Ira Winderman: Heat need enduring playoff run to obtain enduring answers

MIAMI — When it comes to a potential extended playoff run, Pat Riley, Andy Elisburg and the rest of the Miami Heat braintrust need something extended, something more than one or two games of the play-in round.

No, not for the ego providing themselves right with this roster, or the organizational credit that would come from another deep run.

They need a significant sample size . . . because they need to know.

Typically, it shouldn’t and wouldn’t be this way. Most teams, after an 82-game sample would know who and what they are, and where they potentially could be going down the road.

But little has been typical of this Heat season that largely has meandered around mediocrity, with the occasional thrill show, but also with plenty of chills and spills.

So who the heck are the 2023-24 Miami Heat? To this point, only questions. Answers at this late date remain necessary before entering any future thought, such as . . .

Can the real Jimmy Butler stand up?: Not will the real Jimmy Butler stand up, because amid this highly uneven close to Butler’s regular season, there can’t be anything but doubt about whether the body has given in to the years of wear.

The attempts at the rim come with less explosion, greater defensive pushback. The agility not quite what it was when attempting to stay defensively in front of elite scorers.

At 34, has the tide turned? Or is the caffeinated jolt of the playoffs all that is required to restore order and confidence?

Would a potential first-round series be Butler v. Bucks circa 2021 (not good)? Or Butler v. Bucks 2023 (very, very good)?

Does the current roster structure endure?: This has nothing to do with Riley’s stance that five years is when you know if a mix remains viable (with Tyler Herro having been drafted and Butler having been added in the 2019 offseasons).

To a degree, we know what this mix is, what it can be.

Instead, a playoff run is needed to see if the combination of Terry Rozier and Herro is one that can be carried forward, in the most meaningful of games. Entering the weekend, Rozier and Herro had played a combined 188 minutes in 11 games, fewer minutes together, for example, than Orlando Robinson and Duncan Robinson.

The singular Herro story: And then there is a solely Herro element of the story.

Last year’s playoff lasted one half of one game for Herro, before his hand was injured against the Bucks. Two years ago, Herro’s playoff were an injury-muddled mess due to a groin strain.

The narrative of Herro as offseason trade bait likely won’t change regardless of playoff outcome, because rumor mongers love themselves some Boy Wonder.

But something substantive and enduring from Herro could alter the internal thinking.

Herro’s moment is at hand, and it needs to be an enduring one.

Is the youth ready . . . now?: It has been somewhat a case of trading places between 2023 first-round pick Jaime Jaquez Jr. and 2022 first-rounder Nikola Jovic.

At the start of the season, Jaquez was the newcomer of the moment, stabilizing an injury-ravaged rotation. But as the season draws to its close, it is Jovic who has stepped forward as neophyte revelation.

Nothing, however, would offer as telling a perspective as playoff productivity. That is when the NBA took notice of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent last year at this time, so much notice that each cashed in elsewhere during free agency.

If Jaquez and/or Jovic can produce for extended periods under the league’s brightest glare, it could make it far easier for Riley and Elisburg to begin the transition toward the team’s youth.

Does max Adebayo follow?: Unless media voters pull a surprise when the postseason award ballots arrive Monday, Bam Adebayo will not be 2024 NBA Defensive Player of the Year or make one of the three All-NBA teams. That, in turn, will leave him short of the requirements for a super-max contract extension this season.

But Adebayo will be extension eligible nonetheless. So at what price point can an agreement be reached? Does Adebayo show this postseason that a raise from his current $32.6 million 2023-24 salary is merited? Or do the Heat have to begin considering alternative future paths in the post?

The Martin, Highsmith decisions: Both Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith will be eligible to hit free agency this summer, with Martin holding a $7.1 million player option for next season with the Heat.

Coming off last season’s playoffs, Martin would have hit the free-agency motherload. But injuries seemingly have altered that math. Highsmith, by contrast, with his recent play has shown he is far more than a minimum-scale talent.

Only with a deep playoff run can the Heat get the most significant read with both. Similarly, enduring postseason success also could make both this summer’s Strus and Vincent, in a good-job, good-effort, goodbye sort of way.

IN THE LANE

AWARDS SEASON: With media ballots going out in coming days, it appears award season will be relatively quiet for the Heat. About the only givens seemingly would be Bam Adebayo making first-team All-Defense for the first time, after second-team such nods the past four seasons, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. making first-team All-Rookie. As for those individual awards, Adebayo figures to be one of the three finalists for Defensive Player of the Year, where Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert appears the overwhelming favorite, with San Antonio Spurs big man Victor Wembanyama drawing late attention, and Jaquez might be bumped out for a one of the three finalist spots for Rookie of the Year, with Wembanyama the presumptive favorite and Oklahoma City Thunder big man Chet Holmgren and Charlotte Hornets wing Brandon Miller potentially rounding out those three finalists. While the Heat’s Duncan Robinson has a potential case for Most Improved Player, it does not appear to be anywhere close to the cases for Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga, Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey, Chicago Bulls guard Coby White or Thunder forward Jalen Williams.

SPEAKING OF: Speaking of postseason awards, Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said before Wednesday night’s game against the Heat that Luka Doncic seemingly is being penalized for award consideration because of how he makes the game look easy. Doncic then went out and scored 29 seemingly effortless points against the Heat in Dallas’ blowout win. “Game’s too simple, too easy. He makes it look too easy, unfortunately,” Kidd said. “That’s what happens with some of the greats, when you talk about MJ (Michael Jordan) and those guys. We take for granted their talent. He’s only 25, but he’s playing the game like no one else.” Kidd added, ” We’ve joked around that we might have to do the Larry Bird game and play left-handed. But he might make that look easy, too.”

ALL SMILES: If you’re thinking that was a million-dollar smile that Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving was wearing after Wednesday night’s victory over the Heat, you’re wrong. It was a $2 million smile. Not only did Irving earn a $1 million contract bonus for the Mavericks winning their 50th game, he also earned a $1 million bonus for appearing in at least 58 games this season.

BACK AT IT: Upon joining the Heat off the buyout market in March, veteran guard Patty Mills said he had two remaining immediate goals going forward: a deep playoff run with the Heat and success with the Australian National team at this summer’s Paris Olympics. Mills took another step toward the latter this past week, one of 22 players named finalists for Australia’s roster. Among other NBA players alongside the 35-year-old Heat veteran on the preliminary Australia roster are Dyson Daniels, Dante Exum,  Josh Giddey, Josh Green, Joe Ingles, Jock Landale, Duop Reath and Matisse Thybulle, as well as former long-time NBA guard Matthew Dellavedova..

NUMBER

5-0. The New Orleans Pelicans’ record this season against the Sacramento Kings (because of an extra matchup due to the play-in tournament). The last NBA team to go 5-0 against an opponent in a regular-season? The 1995-96 Miami Heat, who in Pat Riley‘s first season as coach went 5-0 against the New Jersey Nets. Expansion since has limited scheduled season series to a maximum of four games.