TORONTO -- Erik Spoelstra has reached the NBA Finals four times as head coach of the Miami Heat and won two championships, but he had never spoken as emotionally about any of those teams as he did at the end of last season, when the Heat were eliminated from the playoffs on the final night of the regular season.
"I don't know if I've ever felt this way about a team before," Spoelstra said after the final game. "I don't know if I've ever wanted something more for a team."
After LeBron James returned to Cleveland in free agency during the summer of 2014, the Heat sought to remain a contender in the East by building around Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, with the hopes of luring a superstar to join them in Miami. Pat Riley's plan to open up another championship window for the Heat did not go accordingly. Wade left in the summer of 2016 to join the Chicago Bulls. Bosh retired after missing all of last season with a blood clotting issue. Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward considered the Heat in free agency the past two summers but ended up joining other teams.
Without a path to finding even one superstar to build around, the Heat entered last season with question marks up and down their roster. A 11-30 start appeared to doom Miami from the playoff race and opened up questions about whether the team needed to consider a long-term rebuild. And then, the Heat turned it around, going 30-11 to finish the season but missing the playoffs due to a tiebreaker.
This offseason, Miami chose to chart a middle path toward contending.
One of the players who surprised the Heat last year was James Johnson, who spent his first seven seasons in the league with four teams, including two tenures in Toronto. Johnson struggled throughout his career to earn consistent minutes and the trust of his head coaches, until injuries opened up an opportunity to audition for a larger role in Miami last season.
"He came to us because he wanted to become something different," Spoelstra said. "He wanted to be challenged and have more responsibility. I love the way he's grown."
Johnson averaged career highs in points (12.8), rebounds (4.9) and assists (3.6) last season. "It was timing, preparation and opportunity," Johnson explained. "A lot of guys went down last year and it gave me more freedom to try and do other things to let [Spoelstra] know what I was capable of doing. It was like, a little bit of rope, a little bit of rope, a little bit more rope, until I finally got the confidence and trust from him to make plays."
In the offseason, the Heat awarded him with a four-year, $60 million contract. Johnson has impressed new teammate Kelly Olynyk, who signed a four-year, $50 million contract to join the Heat this summer, as well. "He's got the skills of a point guard and he can guard any position," Olynyk said. "Any holes we have on offense or defense, he just fills it."
Johnson is an example of the type of reclamation project the Heat have taken on, betting on their culture of holding players to strict conditioning standards and a level of accountability that they haven't experienced with another organization.
Wayne Ellington is another. The 30-year-old joined the Heat last year, after playing for six different teams over the course of seven NBA seasons.
"The culture here has been an amazing blessing for me," Ellington said. "It made me recommit to my craft like I haven't in a long time. They make sure I am dedicated and determined. It's all part of the culture."
Ellington is taking 7.1 threes per game and hitting 41 percent, and he attributes his rise as one of the best 3-point shooters in the league to Spoelstra. "When my coach is telling me to go hunt for threes and take them," Ellington said, "as a shooter, that's all you can wish for."
Despite returning the core group from last season, the Heat weren't able to build on their strong second-half finish, starting this season with an 11-13 record.
"The defense took a little bit of time," Olynyk said. "We didn't have a lot of communication or trust. The more we play together, the deeper in the season, the more situations and experiences we've been through together, the tighter we've become. You're starting to see that now on both ends."
After Wednesday's victory in Indiana, the Heat have won six in a row and are 24-17, trailing only Boston, Toronto and Cleveland in the East.
The Heat have dealt with injuries all season and continue to do so. Justise Winslow, who played in only 18 games last season, has been out since early December with a knee injury. Dion Waiters, who signed a four-year, $52 million deal to return to Miami this offseason, is considering season-ending ankle surgery.
The Heat miss Waiters' ability to juice up an offense that is currently ranked 22nd in the league, but they've made up for it with their depth. Eight players on the roster are averaging double digits in scoring.
"I have no hesitation to go deep in the rotation," Spoelstra said. "Whatever is needed."
Goran Dragic is leading the way with 17 points per game and is the team's leader in crunch time. "He has a pilot voice," Johnson said. "When there's turbulence and the plane is about to crash, he'll tell everybody to calm down. He holds it together."
The Heat also have several young players with high ceilings.
In Winslow's absence, Josh Richardson has emerged as the team's potential future star, averaging 17.4 points per game and scoring in double digits in 14 straight games before the streak ended in Toronto on Tuesday. The player with the most upside on the roster might be 20-year-old rookie center Bam Adebayo, who is already showing flashes of being an impact player on both ends of the floor.
In Tuesday's win over Toronto, Adebayo had 16 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, creating a formidable front court with Hassan Whiteside. "He's a beast," Ellington said. "There's no other way to describe him. There's no ceiling for a guy like Bam."
Put it all together, and the Heat still have an uncertain path to get back to being championship contenders. If one of Winslow, Richardson or Adebayo makes a leap over the next few years, it changes the conversation. There's already a foundation of role players who are contributing at a high level, and Dragic has been one of the most consistent point guards in the league over the past several seasons.
The Heat have too many long-term deals to make it realistic for them to lure a superstar in free agency, but they also have a roster with plenty of potential to grow internally. Continuity and a front office that isn't afraid to take risks in the trade market means there's still a path to close the gap between themselves and the top teams in the East. The Heat are betting on that.
Right now, Miami is in a tier below the contenders. It's in fourth place, but also just two games ahead of the ninth-place Sixers in the loss column. Despite that, Miami's recent win streak shows it might be on the verge of making another second-half run. The Heat's defense ranks 12th in the league, and in the past 10 games, the offense has perked up to 108.9 points per 100 possessions, ranking 11th in the league over that stretch.
"We had all these hiccups along the way," Olynyk said. "Now we've smoothed it out. If a hiccup comes, we're still able to push forward. We're not heavily reliant on one guy, and that's a big thing."
Dragic has been in the league long enough to know a team simply doesn't finish off a season with a miraculous run and carries it over to a new season. But the Heat are making their push now, and they don't have a huge hole to climb out of this time around.
"You need to put a lot of hard work together to develop the chemistry," Dragic said. "Honestly, we didn't have it at the beginning of the season. Now we're making progress, and you can see it."