Back And Forth With Scott Rafferty: Should The Miami Heat Go For The Playoffs?

Editor's note: Welcome to Back And Forth, a weekly NBA email back-and-forth discussion with Chase Thomas and one of his favorite NBA writers and thinkers, Scott Rafferty, who is a writer at The Step Back, Rolling Stone and the Sporting News. This week, the duo tackled the question: Should the Miami Heat go for the playoffs?

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CT: Hey Scott,

It's been a few weeks, and I hope you've had a fulfilling, relaxing holiday break. But I'm excited to talk about another NBA question that I've been thinking a lot about over the break. 

As of this writing, the Miami Heat would qualify for the NBA playoffs, and I have to ask, should the Heat want to make the playoffs in 2018?

SR: Yes, they should. 

The Heat are in a tough position when it comes to their future. Their six highest paid players — Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Johnson — are all under contract until 2019-20 and the two first-round picks they traded to the Suns for Dragic still haven't conveyed. If this core doesn't make the playoffs this season, it's hard to see how it gets much better before 2020 considering how little cap room they'll have and how they won't have many opportunities to add talent in the NBA Draft. 

Plus, this team is good enough to make the playoffs. They proved it in the second half of last season and they are proving it again this season (although it helps that the 76ers, Knicks and Pacers have hit a rough patch).

CT: I can't stop thinking about the Tyler Johnson contract. Seeing $18 million next to his name on ESPN's Trade Machine next season is going to take some getting used to. I do wonder, though, do you think the Nets would still be interested in trading for him before the deadline this season? 

I think their other five highest-paid players are defensible, though. Olynyk makes sense both next to Whiteside and without him, especially when you consider how many threes Miami takes as a team; Whiteside is awesome and what they've gotten out of him is pretty remarkable; Johnson just works in Spo's system; Dragic is so much more valuable to them without Dwyane Wade; Waiters' issues this season should have been expected with his ankle issues that we all knew couldn't be resolved over the summer. Miami clearly doesn't have a star, but if they were able to pair this group with the right, above-average wing they'd be scary.

I think that's why I'm so annoyed with this team. As you point out, they're locked in with this group for the next couple of years with no real cap relief coming anytime soon. That's not ideal, but if they were able to land Gordon Hayward this summer wouldn't you love a five-man lineup of Dragic, Waiters, Hayward, Johnson and Whiteside? I don't think that'd be enough to win the East, but considering how well coached this group is, they'd be incredibly dangerous and just a thorn in the side of so many teams.

This roster would look *right* if they had a star wing, and that's why I'm hoping Paul George winds up here this summer, or the team tries to trade for Andrew Wiggins, or whoever, I just want Spo and Riley to add the right wing to pair with this core that'd look so much better with the right wing playmaker. 

SR: I'm not sure about the Nets trading for Johnson anymore. Signing him to the offer sheet they did was a smart move at the time because it would've given them a young player with two-way potential until 2019-20. Quite a lot has changed since then. They have some good young talent on their roster (D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen) as well as some veterans who fit in with their system (Jeremy Lin, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll). Unless they can get a draft pick in the same deal — which they probably wouldn't given how similar of a situation the Heat are in pick-wise — I'm not sure there's as much of a need for him anymore. 

I think you're right about the Heat being the best of the four, mainly because we sort of know what they are. The 76ers have a much higher potential, but they are still in their infancy. The Knicks started out the season strong, but they've hit a rough patch. It's a similar case with the Pacers, although I think they are a legitimate threat to make the playoffs when Victor Oladipo returns.

I'm not sure about the Nets trading for Johnson anymore. Signing him to the offer sheet they did was a smart move at the time because it would've given them a young player with two-way potential until 2019-20. Quite a lot has changed since then. They have some good young talent on their roster (D'Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen) as well as some veterans who fit in with their system (Jeremy Lin, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll). Unless they can get a draft pick in the same deal — which they probably wouldn't given how similar of a situation the Heat are in pick-wise — I'm not sure there's as much of a need for him anymore. 

I think you're right about the Heat being the best of the four, mainly because we sort of know what they are. The 76ers have a much higher potential, but they are still in their infancy. The Knicks started out the season strong, but they've hit a rough patch. It's a similar case with the Pacers, although I think they are a legitimate threat to make the playoffs when Victor Oladipo returns.

Maybe we should be asking if the Heat have the potential to upset anyone in the first round if they do make the playoffs. I have a hard time seeing them (or anyone else in the Eastern Conference) beating the Cavaliers, so who do they have a better chance of taking down out of the Celtics, Raptors and Wizards?

