Now, one unprecedented move deserves another. Wade’s No. 3 jersey is certain to be hanging from the AmericanAirlines Arena rafters soon after he’s done playing.

But why wait? There’s no league rule against doing so while he’s still playing, perhaps as early next season’s home opener. There would be no greater show of gratitude for the singularly restored face of the franchise.

For what Wade has given the Heat time and time again, he has already earned it.

No hashtag movement necessary.

Departing LeBron not indebted to Heat

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
4:54
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- The doors swung open to Aderholt Gym on Hurlburt Field’s military base in the Florida Panhandle four years ago, unveiling a scene that remains as vivid now as it was on the opening day of the LeBron James era during his first training camp with the Miami Heat.

“That’s bulls---, man,” LeBron shouted.

Wearing a netted yellow vest over his black cutoff shooting shirt, LeBron was livid that day in late September 2010. These were the first words heard as nearly 100 reporters filed past the base’s bomb-sniffing dogs, filtered through the security checkpoint and found their way into the facility.

Once inside, the baritone-voiced barking and frustrated banter of the boulder-shouldered man standing near the free throw line was essentially bouncing off the walls.

“That’s bulls---,” LeBron repeated in the heat of battle. “Get it right. Stop cheating.”

The Heat’s first scrimmage with the Big Three had devolved into a verbal scrum.

Standing across from LeBron was new teammate and temporary practice adversary Dwyane Wade, leading an opposing group of players in the split-squad game. Standing between LeBron and Wade was Heat assistant coach, Hall of Famer and resident scrimmage referee-scorekeeper Bob McAdoo.

Somehow, McAdoo screwed up the count.

First, he ruled Wade’s team was ahead. LeBron exploded. McAdoo was reminded of a score he hadn’t accounted for earlier in the game and granted LeBron’s team the lead. Then Wade lost it. Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley sat nearby with a smirk as he proudly took it all in.

There was one prevailing thought that day: Buckle up for a wild and crazy ride.

It didn’t take long to comprehend the level of intensity, heavy artillery and fireworks that would be in play covering arguably the most dynamic and polarizing team in NBA history for the Heat Index. It proved to be a thrill ride that never disappointed despite the highs and lows.

After four straight trips to the Finals and consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013, LeBron walked away as a free agent Friday to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the articulately crafted essay he wrote to explain his decision for Sports Illustrated, LeBron needs to face some real questions about why he left and when he knew he would be leaving to reunite with his home-state team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003.

But there’s one thing that can’t be questioned. It’s his relentless, passionate effort that never ceased.

Before he took off for Cleveland, LeBron hardly took off a day in Miami. From his first training camp practice amid the Heat’s bunker mentality in that sweaty, cramped gym to the final game he played in a desperate yet ultimately failed push against San Antonio in a series-clinching Game 5 of the Finals last month, James gave the Heat everything he had -- even in times when his body literally gave out.

Then he took the first option out allowed in his contract to return to a place he never emotionally left. Some are still struggling with whether to shame LeBron or thank LeBron. But as some of the numbness and shock subsides from his abrupt departure, it’s growing more difficult to truly blame LeBron. He didn’t make a public spectacle of his free agency like Carmelo Anthony, who was within his rights to tease and flirt through a four-team recruiting tour before returning for mega money in New York.

And LeBron didn’t spend the season working behind the scenes to force a trade to Cleveland. He simply did his job at an MVP level -- sore back, bum ankles, broken nose, creaky knees and all -- every night. It can be tough to focus on what’s ahead when that level of excellence hangs in the rearview mirror.

The Heat have rallied the past few days to recover from LeBron’s departure with a flurry of moves that have included re-signing or closing in on deals with Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem.

That’s a surefire playoff team, especially in the wide-open East. That’s a squad that could win 45 to 50 games next season if healthy. Solid but hardly spectacular. Teams don’t recover quickly from losing the best player in the game. They regroup as much as possible and hope for the best.

