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Lowe: Inside Miami’s incredible turnaround, from the lottery to the East finals

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I first started hearing versions of it from rival executives at the end of the 2014-15 season, when the Miami Heat traded two first-round picks for Goran Dragic on an expiring contract — and finished 37-45, one game short of the playoffs:

It if it wasn’t the Heat, we’d be all be laughing at them.

But of course: It was the Heat, with all that meant.

Miami entered the next season with one of the league’s most intriguing starting lineups: Dragic, franchise icon Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside — a failed prospect who had knocked around from the D League to Lebanon before the Heat (as the Heat do) brought him in and helped turn him into a shot-blocking menace. LeBron James had bolted for Cleveland two years earlier, but Pat Riley was determined to chase him.

That team was 29-24 before blood clots ended Bosh’s season and eventually robbed him of the last phase of his career. They made the playoffs anyway, losing a seven-game slog to the Toronto Raptors in the second round.

WATCH: Heat-Celtics Game 2, Thurs., 7 p.m. ET on ESPN

The Heat got a meeting with Kevin Durant that summer. When Durant chose the Golden State Warriors, Miami re-signed its own free agents: four years and $98 million for Whiteside, and then the decision to match the Brooklyn Nets‘ poison pill four-year, $50 million offer sheet for Tyler Johnson — an undrafted diamond in the rough who had started seven games over two seasons. (A one-time-only super-spike in the cap in the summer of 2016 created an outlier players’ market.)

The Heat easily could have traded Whiteside for decent return ahead of his free agency, league sources said, but understandably invested in the player they had helped resuscitate.

The pattern repeated in the summer of 2017: Gordon Hayward chose the Boston Celtics over Miami, and the Heat circled back to their incumbent free agents: a four-year, $60 million deal for James Johnson; four years and $52 million for Dion Waiters; and then four years and $50 million more to swipe Kelly Olynyk from the Celtics.

The Heat had scooped up Waiters and Johnson for very little, helped them get into peak shape, and maximized what they could do on the floor. They became core pieces of a lovable Heat team that went on an improbable run: 30-11 to finish the 2016-17 season after starting it 11-30. They missed the playoffs via tiebreaker.

Just before the start of that 30-11 run, Miami’s brain trust scheduled a meeting to discuss how they should approach the trade deadline — and the reality that math was chipping away at their postseason chances, Andy Elisburg, the team’s GM and senior vice president, has told ESPN. The Heat started winning. The meeting never happened. (The Heat have never really started a season with the intent of tanking it. In-season circumstances — injuries, Alonzo Mourning’s kidney illness — dictated their dips in 2002-03 and 2007-08.)

By the midway point of the 2017-18 season, it looked as if tanking the prior season might have been the “smarter” move. Rival chuckling at the Heat’s expense morphed into genuine concern and curiosity: How was one of the league’s glamour franchises going to get out of this? When I traveled to Miami to cover the team that winter, I could sense a certain discomfort within the franchise. It wasn’t demoralization: more like the realization that most of those contracts were turning out worse than expected, and that climbing out would not be easy.

Whiteside’s warts were showing. Waiters was dealing with an ankle injury; his whole situation was about to go haywire. On the Lowe Post podcast last week, Dan Le Batard, who might know Riley better than anyone in media, recalled strolling through Heat headquarters around that time with Riley and coming across walls adorned with photos of Waiters and Whiteside. “He, like, snorts in disdain,” Le Batard said, “and he just blurted, ‘Our so-called leaders.’ And I’m like, ‘Oof. This is not a good place for these people to be.'”

Justise Winslow, their potential savior, was also injured. His role going forward was murky. The Heat were stuck in mid-40s-wins territory, with a clogged cap sheet and half-empty quiver of draft picks.

It’s possible to build from the middle toward the top without bottoming out. The Pacers transitioned from the Malice in the Palace teams into the Paul George-Roy Hibbert group that made back-to-back conference finals in 2013 and 2014 — pushing Miami the distance in the first — without ever winning fewer than 32 games or picking higher than No. 10. Houston hovered around .500 after the dissolution of the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming teams before cobbling enough draft picks to snag James Harden. The Raptors ran aground at a higher win-total level before the Kawhi Leonard masterstroke.

It’s doable, but it’s hard. The teams that manage usually keep their cap sheets clean-ish and hoard at least their own first-round picks.

I’m not sure there is any clear precedent for what Miami has done in just two years: rebuilding into a contender on the fly from a position of on-paper weakness. It is one of the greatest front-office accomplishments in recent league history — more difficult, in a way, than the free agency coup of 2010.

It starts with the tedious, grinding work of NBA front-office life. Heat brass never became demoralized because they enjoy that work, and have faith they can do it as well or better than anyone. They drafted a star with the 14th pick in Bam Adebayo. He has developed even faster than anyone within the Heat expected.

“You could not project what kind of offensive player he would be,” Riley told ESPN in January.

“The doubt was whether he could really do much on offense,” said Chet Kammerer, Miami’s senior advisor of basketball operations. “I just felt like, with his love for the game and his work ethic, he’s going to be OK in that area. But that was the big question mark.”

They found another key contributor, and maybe a future All-Star, with Tyler Herro at No. 13. Getting that kind of almost immediate production from two back-end lottery picks — separated by only one draft — is beyond any reasonable optimistic expectation.

For most of this regular season, the Heat started two undrafted free agents in Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson. (They had the inside track in the hours after the 2016 draft on another undrafted free agent-turned-starter, but the Dallas Mavericks outbid Miami at the last second for Dorian Finney-Smith, sources have told ESPN.)

