Heat shift from painful finish to promising future

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MIAMI – Forget the GQ image, the timely motivational messages and the collective sparkle from all of those championship rings that define his Hall of Fame legacy.

Pat Riley was a beaten, disheveled, broken man at the moment.

His plea for mercy barely rose above a whisper.

Riley had emerged from the visitors locker room just as the paramedics were rolling one of his players away on a stretcher with a head injury. It was the final crushing blow near the end of one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The Miami Heat were staggering to the finish of a brutal stretch replete with season-ending injuries to Alonzo Mourning, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Shawn Marion.

A handful of D-League call-ups were summoned to play out the string, and not even they could escape the wrath of maladies. Most of Riley’s final season on the bench in his dual role as Miami’s coach and team president was one to forget. But even now – especially now, actually – his words and image that April 2008 night at the Verizon Center in Washington are hard to erase from memory.

The Heat had just lost their 63rd game on the way to a 15-67 record in the 2007-08 season. During the game against the Wizards, center Alexander Johnson was inadvertently struck in the temple by teammate Mark Blount, a blow that ultimately sent the conscious but unresponsive Johnson to the hospital.

As he walked away from reporters after the stretcher passed, Riley whimpered:

“Can’t we just get this God-forsaken season over with?”

Johnson escaped serious injury and quickly recovered.

Eventually, so did Miami.

Moral of the story: If you think what the Heat endured this season was bad, just know that they’ve overcome much worse not too long ago. The immediate aftermath of Shaquille O’Neal’s forced departure in a midseason trade seven years ago left the Heat with a much steeper climb back to prominence than LeBron James’ unexpected defection in free agency last summer.

The longest postseason streak in franchise history officially ended Tuesday night when the Indiana Pacers beat Washington in double-overtime to eliminate Miami from playoff contention. Six consecutive trips to the playoffs, including four Finals appearances and two championships, will peter out when the Heat wrap up their first losing season since 2008 after Wednesday’s season finale in Philadelphia.

A game neither team wants to win, because of potential draft lottery implications, will officially close a campaign in which Miami became the first team in more than a decade to advance to the NBA Finals the previous year and miss the playoffs the next season. Of course, there are plenty of reasons for that fate.

The path from LeBron’s departure to probable lottery destination took just 81 games. And it was paved with crushing injuries, curious coaching decisions, a questionable personnel move or two, and a few inexcusable late-game collapses along the way. There’s enough blame to go around amid this equal-opportunity letdown during coach Erik Spoelstra’s first losing season that felt similar to Riley’s last.

But even through the November season-ending knee injury to Josh McRoberts, the February loss of Chris Bosh to blood clots on his lungs, the 30 different starting lineups Spoelstra sifted through, and the assortment of ailments that limited what was left of the Heat in recent weeks, there’s no denying one thing: They still underachieved.

No, what Miami had at the end of the season doesn’t constitute anywhere near a championship team. It might not have even been a second-round playoff team. But they’ll head into the offseason knowing that Milwaukee, Boston, Indiana and/or Brooklyn faced just as much adversity and got further with less.

Losing LeBron may have kept the Heat from contending for a title, but it had nothing to do with them failing to make the playoffs. Not even the front-line injury absence since the All-Star break can justify that, considering Miami was two games below .500 when McRoberts was lost and 22-30 when Bosh played his final game of the season.

What hurt the Heat more than anything was their inability to win consistently at home and to close games anywhere after building huge leads. There’s a trail of evidence from Philadelphia, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Detroit to support this flaw. Go 2-2 in those games, and you’re the No. 7 seed entering this weekend and making LeBron a bit uneasy about the nagging elements of a Heat-Cavs matchup. Go 1-3 in those games and you’re in position to squeeze past the Pacers and Nets for the No. 8 seed and face a banged-up Atlanta team that’s facing real postseason pressure for the first time in decades.

Instead, Miami went 0-4 and is headed home for the offseason as a result.

For all of their shortcomings and disappointments on the court during the season, the Heat did get a head start on the retooling process for next season. They’ve addressed the two positions – point guard and center – that have haunted them since the year after their 2006 title run.

Goran Dragic never got the chance to play with Bosh this season, but the point guard the Heat acquired for two future first-round picks at the trade deadline had nearly two months to get acquainted with Dwyane Wade. Dragic, who can become a free agent this summer, has indicated his desire to stay in Miami. But is he potentially worth a max contract over five seasons? That’s the $109 million question Riley must answer in the coming months. Dragic has a nice bit of leverage, considering how bad it would be if the Heat gave up two first-rounders for a two-month rental.

And what you pay Dragic could potentially impact what’s available when the time comes to lock up promising center Hassan Whiteside, who will return to play on a minimum contract next season but will be an unrestricted free agent in 2016. The former journeyman and D-League prospect has dominated the likes of Joakim Noah, Jonas Valanciunas and Nik Vucevic – three of the best centers in the East – over the last two weeks. Hall of Famer Bob Cousy favorably compared Whiteside to Bill Russell, and O’Neal said Whiteside is already the third-best center in Heat history behind O’Neal and Mourning.

By the way, Whiteside hasn’t even played 70 career NBA games yet since his 2010 rookie season in Sacramento. In April, he is averaging 16.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks while shooting 67.7 percent from the field. If Whiteside continues along that arc, that production stacks up favorably with DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis and the Gasol brothers.

The Heat couldn’t secure a playoff seed, but they’ve planted seeds for the future.

Next season’s starting lineup could be bookended by a top-12 point guard in Dragic and top-5 center in Whiteside. The rotation would be supplemented with Bosh, McRoberts, Wade, Luol Deng, a potential midlevel free-agent addition and a possible lottery pick.

If nothing else, the Heat emerge from a painful season with a promising outlook. But if the Heat learned anything from Riley’s last losing season and Spoelstra’s first, it’s that health is far from guaranteed.

On paper, 2015-16 sets up for a potent, bounce-back season for the humbled Heat.

For now, that paper is worth about as much as a ticket in Miami for Game 1 of the playoffs.