That’s the 2014-15 Miami Heat -- almost certain to be better than they were the three years before James arrived but probably never as dynamic and dominant during the four-year run with him. There’s no way to recreate the self-described Heatles, sans LeBron as the front man. No one expected the Jacksons to extend the same magic for long once Michael left to do his own thing.

After closing the chapter on LeBron, the franchise began this week contemplating plans to start removing his No. 6 jersey either completely or at least from prominent display in the team stores at AmericanAirlines Arena. It remains to be seen whether the Heat take a similar approach with some of the floor-to-ceiling images displaying LeBron’s postseason exploits the past four years.

One of the most prominent murals is the one positioned just outside the Heat’s locker room. It’s the photo that captured LeBron’s maniacal stare as he crouched down in a defensive stance during his epic Game 6 performance against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.

It’s the first image players see as they head down the “Championship Alley” tunnel to enter the court. It’s the last glance that holds them accountable as they head back to the locker room after games.

There’s no denying what LeBron has meant to the Heat on and off the court the past four years. But what is overlooked is the way he conducted his business with the media. The same player who controlled every aspect of the game also had the wherewithal to engage many on a personal level.

There were the moments before games when he asked, unprompted, about the recovery of one reporter’s mother, who was hospitalized and needed surgery. There was another time when, after a big game against Oklahoma City, he checked on the baseball performance of another reporter’s son.

Covering the huge performances in marquee games as well as the demoralizing losses and controversies were all memorable. But so were many of the behind-the-scenes moments, like the time when LeBron turned up the volume to ear-splitting levels in the pregame locker room and engaged Shane Battier in a rap battle as they recited N.W.A.’s explicit lyrics.

Yes, that Shane Battier.

Should LeBron have given the Heat more of a clear heads-up on his way out?

Absolutely. Perhaps he did as much and Miami simply refused to take no for an answer. In hindsight, there were plenty of hints and subtle messages that were either dismissed or overlooked along the way, especially the final six months of this season.

But LeBron left without owing the Heat anything else.

That was clear from his first day of work to his last.


Shabazz Napier eyes lesson in rough debut

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
7:10
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive
 Shabazz Napier Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty ImagesHeat point guard Shabazz Napier's debut was marred by eight turnovers and 3-for-15 shooting.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Shabazz Napier turned the ball over on his first possession and launched an airball on one of his final shots during his first game as an NBA point guard.

Those kind of miscues can only mean one thing: The Miami Heat’s first-round draft pick is right on track in the early stages of his transition to the league. Struggling in a summer league debut has become a rite of passage for point guards getting their first taste of NBA action.

Napier, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player who had LeBron James’ stamp of approval when he was drafted in the first round last month, missed his first 10 shots and had eight turnovers Saturday in Miami’s 85-77 loss to the Boston Celtics at the Orlando Pro Summer League.

But a productive spurt in the fourth quarter during a rally that fell short left Napier embracing the growing pains and eager to quickly adjust in time for his next summer league test Sunday.

“I definitely needed this one to understand the game much better,” Napier said of Saturday’s performance. “It’s a big adjustment. I’m unable to do a lot of things I was on the college level. I’ve got to find the adjustments on how to do those things. I’ve still got the college game coming in. We’re learning on the fly, and we’re going to make big mistakes. This is a different game.”

But the humbling start makes Napier no different than plenty of other point guards who stumbled along their initial steps into the league. This time a year ago, Michael Carter-Williams shot 27 percent from the field in Orlando, had games with nine and eight turnovers, respectively, and he never found a rhythm despite putting up solid overall scoring numbers.

The Sixers point guard ended up being named NBA Rookie of the Year last season.

There are similar stories of early struggles dating back to Derrick Rose’s NBA summer league opening act in 2008. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Napier’s approach to this process was revealed after Saturday’s game when he was asked how much he either watched or knew about the early growing pains some top college point guards had in their initial week of summer schooling.

