We are three games into the NBA finals, and to no one’s surprise, it looks as if the Golden State Warriors are simply on another level than every other team. With Kevin Durant already verbally committed to returning next season to the most dominant team in the NBA, it’s clear that for the foreseeable future, all roads to a championship lead through Oakland, California.
For the past three seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been making that June trip to northern California. But there's good news for the Heat: The East is so weak that Miami is just a few simple steps away from dethroning the Cavs and making that playoff run.
1. The Heat must re-sign James Johnson and Dion Waiters.
Around this time last year, everyone would have said the Heat paying big free-agent money to James Johnson and Dion Waiters would be a DJ-Khaled-major-key-alert bad idea. None of us expected it, but here we are: Retaining Johnson and Waiters is a must if the Heat plans to contend for a championship next season.
Signing a big free agent like Gordon Hayward would be great, but if it means losing the momentum the Heat gained last season and being able to sign only filler players around him, the team would likely find itself running in place. The Heat needs to build on what it created during its 30-11 second-half run last season, not blow it up and reinvent itself again.
2. Hassan Whiteside needs to capitalize on his talents and turn into a top-five player.
As terrific as Hassan Whiteside has been over the past two seasons, he still hasn't been consistent enough to be considered a vital piece the Heat can count on to get Miami to the finals. Whiteside has elite talent that, if he reaches the next level that Erik Spoelstra keeps insisting he is capable of reaching, could make him a top-five player.
If the Heat brings back the team it finished the year with last season, plus adds a next-level All-Star-caliber Whiteside (who is rumored to be adding an outside shot this off-season), there is no reason the team can't find itself at the very least in the Eastern Conference finals and, eventually, a matchup against the Warriors.
3. Justise Winslow must return healthy and live up to his promise.
It's time. If it's not the time for Justise Winslow to turn into something special in his third season, there's some Miami Dolphins-zombie-fan-level patience happening. Yes, he's young, but rarely do players get four years in the NBA to figure it out. This isn't Minor League Baseball, and injuries or no injuries, 2017-18 is shit-or-get-off-the-pot time for Winslow to be a major part of the Heat.
The team can either find it has a major rotation player for a championship squad next season or still have questions as to whether Winslow will ever see his offensive game catch up to his defensive abilities. If he even puts pieces of it together next season, the Heat would basically be adding another first-round pick to the roster.
2. The Heat must strike gold with the 14th overall pick in this year's NBA draft.
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History isn't on Miami's side, but if the Heat wants to hit the upgrade button on last year's cute promise, adding a rotation player with solid upside in this month's draft is a must. It looked like the Heat would be bad enough to score a top lottery pick through the first half of the season, but the team went and got good in the second half, so the 14th pick is what Miami has to work with now. They'll have to find something useful with it if they want to add young, cheap talent to a roster that is getting more expensive.
1. The Cleveland Cavaliers need to get worse at basketball.
The most important change is out of the Heat's hands. LeBron James is a roadblock that won't go away anytime soon. If the Heat plans on facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals in 2018 (and, yes, it's safe to assume the Warriors will make it to a fourth straight finals), the team will have to dethrone the annual Eastern Conference champs. For that to happen, the Cavs can't go and add ammo to their team like the Warriors did this off-season when they signed Kevin Durant. That means no Carmelo Anthony-for-Kevin Love trade. That means LeBron James getting .00000005 percent worse at basketball due to age. That means a lot of luck and probably an injury somewhere on their roster. The Heat isn't close, so it'll need the Cavs to come back to the pack a bit it if Miami is to catch them in 2018.