Five years ago, South Florida sports had a clear hierarchy. There was the Miami Heat – led by the Big 3 – and then there was everybody else.
The past five years have seen a lot of shifting and changes in the fortunes of many teams. Jim Larranaga and Mark Richt have arrived with the purpose of reforming moribund Hurricanes programs. The Heat lost both its most important member and its most dominant player in the course of three seasons.
The Panthers went from relocation favorites to division champions. The Marlins are on course for their first winning season in a decade, and the Dolphins… well, sometimes change is a slow and gradual process.
To illustrate the changes we have seen, I’ve decided to rank teams most likely to win a championship in the near future, in ascending order. To be clear, this is an extremely short-term outlook for all the teams. These rankings are based on the probability that each team will contend for a championship in the next year or two.
Projecting beyond that is a fool’s errand. If the Heat have taught us anything in recent years it is that a sudden rise, or collapse, can happen nearly overnight.
6. Miami Dolphins
Reason for hope: Deshaun Watson or Brad Kaaya could be Dolphins soon
Reason to drink: Mike Tannenbaum is in control
The Dolphins are rapidly entering a mire from which it will be very hard to escape from. The team had enough talent in 2013 and 2014 to make the playoffs if it had a more competent coaching staff, but much of that talent has either aged or departed.
While the offensive line has improved, the team may still start Dallas Thomas, who at this point I’m willing to say is the worst player in team history to start multiple seasons. The team’s secondary and linebacking corps may be at its weakest point since the 2007 season when the team finished 1-15.
I wholeheartedly agree with Josh’s idea that the Dolphins should try to tank. Tannenbaum has hurt the team the same way he hurt the Jets. He has a collection of talented players acquired through the draft and free agency (Landry, Pouncey, Suh, Jones, etc.), but there are twice as many positions on the roster that are occupied by replacement and/or sub-replacement level talent. In addition, the vast majority of good players on the roster came either from the Dennis Hickey regime or (gasp) the Jeff Ireland era.
Tannenbaum’s infatuation with a handful of headliners has bankrupted the potential of the rest of the squad. Tannenbaum could stand to learn a few pointers about money management. It may be awesome to own a fancy car, but if you can’t afford to buy groceries or pay your electric bill after buying the car, your quality of life is now worse, despite the car.
5. Miami Heat
Reason for hope: The young core could vastly improve
Ok, so the Heat had a pretty wild offseason. They still have three potential All-Stars in Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, and Whiteside, but no one really knows if Bosh can play again long-term. Dragic may not last until the Trade Deadline. Whiteside is still Whiteside.
If the team wants to be successful, they have to count on all of these three veterans playing well and the young core of Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Tyler Johnson collectively taking a big step forward. Beyond these six players, the team is made up with a collection of cast-offs and unproven talent ranging from D-League star Willie Reed to all-time bust Derrick Williams to Dion “Kobe” Waiters.
The Heat’s ceiling this season is somehow sneaking in as a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. That being said, it;s probably best for the Heat – like the Dolphins – to do worse this season and pick from a very talented draft pool.
The experience of having Winslow, Richardson, Johnson, and even Whiteside take on a greater role at the expense of wins will most likely benefit the franchise in the long-run. I continue to have faith that Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg will get the Heat back on the right track shortly.
4. Miami Marlins
Reason for hope: They have legitimate talent
Reason to drink: Do I really need to say it?
As of the writing of this article, the Marlins would have their first winning season since 2009. They have done this with All-Star Dee Gordon suspended for most of the season and with very little quality starting pitching outside of Jose Fernandez. Unfortunately, the team has been dealt another setback with the loss of Giancarlo Stanton for the third straight year in a row.
This is certainly a massive blow to the team’s playoff chances, but the fact the team has been in Wild Card contention for most of the year is certainly a positive development.
Much of the Marlins talent is still under team control next year, and so, despite a depleted farm system, a couple of good signings here and there could catapult the Marlins into legitimate contender status. The eternal problem with the Marlins is, of course, their ownership. The Marlins have proven they can find and develop players since the beginning.
Yet the team’s future is constantly at the mercy of Jeffery Loria. Marcell Ozuna, the team’s lone position player All-Star this season who was nearly traded by Loria last year and was only stopped because the front office, Don Mattingly, and Barry Bonds refused his demand.
Loria has already forced through some dubious trades this year. He could wake up tomorrow and decide to gut the team, and thus the hard work of the front office – which has just started to produce tangible results – may once again go up in flames.