Napier, who never shied away from controversial statements during his time at UConn about the NCAA’s governing guidelines, offered a dish better than either of the two he had in Saturday’s game.

“I didn’t watch it at all,” Napier said of tracking previous summer league seasons. “I never had NBA TV, especially at school. If a lot of point guards do this, then I guess it’s a remedy. But it’s a big learning curve for all of us. So you’ve got to find a way. I will as soon as I continue to play.”

Repetition is certain to be a remedy, too.

Napier was targeted by the Heat for several reasons. Chief among them was that LeBron likes him and considered the shifty, sharp-shooting, two-time NCAA champion as the best point guard in the draft. Another reason was that Napier plays a position of potential need for the Heat, who saw 14 of the 15 players on last season’s roster become free agents this summer.

It’s made for a hectic and desperate month of July already, with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still yet to publicly commit to re-signing with the Heat since entering free agency last week. There has been a steady dose of conflicting reports about the intentions of the Heat’s Big Three, from some outlets speculating that all three players are likely to return, to others reporting that LeBron and Bosh are now apparently open to exploring how they might fit with other teams.

Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have been traveling the country the past few days meeting with potential free-agent targets, including Luol Deng and Pau Gasol, in an effort to retool the roster in anticipation of LeBron, Wade and Bosh returning.

Amid that backdrop, the Heat are hoping to develop and prepare a handful of prospects on the summer league team who might be able to contribute to next season’s roster. In addition to Napier, Miami is hopeful that swingman James Ennis, a second-round pick last season, and holdover center Justin Hamilton can add a “layer of youth” to the team Riley mentioned was needed moving forward.

Ennis led the Heat with 18 points and eight rebounds, showing both the athleticism around the rim and the shooting distance from 3-point range Miami needs to replace aging veterans from last season’s team that was overrun by San Antonio in five games during the NBA Finals. Hamilton missed nine of 15 shots, but he had 13 points and nine rebounds Saturday against Boston’s young prospects.

Heat assistant Dan Craig, who is coaching the summer league team, said Napier’s uneven play was more a result of his inability to adjust to the pace of the NBA game -– even at the scaled-down summer level.

“At times, I thought he sped himself up,” Craig said. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about. Slow down, let the defense make the mistake. As he settled in, I think he did a good job of adjusting. Obviously, we’re still learning each other. If he makes a mistake, he goes on to the next play. I think he got in trouble more than they got him in trouble. And that’s just about slowing down.”

Among the dozens of former players, league executives and team scouts who watched Napier in action at the Orlando Magic’s practice facility was someone who knows quite a bit about a point guard’s transition from leading a team to an NCAA title to getting prepared in a hurry for the NBA.

Isiah Thomas, who guided Indiana to a championship in 1981 and then entered the draft three months later, smiled and nodded his approval as he spoke with ESPN.com Saturday about Napier.

“The thing I like about him most is that he competes. And not only does he compete, he’s smart and has a great fundamental base you can build from,” Thomas said. “He understands offensive concepts and defensive concepts. I’m not concerned about what his field goal percentage was today, or any of that.”

Thomas, a Hall of Fame point guard who won two championships with the Detroit Pistons, said Napier has the intangibles and instincts necessary to work through many of the initial adjustments required to be an impact point guard in the NBA. Thomas pointed to a stretch in the fourth quarter, when Napier made three straight shots, got a steal and sparked a comeback in a key stage of the game.

“They had a stretch there when he really got it going,” said Thomas, now an analyst for NBA TV. “The thing that is impressive is that he can have those type of bursts in a game, when he can hit a couple of shots, get a couple of steals and change the whole momentum of the game. It didn’t matter to him what he was shooting before that moment. He’s able to grasp that, and that’s a big thing at this level.”

Ennis, who played for the Heat’s summer league team last year, said he spoke with Napier about not allowing a slow start or bad game to linger. The week is far too short for any of that.

