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Three questions the Miami Heat must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 41-41, missed playoffs

I know what you did last summer: The Heat solidified a competitive roster by re-signing James Johnson and Dion Waiters, signing Kelly Olynyk and extending Josh Richardson to long-term deals. Miami also drafted Bam Adebayo.

THREE QUESTIONS THE HEAT MUST ANSWER:

1) Are the Heat more a team that went 41-41 or finished 31-10 last season? Miami started 10-31 last year, better than only the Nets. The Heat then went 31-10 in the second half, behind only the Warriors.

So, which team is it?

Miami returns its eight most-used players, so they’ll have a chance to build on their chemistry, which clearly improved as the season progressed. They bought into Erik Spoelstra’s system and developed confidence in it and themselves.

But the larger sample tends to prove more reliable.

The Heat aren’t suddenly a 62-win team over a full season, but they probably believe a 41-41 baseline inaccurately discounts their progress. For a team with so much stability, it’s tough to tell where Miami stands entering the season.

2) Where does Justise Winslow fit? Winslow missed the Heat’s final 48 games last season, i.e., all of their turnaround. Miami’s late-season game plan was built around Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters taking turns attacking the rim while the other spotted up beyond the arc along with a couple other sweet-shooting forwards.

Winslow, with his suspect jumper, can’t play in that system without completely undermining the spacing and floor balance.

Sure, Winslow adds tenacious defense. He can be active offensively, getting out in transition. But his shooting is not only a problem, it’s a direct threat to the game plan the Heat grew comfortable in.

Maybe Spoelstra can find a rotation that positions Winslow to succeed. He’s not a bad player. But how many minutes will be available for him? And what does Miami do offensively during them?

3) Where does Miami find internal growth? Dion Waiters and James Johnson got into shape, had career seasons in contract years then signed lucrative long-term contracts. Kelly Olynyk is also coming off a contract year that netted a large lengthy contract. Goran Dragic and Johnson are on the wrong side of 30. Hassan Whiteside is already 28.

This doesn’t look like a team with a ton of untapped potential, not ideal for a franchise that has gotten a taste of championship contention but now looks locked into early-round playoff exits.

Still, the Heat’s “program,” as they like to call it, has a remarkable track record of developing players.

Justise Winslow could make a difference with or without a jumper – but especially with a jumper. Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Rodney McGruder have come along nicely – and maybe even have more leaps in them. Bam Adebayo certainly offers enticing upside.

Heck, maybe Waiters, Johnson and Olynyk remain hungry. Dragic could stave off aging another couple years. Whiteside is still inexperienced given his years outside the league, so maybe he has more room to grow than the typical player his age.

The Heat won’t have cap space for the foreseeable future, and they already traded a couple future first-round picks. They’re probably too good to draft a blue-chip prospect anytime soon, anyway. This is their team. It’s at least fine.

Do Miami’s current players have the capacity to turn it into something more?

Report: Lakers eager to use LeBron James at center flanked by top four young players

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Why did the Lakers, after securing LeBron James, sign Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson? Their explanation leaves plenty to be desired.

What will the Lakers do with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma now that none of those four are being traded for Kawhi Leonard? Their plan there is far more intriguing.

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.

LeBron at center is a dangerous weapon. The Cavaliers showed it more during the 2017 playoffs – to positive effect.

But LeBron isn’t Draymond Green, who makes Golden State’s Death/Hamptons Five Lineup function. Green possesses a unique combination of rim protection and – through his ball-handling and especially passing – ability to get into offense quickly. LeBron isn’t as good at protecting the paint, and though he’s lethal in transition when he wants to be, he’ll be fighting years of slow-down habits.

I also wonder how much LeBron embraces the physical toll of playing center. The Lakers have only JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and Mo Wagner at the position. Are they banking on LeBron playing there a significant amount during the regular season?

LeBron would likely accept the role more enthusiastically in the playoffs. But Ball, Hart, Ingram and Kuzma will be tested – at least initially – by the heightened level of play. I’d be wary of overly relying on that lineup.

But this is the best way for the Lakers to get talent on the floor and overcome spacing concerns. I’m absolutely excited to see it in action. Whatever concerns I have about it are only multiplied with other potential Lakers lineups.

Report: Nuggets lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. undergoes another back surgery

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Michael Porter Jr. underwent back surgery in November, missed nearly his entire freshman season at Missouri then slipped to No. 14 in the draft amid injury concerns.

The Nuggets have been noncommittal about their plans for Porter, but they’ve given an eyebrow-raising update.

Nuggets release:

Michael Porter Jr. has undergone surgery of the lumbar spine at The Carrell Clinic in Dallas, Tex. The Procedure was performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett. There is no timetable for his return to basketball participation.

Porter is a talented forward with the length and skill to make a major impact as a scorer.

But, as this latest surgery underscores, drafting him carried terrifying risk. Denver will have to bear that for a while.

Report: Dirk Nowitzki to re-sign with Mavericks for $5 million

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Dirk Nowitzki is set to play his 20th season – breaking Kobe Bryant’s record for most seasons with a single franchise and tying Kevin Garnett, Robert Parish and Kevin Willis for most seasons in the NBA.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks declined Nowitzki’s $5 million team option, but he was never signing elsewhere. He was either going to retire or play for Dallas.

Once he decided to return, the only question was money.

The Mavericks declined Nowitzki’s option to maximize their flexibility for upgrades, namely signing DeAndre Jordan. Once Yogi Ferrell agreed to an absurdly team-friendly contract, Dallas had enough cap space left to give Nowitzki his team-option amount. If necessary, he would have taken the $4,449,000 room exception.

Nowitzki has had a great career, and this could be his farewell tour. But he also remains a helpful rotation-level player. Though he’s a defensive liability, his outside shooting as a big goes a long way toward floor spacing.

Report: Mavericks re-signing Yogi Ferrell for less than qualifying-offer salary with second year unguaranteed

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The Mavericks expected Yogi Ferrell to accept his qualifying offer.

Turns out, they’ll keep him on an even more team-friendly deal than the one he could have unilaterally signed.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This is an awful deal for Ferrell.

As reported, he’ll earn between $2,548,077 and $2,760,417 next season. That range is less than his qualifying offer – which would have paid him a fully guaranteed $2,919,204 next season.

That reduction is acceptable if Ferrell got something in exchange – but he gave Dallas the concession by adding an unguaranteed second year. If he plays well, the Mavericks will keep him at a cheap salary. If he doesn’t, they’ll waive him for no cost. They have all the control.

The promise of the backup shooting guard job is probably just lip service. Teams don’t stick by that if the player struggles. If he produces, he would have gotten the job anyway.

Dallas has plenty of point guard types – Dennis Smith Jr., Luka Doncic, J.J Barea, Jalen Brunson and Ferrell. Rick Carlisle uses two of them simultaneously often enough that Ferrell should land in the rotation. But it’s far from a lock.

With this deal, Ferrell is taking all the risk and the Mavericks are getting all the upside.