The Miami Heat have disproven their doubters but ultimately fallen short in pursuit of basketball’s big prize. Are they already on the path to success, or do they need to reevaluate how they chase prosperity?
On one hand, you can’t blame the Miami Heat for trying. An unbelievable playoff run, an underskilled and overachieving roster held together by hope and dreams, circumvention of obstacle after obstacle, ended at the hands of a truly great NBA team.
And unbelievable it was: no one really believed in them along the way, not at the final hurdle, but not from the word go either.
After their elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals last season (one of the most hard-to-watch playoff series ever, in my opinion), I wrote about the loss of my belief in “Heat culture”. Could this team really expect continued success by slapping together lineups of undrafted role players and aging former stars? Just because of this intangible essence that imbues NBA players when they set up shop in South Beach?
Here were my thoughts on the Heat’s championship prospects in the 2022-23 season: “Jimmy Butler, a man who has escaped almost any comment in this article, will be 33 going into next season, and although I’m certain he’ll keep putting up 40 points in the playoffs till every tendon in his knees disintegrates, the window on a Jimmy Butler championship is closing.
“If this is the group Miami makes the tilt with next season, I would focus less on the “culture” and more on putting the best five players on the court.”
I felt pretty smug about my words from about when I wrote them till, let’s say, 16 April 2023 (and it’s pretty cool I was right about the “40 points in the playoffs thing” anyway). Miami proceeded to make practically no offseason moves apart from a few minor resignings. They struggled early in the regular season, regained some form as it progressed and secured a shaky seventh-seed in the East thanks mostly to Jimmy Butler’s clockwork last-season run of form.
When they made minimum signings for Kevin Love and Cody Zeller, it felt less like the customary contender stock-up of hearty vets to beef up a playoff run and more of a desperate grab of warm tall bodies for a thin roster.
You’re more than familiar with the rest by now. All of the above proved to be smoke and mirrors as Erik Spoelstra and company proved Heat culture is alive and well, took scalp after scalp and sent team after team into existential crisis. I’ll make a massive mea culpa here – I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assessment.
And yet when it came time for me and my colleagues over at The JVG NBA Tribute Show to consider a Denver-Miami Finals series, it still seemed impossible to consider anything but an easy overpowering of the Heat by Nikola Jokic and his merry men. The Denver Nuggets had an NBA championship roster headed by a should-be reigning MVP and one of the best players in the world.
Because what is markedly different about this Miami Heat team from last year’s also-rans? Duncan Robinson learning how to shoot (and play defence) again has certainly made a difference. Caleb Martin has truly improved and stepped up as a tireless defender and one of the team’s key supplementary scorers. Love and Zeller are mostly bodies on the floor but in particular the former proved momentarily handy as a matchup player against Denver.
The essential engine of this team, however, was the same. Getting performances out of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent. Kyle Lowry pulling magic from thin air. Bam Adebayo being the handiest defensive centre in the NBA. Jimmy Butler’s pure will to win. A defence on an absolute string, that knows how to react to any situation or wrinkle.
So while our final assessment turned out to be right – Denver just had too much skill and class – getting to the Finals was the achievement itself, powered by some of the best playoff coaching we’ll ever see and unparalleled self-belief.
On the other hand… could they have done more?
Miami had a huge boon in this roster that had spent time playing together, under a good head coach, that had almost tasted the NBA Finals in years prior. It was part of the recipe of success for eventual champions Denver as well – the bones of their roster had flashed brilliance in the Western Conference Finals in 2020 and now, fully fit and equipped with some of the league’s best role players, they won the sport’s greatest prize.
But Miami hadn’t added championship role players in the offseason, and they weren’t fit. As I mentioned, there was no addition of a P.J. Tucker or Jae Crowder, let alone a Bruce Brown or a KCP – only the grabs at Love and Zeller. Tyler Herro’s absence will be one of the sport’s all-time what-ifs, as at times you felt their defence benefitted from his omission and at others they were begging for an explosive scorer.