“I told him, ‘This is your first time here. Last year, I was very nervous,’” Ennis said. “I know he got drafted in first round, so a lot of people expect a lot of him. Next game, he’ll be better. Just get the jitters out.”

That process for Napier started with the first play of the game. He brought the ball up in transition and tossed a lazy pass across the court and knew it was a mistake the moment it left his hand. The turnover led to a Celtics fast break.

“I passed it, and I didn’t know I threw a loose pass,” Napier said. “I thought I threw a regular pass. That’s one of the things I’ve got to learn. Throw a pass that has a chance of getting there. As soon as I threw it, I said, ‘There it is, get back on defense.’”

A good sign is that Napier didn’t get defensive about his miscues.

He dissected them. He accepted them.

His plan was to spend the evening in his room watching film and refocusing for Sunday’s game.

“I can come in here and not be prepared, or I can come in here and be prepared,” Napier said. “And I like being prepared for everything.”

Everything, including a long and productive NBA career at the point.

After seeing Napier on Saturday take his first step -- and a few missteps, as well -- Thomas likes his chances.

LeBron's agent meets with multiple teams

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
2:38
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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Can Riley paint another masterpiece?

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
2:02
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have given Pat Riley a clear and clean canvas necessary to retool the Miami Heat’s roster.

But as free agency opens just after midnight Tuesday, the question is whether the accomplished and proud 69-year-old veteran executive can assemble another masterpiece similar to the success he had four years ago when bringing the Big Three together.

There should be absolutely no doubt about the answer.

Riley didn't need to recite the finer points on his decorated resume during his stern and stoic season-ending news conference after San Antonio demolished the Heat in five games during the NBA Finals, which emphatically ended Miami’s quest for a third straight title.

But the tone Riley set weeks ago during the first five minutes of his hour-long plea for perspective and call for James, Wade and Bosh to “stay the course” clearly resonated heading into a high-stakes July.

“I've been a leader and a decision-maker,” Riley said of a career that has included nine championship seasons as a player, assistant, head coach and executive over 45 years. “That's my level of expertise. I'll do everything in my power to retool this team. What cements a forever bond is going through what we went through this season and staying the course.”

A process that started with Riley's state of the union address three weeks ago continued in recent days when James, Wade and Bosh opted out of the final two seasons of their contracts to help create a league-record $55 million in salary-cap space. It all culminates in a potential splash in free agency designed to make the next four or five seasons for the Heat as productive as the past four seasons.

James, Wade and Bosh are all expected to re-sign longer deals with the Heat, with their recent decisions indicating intent to give Riley an opportunity to land a handful of free agents to stabilize a supporting cast that had grown stale after four straight trips to the Finals and two championships.

Riley often has used baseball clichés to characterize the Heat's lofty plans in these situations. Since he arrived in Miami nearly 20 years ago to work under owner Micky Arison, there have been no fewer than three major makeovers of the Heat's roster that put Miami in championship contention.

The first push landed Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway in the mid-1990s. The second rebuild saw Riley draft Wade, trade for Shaquille O'Neal and surround them with veteran mercenaries in Jason Williams, Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and James Posey to form the 2006 championship team. Then, James and Bosh came in 2010 to join Wade to launch the Heat's current run.

Whereas those roster moves constitute the “swinging for the fences” approach Riley and Arison have taken in the past, that's not what the Heat need right now. They already have hit their home runs with James and Bosh still in the prime of their careers and Wade, 32 and coming off a disappointing effort in the Finals, showing a willingness to buy into the program by opting out with $41.8 million left on his deal.

What the Heat need now is to plug holes to replenish an aging roster that wore down this season and lacked the type of reinforcements that could relieve some of the burden from James and Bosh.

With the ultimate amount of flexibility and financing, the Heat will open free agency aiming for star power. Carmelo Anthony will reportedly meet with the Chicago Bulls first, but he can probably count on Riley at least placing a call to check in and offer a good morning greeting. Kyle Lowry is also likely to be at the top of the Heat's board of free-agent targets.

Those are the stars of the 2014 class.

