Disney World has been home to some magical 3-1 comebacks in the NBA playoffs, but it would take a true miracle for the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, to blow a 3-1 lead. Still, the Miami Heat have battled hard to keep games close despite Bam Adebayo’s and Goran Dragic’s injuries. The odds are they won’t take home the trophy, but they’ve proved all throughout the playoffs that they’re built to keep competing for titles in the future.
Credit Heat Culture or whatever else you want, but Miami’s real foundation is its system. The Heat feature constant ball movement, cutting, off-ball screening, and shooting. Their style is reminiscent of the Golden State Warriors. You know how Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg kinda sorta look alike? They’re clearly not brothers. But maybe cousins? It’s like that with the Warriors and Heat. That’s not to say the Heat are about to blossom into a dynasty—nobody can predict that happening. They’ve just adapted some of what makes the Warriors successful, and they’re set up to build upon this success just like the Warriors did when they first emerged as a playoff threat seven years ago.
Instead of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Miami has Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson running around screens to get open for 3s and cutting to the rim. Sure, neither of them is an elite player like Steph or Klay but they are elite shooters who stress defenses even when they don’t possess the ball.
Adebayo has often been the player delivering the passes; he brings elements of Draymond Green with his playmaking from the post and elbows. He’s also a highly versatile defender. Both Adebayo, 23, and Herro, 20, are young players with untapped upside, much like Green proved to be for the Warriors. Jimmy Butler is Miami’s lone established star right now, and maybe it’s no surprise that he shares a friendship with Wahlberg. “[Wahlberg] is one of the realest human beings I’ve ever been around. He works every single day like he has nothing,” Butler said on The JJ Redick Podcast when asked how he connected with the actor. But the Heat also have the ability to develop another star from within, or find one elsewhere.
Any successful franchise needs organizational alignment. Ownership, the front office, the coaching staff, and the players all need to be on the same page. The Warriors have that, which is why they made win-now moves and went into the luxury tax, and why Curry and Thompson both sacrificed individual accolades to bring on Kevin Durant to win more championships.
Led by Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg in the front office, and Erik Spoelstra from the coaching staff, the Heat have similar qualities. They laid the blueprint before the Warriors did, growing in-house talent in Dwyane Wade (and winning one title along the way), then acquiring LeBron and Chris Bosh. The Warriors were able to become an attractive destination for Durant during the 2016 offseason when the salary cap spiked. Miami proved its appeal to superstars one decade ago, and did it again in adding Butler last year. The Heat can flaunt their lively city, no state income taxes, and an on-court style that could accommodate any player. And they have the cap space to make any type of move they want again.
Most immediately this offseason, the Heat will need to decide whether to re-sign Dragic, Jae Crowder, Meyers Leonard, and Derrick Jones Jr. They also have the 20th pick in the draft, which is deep with quality role players who could be a fit for the Heat—in my latest mock draft, the Heat select sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr., a speedy, scoring guard who plays competitive defense. Miami’s most exciting possibilities come the following offseason, when it could have only $50 million in guaranteed salary on its books. Including the cap holds of their own free agents—Adebayo, Robinson, and Kendrick Nunn—the Heat could have the cap space to sign a max player and retain most or all of their core. The 2021 free-agent class could be loaded with stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, plus Rudy Gobert and Paul George. It’s also deep with effective veterans and promising restricted free agents. Who wouldn’t at least consider taking their talents to Miami?
Front office executives around the league believe the Heat have become the league’s top destination for the next star with a wandering eye. Maybe it will be a free agent. Or maybe a player under contract who will seek a trade in 2021, since the Heat have good young players who could be traded in addition to first-round picks in 2025, 2026, and 2027. Keep in mind: Miami emptied the draft pick cupboard to acquire LeBron and Bosh 10 years ago. Who knows what could happen in the coming years with Houston, Indiana, Philadelphia, Washington, or any other team facing a crossroads?
League sources have long said that Bradley Beal will give it a shot with the Wizards now that John Wall is healthy, and I believe they could be a playoff team next season. But a lot can change. What if the Wizards have no choice but to blow it up? What if the Rockets can’t get over the hump with a new coach and James Harden ends up wanting out one summer before he can opt out of his contract? What if Joel Embiid, who expressed his frustration with the Sixers when they lost Butler, wants to reunite with the owner of Big Face Coffee? The Athletic’s Jared Weiss reported that Pacers guard Victor Oladipo is “looking to move on” from Indiana this offseason, which was supported in a follow-up tweet by J. Michael of The Indianapolis Star. Oladipo’s contract is up after the 2020-21 season. Since January, there have been rumblings among my own league sources about Oladipo’s openness to a trade. Oladipo himself told rapper Fat Joe that he values winning over being a team’s best player. Does Indiana offer the best of both worlds, or does Miami, the city he already trains in and calls home during the offseason? This is assuming the Heat would even want Oladipo, who didn’t look like an All-Star this season after his return from a major knee injury. Any team interested in Oladipo, including the Heat, should probably wait. But Miami has options as it awaits a disgruntled star who wants out.
The Heat aren’t the only team with financial flexibility. But Miami also has the roster flexibility to fit virtually anyone into its system. Few teams have both. Bring in another big and Adebayo can still facilitate (he might be shooting 3s by then anyway). Bring in a scorer or playmaker, and they could build on the role Dragic shined in until tearing his plantar fascia in Game 1. Dragic, who turned 34 in May, is one player the Heat may need to replace in the coming years due to his age and durability. But this is the benefit to already having a star as versatile as Butler, who is under contract through 2023 (with a player option). Curry and Thompson had to make sacrifices to accommodate Durant, and Butler already gives up the ball with his current teammates and steps up when needed.
Butler willed the Heat to a Game 3 victory by scoring 40 points on 20 shots, but in Game 4 he drew Davis on defense plus loads of other attention, and was held to only 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting. Butler could use another go-to scorer by his side, which would only amplify his other elite skills. This is no knock on Butler when even LeBron needs AD. But he’s not Miami’s Curry; he’s more like Green with his passing, defense, and intangibles, and he’s ideally a second scorer like Thompson. If the Heat can find one more piece, they will be not just a contender as they currently are, but the favorite in the East. If they continue to improve internally, and if they’re able to land another star, the parallels between Miami and Golden State could grow even stronger.
“Mark and I have a deal,” Matt Damon said in 2013. “If we’re mistaken for one another, we have to be as polite as possible.” The Heat won’t be as kind: They made the Finals in 2020, and the better they get, the meaner they’ll be.