3. Miami Hurricanes Football
Reason for hope: DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD
Reason to drink: The team still needs to be rehabilitated
Ok, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Al Golden is gone! No more playing deep coverage against Georgia Tech, no more settling for “winning the Coastal,” and no more lame excuses.
He has been replaced with former Hurricane alumnus Mark Richt who had spent more than a decade actually beating Top 25 teams at Georgia. Richt may have never won a national championship in Athens, but he also probably has the best resume of any new Hurricanes coach since Jimmy Johnson.
Richt will implement a pro-style offense that will benefit the nine returning starters, and Mark D’Onofrio’s embarrassing defensive scheme will be replaced by an aggressive 4-3. The defense should also be bolstered by new recruits, including two new starters at linebacker.
The main issue facing the Hurricanes is that they still need to scrub the stench of the Golden years off. Chances are Richt will not be able to fix these problems overnight. The team has two difficult games at Notre Dame and versus FSU, so the schedule may help Richt be more productive in the win column than expected.
The team is extremely thin at key positions such as cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver, and offensive line. A key injury sustained to one or more of these positions could really send the team into a tail-spin. Nevertheless, I have faith that Richt will put a good product out there on the field.
If Richt can continue his personal history of strong recruiting classes, the Hurricanes could be serious contenders in just a couple of years.
2. Miami Hurricanes Basketball
Reason for Hope:
Reason to Drink: Heavily reliant on freshmen
Outside of Erik Spolestra, the most successful coach in South Florida over the past decade or so has been the Hurricanes’ Jim Larranaga. Larranaga has taken a program, which had only been famous for producing Rick Barry in the 1960s, to an ACC power that has made two Sweet 16s in recent years.
Although the team lost five players from their tournament run a year ago, Davon Reed has been joined by some highly touted recruits. Larranaga has consistently and reliably been developing his recruits since coming to Coral Gables, and the trend should continue.
These positives also reveal the team’s biggest weakness for this year. They’re extremely reliant on freshmen. Traditional powerhouse schools such as Kentucky and Duke can afford to rely on their blue-chip freshmen, but Larranaga’s success on Miami has mostly been predicated on keeping his juniors and seniors, in addition to transfers.
Of course the Hurricanes could get lucky if their freshmen play to a very high standard, but it will be an uphill battle for Miami to make the NCAA tournament this year. All that being said, Miami basketball has seen steady progress over the past few years, and a season or two of experience could turn the Hurricanes into a very formidable team in the near future.
1. Florida Panthers
Reason for hope: Nearly everyone is better
Reason to drink: Aging in key positions
After the best regular season in franchise history, the Panthers did ultimately come up short in the playoffs. The biggest reason for failure in the playoffs was that the third and fourth lines of the Panthers could not compete with a deeper Islanders team.
When trade-deadline acquisitions Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell disappointed, the Panthers replaced them with younger free agents in Jonathan Marchessault and Colton Sceviour.
The Panthers also sought to improve their weak power play by completely reloading their defensemen core. Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, and Dmitry Kulikov have been replaced with Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk. Yandle in particular gives the team a huge boost on the power play and could be deadly when paired with Aaron Ekblad.
With these new moves, the Panthers have only five players (out of an active roster of 23) that are 30-years-old or over. In addition, many of these under-30 players have playoff experience with the club and have long-term deals with the Panthers.
That being said there are two players on the team whose age could quickly become problematic. The first is the amazing Jaromir Jagr, who at 44 came sixth in Hart Trophy (MVP) voting last year. While he certainly had a spectacular regular season, his postseason was extremely disappointing.
Clearly Jagr’s age had a detrimental impact as the season went on, but Jagr should be able to depend more and more upon linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Barkov in particular looked like the best forward on the team late last year and that trend should continue.
The biggest concern for the Panthers is the aging of goalie Roberto Luongo. To be clear, Luongo was remarkable in both the regular season and the postseason last year. However, he will be 37 when the season starts.
There are plenty of goalies that have had great years at age 37, but this also seems the be age goalies rapidly fall of a cliff. According to hockey-reference, only six goalies 38-years-old or older have posted a season with at least 10 point shares.
Now I am (perhaps naively) confident that Luongo can still be productive at age 38, but for a team that is brimming with youth at every other position, the window for the Panthers might be shockingly small.
The Panthers did acquire goaltenders James Reimer and Reto Berra in an attempt to look towards the future but Luongo is still an elite goaltender and one of the team’s greatest strengths — he will be hard to replace.