But there are also plenty of prospects who could add stability to the Heat's roster. Ramon Sessions, Luol Deng, Shawn Marion, Marvin Williams, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza are among the middle-to-lower level free agents who would bolster the Heat's depth and address pressing roster needs.

Riley will have a full menu of options. But much of it wouldn't have been available had James, Wade and Bosh -- along with Heat veteran Udonis Haslem -- not shown the kind of chemistry in recent days that was missing on both ends of the court during that series against the Spurs.

There are also potential dangers involved with free agency. There's nothing stopping a team from poaching the Heat's star players, especially James and Bosh. There are tempting opportunities out there, and you can bet Houston could try to convince either of those players that joining Dwight Howard and James Harden presents a stronger alternative than staying intact in Miami.

But while other marquee free agents are already lining up meetings with potential suitors, there could be a very good reason why there have been no such reports of Miami's free agents taking on recruiters.

Either they're good at keeping their business quiet, or they're in lockstep with one another and Riley.

Entering the offseason, Bosh said the Heat's Big Three are more in tune now than they were in 2010 entering this process.

“It's easier to get on the same page now because we know each other,” Bosh said. “I didn't really know those guys [four years ago]. We weren't like that. We hung around each other, but not really. They did. Now, the communication is so much easier because we can get the kids together, we can go out to dinner with the wives, we can do something. We know how to talk to each other. Those things allow us to connect and feel each other out. Before, it was awkward.”

Now, it has become routine.

James has said the Heat need upgrades at every position on the team. That's not necessarily the case, but his point was clearly made. He's not satisfied with where things stand. Without changes, the four-time MVP isn't convinced his next four years will be as promising as the previous four.

“I just want to win -- it's all that matters to me,” James said. “I've been fortunate enough to play in five Finals. I've lost three of them. That doesn't sit well with me at all, being in this position, being able to get to that point. I take a lot of credit, a lot of blame. I just feel like I could have done more. I'm harder on myself than anyone else could be.”

Riley is now armed with everything he needs to ease that burden.

“We're going to find out what we're made of here,” Riley said recently. “It's not about options. It's not about free agency. It's about what we have built over four years here. We have a chance to [again] do something significant. We have a tremendous opportunity to do something special.”

LeBron has led this team on a remarkable run, as far as it could go under the circumstances.

The Heat's Big Three have turned the reins over to Riley to hit the reset button.
video

Big Three get together, discuss future

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
8:00
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
Archive



Brian Windhorst discusses how much of a role LeBron James will have in determining the future of Miami's Big Three.

Satisfying LeBron costly to Heat draft

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
5:17
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive

MIAMI -- Having boasted one of the league's oldest rosters last season, there's no question the Miami Heat need to get younger.

Considering their failures at the position during their demoralizing loss to San Antonio in the Finals, the Heat also are in desperate need of help at point guard.

And beyond anything else right now, the Heat need to keep LeBron James. One of the keys to keeping LeBron is to make him happy and satisfied with every potential roster move.

According to his Twitter post during the NCAA Final Four, LeBron likes Shabazz Napier, who led the UConn Huskies to a national title last spring. Ray Allen likes LeBron and is leaning toward returning for a 19th NBA season as long as he can continue playing alongside the four-time MVP next year.

And Allen is also a former UConn star, who would be an ideal mentor in Miami for Napier.

Connect all of the dots, and it's easy to see why Pat Riley and the Heat reportedly are pushing to move up from their No. 26 slot in Thursday's NBA draft for a shot to acquire the speedy, sharp-shooting combo guard. In addition to Cole and the No. 26 overall pick, the Heat could also offer their $2.2 million trade exception to sweeten a potential deal. But there's a sobering question that keeps coming up each time one of these pipe-dream type scenarios are bantered about seemingly every other day with the Heat this time of the year.

Is it realistic?

The quick answer: hardly.