All of that was important foundation-laying, but it wouldn’t amount to a deep playoff run without a centerpiece star.

During their season of overlap with the Chicago Bulls, Jimmy Butler once heard Dwyane Wade remark in the locker room about perhaps not having fully appreciated the Heat’s culture until he joined another NBA team for the first time, sources close to the matter said. That stuck with Butler.

As Butler moved from Chicago to the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Philadelphia 76ers, never satisfied anywhere, his agent, Bernie Lee, would often warn him: “There’s no utopia in the NBA. Every team has issues.”

“I’d always hear back: What about Miami?” Lee said. “I can only assume the person who had a locker near Jimmy for a year and who is in a picture with Jimmy that has been the home screen on Jimmy’s phone had something to do with that.”

(Representatives at CAA confirmed the two discussed team culture and Wade’s decision to move on from Miami during their shared time with the Bulls.)

When it became clear Butler and the Sixers would not come to terms on a long-term contract, the Heat were Butler’s first choice even though they did not have cap space for him. That would not deter Riley.

Different stars have different reasons for being attracted to Miami. Some are sucked in by Riley’s legend and aura. Most people enjoy good weather. The lack of a state income tax in Florida matters. But so does everything the Heat has built: their constant pursuit of winning; three recent championships; their high conditioning standards and refusal to tolerate less from anyone of any stature; Erik Spoeltra’s coaching résumé, nearing Hall of Fame quality if it isn’t already there (it probably is).

“We never once spoke about Miami as a city,” Lee said. “Obviously it’s an amazing place with amazing people, but Jimmy wasn’t going there for the beach. Since he’s gotten there, I think we have gone out to eat less than 10 times and one of them was the Super Bowl. We didn’t even talk about the tax advantages. The only questions he asked were of the background of the people involved and how they would build out the team.”

As one rival GM put it: “The Heat have something better than trade assets.”

They had a player Philadelphia wanted: Josh Richardson, the 40th pick in the 2015 draft, another coup for Riley, Elisburg, Kammerer, and Adam Simon, Miami’s assistant general manager and vice president of basketball operations. Miami neared a cap-clearing deal with the Mavericks at the start of free agency, but it fell apart. Heat executives went around the clock canvassing the league to put together something else.

In a complex four-team megadeal, the Sixers signed-and-traded Butler to Miami for Richardson. To make the math work, the Heat dealt Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers for Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless — and then flipped Harkless into the LA Clippers‘ cap space along with a future first-round pick. (Teams have ended up being able to play musical chairs with all the big contracts signed in 2016.)

What if Jusuf Nurkic had been healthy, and the Blazers didn’t need a stop-gap center? The Heat probably would have been able to offload Whiteside somewhere by attaching the same first-round pick they sent to the Clippers. But Portland did need a center, and the Heat instead turned Whiteside into a useful player — Leonard — who started almost the entire regular season.

What if the Sixers had no interest in Richardson, or anything else Miami was willing to trade? That’s a thornier one. It’s possible the deal falls apart and Butler is elsewhere. But he wanted Miami and Miami wanted him, and the Heat could have searched out players and picks the Sixers liked better.

The Sixers wanted Richardson — good fortune for Miami, but also good fortune Miami kicked into motion by nailing a long-shot pick and helping along Richardson’s development.

Does #HeatCulture have the same appeal if you transferred all the basketball parts — the history, Spoelstra, Riley — to a cold Midwestern city with high taxes? No. But the Heat wouldn’t lose all the appeal, either. They have built something real apart from South Beach and sun, even if South Beach and sun helped them build it. They exist in Miami anyway, so the counterfactual is irrelevant.

They worked to preserve that appeal for the summer of 2021 and beyond this season. They flipped Winslow for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill at the trade deadline. They then came close to acquiring Danilo Gallinari, who would have presumably started at power forward alongside Adebayo in the Heat’s current alignment. Talks fell apart in part because the Heat and Gallinari could not agree on a contract extension similar in scope to the one Iguodala agreed to upon his trade to Miami, according to reports from around the trade deadline.

Miami was wary of chipping away at its cap flexibility. It appeared feasible for the Heat to acquire Gallinari without surrendering Nunn, Robinson, Herro, or Derrick Jones Jr. — to get him for draft compensation and salary filler, sources told ESPN’s Bobby Marks and me at the time.

Given those parameters, there was a good argument to go all-in. Miami needed one more shooter. If they had to move Gallinari in a year or two to open cap room, they could find a way. But dumping salary in a pinch, on deadline, can cost a lot. You have no leverage. No one is eager to help you without extracting a bounty.

The Heat wagered Crowder and Iguodala were enough to thread the needle: make a real playoff push now while keeping things clear for the future. I was among those who thought they were still a little short on shooting. So far, they have been vindicated — mostly because Crowder is doing a bang-on Gallinari impression: 43% from deep as a member of the Heat on seven attempts per game.

They are three wins from one of the most unlikely Finals berths in recent league history — something even Heat higher-ups probably didn’t expect before the season.

When James left Cleveland in 2010, Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ governor, penned an infamous letter in which he guaranteed the Cavs would win an NBA championship “before the self-titled former ‘King’ wins one.” LeBron proved him wrong.

LeBron leaving before they expected it shattered the Heat, but they never stopped fighting to meet him at the summit again. That fight led them down some wayward paths, but they did remarkable work extricating themselves. They have a chance at everything again now.

NBA schedule: Game 2, Thurs., 7 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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