On a recent episode of The Deep Two NBA Podcast, host Dante Boffa flagged that there might be difficulty keeping this roster together this offseason as free agents Gabe Vincent and Max Strus bolstered their stock throughout the playoffs. Non-performances from both in the Finals, however, may undo this bolstering – Vincent was present averaging 11.4 points on 38-33-83 shooting splits, while Strus suffered badly averaging just 5.8 points on 23-19-75 splits.
This is a double-headed monster – as crucial as these players were to the Heat’s postseason success, wetting the bed on the biggest stage doesn’t bode well should they find themselves there again next season. So if they’re demanding any serious contract, do the Heat pick up the bill?
There’s the eternal prospect of a “third star” making their way to South Beach, with Dame Lillard and Bradley Beal constantly spruiked as elite scorers who could shoulder the load and let Jimmy and Bam focus on their defensive and playmaking strengths.
Any major move has to involve Herro, both for his money and for his potential, and given the on-court success Miami had without him they will be less hesitant to let him go. Kyle Lowry’s salary might also have to go, so it depends on how reliant you are on his bursts of tough shotmaking or if you think you can replace it (a certain aging midrange specialist point guard might be looking for a championship and available on a minimum).
A recent report from The Athletic‘s Shams Charania claiming the Heat made an offer for Kyrie Irving in February both makes this prospect more likely and casts this postseason run in a whole new light. The romantic notion that Miami were confident to ride this ragtag roster to the highest of heights doesn’t ring true when they were making a swing for the league’s most infamously troubled and troublesome star. And it recasts the Love/Zeller pick-ups in the original shade of desperation we saw at the time.
Whatever you make of this, Miami must do something this off-season, whether it involves major moves or making commitments, financial and otherwise, to their current group.
A trade for Beal, Dame, Irving or an as yet unnamed scoring guard depletes your roster, but if you truly believe in your ability to turn water into wine you can put together enough to make a championship push. However, if the fit with the third star is no good, you’ve basically slammed your window shut.
You can look to move around the edges, searching out the types of players that Denver acquired, perhaps swapping the younger players with upside (Strus, Vincent, even Caleb Martin) for older role players (but not Lowry or Love age) who are happy to forgo some money to play with Jimmy Butler. But a swap like this could be much of a muchness in terms of truly moving the needle.
Or you can steady the ship, see what sort of money you can bring Strus and Vincent back on, see the impact Herro can have again at full health. When all is said and done, Tyler is an All-Star level player and you can believe in addition by addition on your next playoff run.
If you’re Miami, all of the above can be true. There is a true belief in Miami in this group and what they can achieve, evidenced by what they did achieve, the scalps they won and the quality rosters they sent home. And there is also an admission that, with a bit more help, the roster could’ve gone further, or at least looked more convincing under the bright lights.
The big piece of the puzzle here, as much as it is a piece of the solution, is Jimmy Butler. After an all-time (Hall of Fame?) performance across five games in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler contributed but didn’t astound after an ankle injury in Game 1 against the New York Knicks. There were many moments against Denver where he looked set to have a patented never-miss, willful performance and he fell short.
Going back to my article from last season, I was right about Jimmy Butler’s championship window – it is closing, maybe just a bit slower than we previously imagined. Eventually, one of these injuries will put an end to this generational playoff performer.
Which is more the reason to seize the opportunity now, while the window is still open, and swing for the fences. Whether or not you believe Jimmy’s claim injury didn’t affect his performance in the Finals, it begs the question: does he get hurt if he had just a little bit more help?
As much as there’s a disbelief that the Heat can keep rolling out these underdrafted, undervalued, underdog teams, I hold firm that they’ll keep scouting well and training up the supplementary pieces you need on a contending team.
And if you mix that with a healthy Jimmy Butler, a Bam Adebayo who doesn’t have to score (read: front rim ten midrange jumpers a game) and another star scorer, you might have a championship recipe.