The Heat are almost completely out of assets. On one hand, it's a position of ultimate flexibility and authority, with the team in a situation with 14 of the 15 players on last season's roster either at the end of expiring contracts or in position to opt out of deals to become free agents next week.

Should Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh follow LeBron's decision this week to opt out of the final two years of their contracts, it would leave only third-year point guard Norris Cole on the Heat's ledger for guaranteed salary next season. So in essence, the Heat's lone play is to move up in the draft for a chance to land Napier and try to entice a team to take back Cole, who is owed $2 million next season, along with the Heat's first-round pick in a future draft.

That means the Heat would be attempting to trade a young, speedy, relatively inexpensive point guard who was a rotation player on two NBA championship teams -- and a future No. 1 pick -- to move a handful of spots up in the draft to get a younger, slightly cheaper, NCAA champion.

But if LeBron wants Napier, the Heat are obligated to try to get him.

As Riley said last week during his season-ending press conference that also served as the launch of the LeBron James Recruitment campaign, the Heat are willing to do “whatever it takes.”

What this reveals more than anything is that the power of LeBron as a free agent is far greater and more dominant that any of his collective powers on a basketball court when he's in uniform and deciding the outcome of a game or a playoff series.

It's clear Riley and LeBron agree on several things about this team entering Thursday's draft and next week's free agency. The Heat need to get younger and more athletic, particularly on the perimeter.

Napier was a fantastic shooter and scorer in college, which makes him similar to other former UConn combo guards in Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker. A bigger priority for the Heat is to find a shooting guard and small forward with length who could alleviate the two-way burden and take some minutes away from LeBron and Wade on the perimeter.

If you're the Heat and are going to trade up, it seems more fitting to reach for swingmen such as Duke's Rodney Hood or Kentucky's James Young.
Riley insisted that among the improvements the Heat needed to make was to develop “a layer of youth” behind the team's veteran core. He also talked about the virtues of players and coaches reinventing themselves to make the next four seasons of Heat basketball around James as dynamic and productive as the past four were.

If Riley takes his own advice, his own reinvention would start to take shape with his approach to the draft as soon as Thursday. Never a huge proponent of relying on youth and developing teams through drafts, just the notion that Riley would sign off on the Heat's attempt to trade up to acquire talent would be a step outside of his traditional team-building comfort zone.

Another option for the Heat would be to make their selection and then trade the pick to clear an additional $1 million off the salary cap to help in other free-agency pursuits. Miami could also make the pick, stash a foreign player in Europe and avoid the salary-cap hit for next season.

That's been Riley's preferred method of operating in the draft. But these are different times.

These are desperate times. These are LeBron-dictated times.

But giving LeBron his way is also part of the reason why the Heat are in this predicament.

Four years ago, to complete sign-and-trade deals with Cleveland for LeBron and with Toronto for Bosh, the Heat forked over a total of four first-round picks over a five-year span. The moves were made to ensure LeBron and Bosh could get the sixth season, respectively, on their contracts instead of being limited to the maximum of five years allowed had they joined the Heat without the trade.

One of the most overlooked aspects of LeBron's decision to opt out Tuesday after his fourth year in Miami is that by doing so, the Heat wasted two first-round picks. If Bosh does the same by opting out, that total rises to four -- one of which the Heat still owe -- to add years and money to contracts that were discarded.

Just in the past four years, those picks could have been parlayed into one of the Plumlee brothers, Perry Jones, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jimmy Butler or Reggie Jackson among others taken late in the first round.

That represents the kind of youth and athleticism the Heat sorely lacked in recent seasons, a shortcoming that culminated in the Finals meltdown against the Spurs.

There's a good reason why LeBron likes Napier, and the Heat are working to get him.

Napier potentially offers a lot of what Patty Mills gave the Spurs against the Heat.
Shooting. Speed. Defense. Youth. Electricity off the bench.

The Heat will have to give LeBron just about everything he wants in order to keep him.

Four years ago, that meant sacrificing first-round draft picks for what proved to be no reason at all.

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