CT: Yeah, that's certainly true. It's fascinating how much is different about that Brooklyn team now. I suppose I floated the Johnson idea in response to the team's unfortunate injury luck with Jeremy Lin and D'Angelo Russell this season. I love what Spencer Dinwiddie is doing with his opportunity now, but adding another guard to ease his burden along with Caris LeVert and Russell wouldn't hurt, I don't think. What do they do with Dinwiddie, Lin and Russell this summer, by the way? 

There's a very real argument to be made that the Pacers are still a better team, especially with a healthy Oladipo in the fold. They've obviously surprised, and although I don't totally understand how Nate McMillan is pulling this off, I should place this team ahead of Miami at this point. I'm just not there with Philadelphia and New York right now, though, and am leaning towards things getting worse for both clubs in January. 

I agree. I wouldn't bet on them over Cleveland or Washington, but they match-up so well with Boston and you never know with Toronto. I'm personally rooting for a first-round affair that includes Dragic going at Kyrie and Horford trying to deal with Whiteside. And I'd never say no to a playoff series that pits Spoelestra against Brad Stevens. This is not meant to be a hot take, but I think it'd go seven.

Who would you like to see them matched up with?

SR: Dinwiddie playing the way he has this season certainly makes things interesting because the Nets basically now have three starting-calibre point guards on their roster (although Lin has played plenty of shooting guard in his career and Russell has the skill set to do so). Fortunately for them, they still have a year to figure it out since they're all under contract for one more season. I think they'll need that season to determine who they want to keep as they take the next step in their rebuild, whether it's two of them (Dinwiddie and Lin?) or just one of them (Russell?).

I'm leaning towards that being the most entertaining matchup as well. If we got Celtics-Heat and Cavaliers-Bucks in the first round, I would be an extremely happy man. Celtics-Heat would be a hard-fought series and Cavaliers-Bucks would give us at least four games of LeBron vs. Giannis. It's a win-win for everyone.

CT: So do you think the plan would be to keep all three going into next season? If I'm Sean Marks, I'd be very tempted to sell high on a guy getting 'MVP' chants in Brooklyn right now. I'm not sure what is value is, or what you could get for him, but I'd probably aim to move him prior to the deadline. Either way, it should be interesting to see how Atkinson handles this trio if they're ever all healthy at the same time again.

Oh man.

Cavs-Bucks in Round 1 has to happen and I hadn't even really considered it to this point. I suppose seventh seed is still a possibility, but, if that's where they ultimately finish in a few months, that should be the end of Jason Kidd's tenure in Milwaukee, right? They might have an interim roaming the sidelines in that series, I'd suspect. 

But yes, a seven-game series with Giannis and LeBron that takes place in the first round would feel like basketball fans are getting away with something. That's a match-up, at this point, shouldn't possibly take place early in the postseason, but it would be a hard-fought series between two anxiety-riddled teams, which would be a delight.

Back to the Heat, though, now that we're in agreement that it'd be good for them to qualify for the postseason, that they'd be a thorn in the side of President Stevens and LeBron James in the opening round, what else can they do to ensure they make the playoffs? What would you like to see them do or what statistics would you like to see shift for this club in the next few months?

SR: Probably? There's just a lot of uncertainty given the injuries to Lin and Russell. Plus, are you certain you'd want one of them over Dinwiddie moving forward? It might have been a crazy question to ask three months ago, but Dinwiddie has been fantastic this season and he's only 24-years-old. Who's to say he isn't their point guard of the future?

I think it ultimately comes down to health for the Heat. They're not a team that relies on one player to get the job done, so health from top to bottom is a bigger deal to them than some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference. If they're healthier in the second half of the season, they should be in good shape to make the playoffs.

CT: I love that we've somehow allocated a significant portion of this conversation to discuss the Nets and their intriguing backcourt dynamics. 

In regards to your question, I'm comfortable with my belief that Dinwiddie is the right person to move if it comes to that. I think with the team trading for Russell and being without another Lottery pick this year, you have to do everything in your organization's power to propel the former Laker to stardom, and I think it's going to be difficult if they keep all three for the foreseeable future. 

If Whiteside and Dragic and James Johnson remain healthy, I think you're right. This might be a take of the hot variety, but I think Dragic is their player of most importance, especially when you take a gander at the other playmakers behind him on the depth chart along with his USG%. The Dragon hasn't missed a game this season, and if he can reach the 73-plus threshold like he has the last few seasons I suspect this team will reach the playoffs, and, hopefully, match up with Boston in the first round. 

Any final thoughts on this well-coached, prickly team?

SR: That's fair. I'm interested to see how the Nets look when Dinwiddie and Russell are on the floor together. Maybe that changes things if they complement each other well.

I'm just excited to see how the Heat do in the second half of the season. This is about when they went on their crazy win streak last season and they're starting to get healthy again. It's time to see how good this team really is.