The Miami Heat don’t try to win so much as they insist upon it. This is a franchise that once boldly leveled a playoff roster to build a world-changing superteam, and also one that later spent lavishly on the promise of a borderline playoff team. What unifies those two approaches is an active resistance to rebuilding, borne out over decades of trades and signings intended—in most every case—to make the Heat more immediately competitive. “Since Pat [Riley]’s been here, I think we’ve always gone into seasons with the approach of being a playoff team,” says Heat senior vice president Andy Elisburg. And in the 25 years that Riley has been a part of the Heat organization as a coach and executive, only one other franchise has made more appearances in the NBA Finals. That lone team—the Lakers—now stands just one win away from taking the title for themselves.
From this point on, Miami will play every game with its entire, improbable season on the line. But whatever happens next is possible only because the Heat so painstakingly improved their team, bit by bit, to the point they could make it to the Finals in the first place. Organizational insistence led to the Heat trading two first-round picks (one of which was completely unprotected, due six years down the line) for Goran Dragic in 2015. Dwyane Wade welcomed Dragic to “a team and organization that doesn’t accept losing,” and the franchise, in all its postseason credibility, promised its new point guard he would soon be competing for championships. That same drive led Jimmy Butler to commit to the Heat before Riley and Erik Spoelstra even began their pitch. That drive brought Miami to accurately size up the Eastern Conference as a wide-open field, and to proceed undaunted even as the Bucks blew the doors off the regular season. It gave purpose to a team projected to be a middle playoff seed, and the basis for what would become one of the most impactful trade deadline deals in NBA history.
No matter the outcome of this series, the acquisitions of Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala have become moves of dramatic, league-altering import. “We wouldn’t be here without them,” Butler says, and he’s right. Crowder and Iguodala were crucial in the Heat’s second-round upset over the top-seeded Bucks, and are thus instigators in all of the organizational angst that follows for Milwaukee. Both were key contributors in the East finals against the Celtics, too, marking Boston’s third conference finals loss in four years. Miami trading for the two veterans also denied every other contender the chance to add them for the stretch run—an opportunity cost that taxed any number of mystery challengers.
“I just wanted to play on a playoff team, come trade deadline,” says Crowder, who began his season with the Grizzlies. “I wanted to be able to play for something.” The fact that he now plays for the whole damn thing is a tribute to the power of a role player in the perfect place at the perfect time. Between them, Crowder and Iguodala have contributed only 16.3 points per game for Miami in the playoffs—modest production by basketball’s most rudimentary standard. Yet their arrival awakened the Heat’s transformative, mix-and-match potential. For the first seeding game in August, Spoelstra added Crowder to the lineup in place of Meyers Leonard, the team’s starting center all season. It was a conscious shift away from what had been one of the most successful lineups in the NBA during the regular season. “I wanted to make sure coming into this bubble that I’m open-minded to whatever course this team takes,” Spoelstra said at the time.
Historically speaking, many of the trades made around the deadline come out half-baked; 30 games or so isn’t usually enough time for a team to reach the proper consistency and cohesion, even if all the ingredients are just right. This season was a structural exception. Crowder and Iguodala have played fewer total games for this Heat team than backup big man Chris Silva, but at this point they’ve technically been a part of the organization for more than eight months. They worked through incomplete lineups due to various injuries, carried their growing familiarity with the team into the suspension of the season, and reconvened for a quasi-training camp.
“We were never with a full team,” Iguodala says. “But once we got here to minicamp, we got some really good work in and we’ve just been building off that ever since.”
Once in the bubble, the Heat began to change shape. Spoelstra’s rotation made room for Crowder and Iguodala, and came to feature Dragic—who had played off the bench all year—as a starter and scorer. Bam Adebayo became a full-time center after balancing his regular season between the 4 and the 5, a natural byproduct of Crowder supplanting Leonard in the starting lineup. The Heat defense previously had trouble toggling between styles of coverage in the flow of the regular season, but found its bearings in the structure of the playoffs, and Miami swung series after series by personalizing its game plans and sliding deftly between schemes. A good team inched toward greatness. At the time of the trade, Miami was one of six high-quality contenders in the Eastern Conference, and fourth among those six in net rating. Then the world shifted, and a pandemic forced the NBA to reinvent its entire competitive environment.
“It was a different league,” Elisburg says, matter-of-factly. “We were a different team.”
Miami’s midseason acquisition of Crowder was the result of a pursuit that spanned several years and franchises. Every front office pines after certain players from afar, often on the basis of their shared basketball ideology. Crowder was a Heat player long before he ever joined the team: focused, tenacious, instinctive, and hard-working, which—if you count the free space—is already a Heat Culture™ bingo. Over the years, he locked horns with the Heat while playing for the Celtics and Cavs, engendering a certain admiration among Miami’s staff. As Spoelstra says: “You feel competitors on the other side.” One way or another, Crowder has a way of making his presence felt. That could mean hitting four 3-pointers in a game, as he’s done six times this postseason, or taking a hard foul on LeBron James, as he did several times in Game 4 alone. In recent years, the Heat would check in with Crowder’s teams on the off chance he might be available.
“He was on a regular list of players that I would sometimes ask about,” Elisburg says, “and usually get, ‘No, we’re not looking to do anything with him.’ … It was never able to be in that right place, right time, where everything sort of linked up from the trade opportunity.” That is, until the stars and organizational incentives aligned in Memphis. Even the savviest executives can’t pull off a trade without a bit of serendipity; a player may be on the market for only a limited time, during which two teams have to agree on a suitable return that makes sense for each franchise while balancing the contracts to satisfy league rules.
A deal with Memphis came together based on its interest in Justise Winslow and its need to redeem some value for Iguodala, who chose to spend his Grizzlies tenure working remotely from golf courses and open-concept tech offices around the Bay Area. “I don’t wanna say ‘selfish,’” Iguodala says, “but I think you have to be selfish sometimes.” Meanwhile, Crowder, then just 29, served as the old hand in Memphis—a designated vet to chaperone a young team through its formative experiences. His stay coincided with the Grizzlies playing their best basketball of the season. “I took on a role I had never taken on before in an NBA locker room,” he says. “That’s just being a main leader, being a main vocal point, being a main guy who the young guys can lean on. I just wanted to excel in that role, and then once I got to Miami, I had a role to excel in as well.”
That role would take Crowder to the strategic center of high-level playoff series, including as the primary defender for Giannis Antetokounmpo and—less effectively—for Anthony Davis. These are physically punishing assignments for a natural wing, but Crowder’s willingness to bear the brunt allows Spoelstra to entertain a broader set of matchup possibilities. The idea behind trying Crowder on Davis initially was as much about LeBron as it was about AD, and the ability to switch any pick-and-roll between the two if need be. It didn’t quite work, so the Heat moved on to their next strategy: starting Bam Adebayo against Davis while Crowder wrestled with Dwight Howard. With that adjustment, Miami managed to play Howard out of the game entirely.
“This is when you feel most alive: when you’re being tested competitively,” Spoelstra says. “Challenged in new ways, different ways. This is a quality opponent. This is the way the whole playoff system is supposed to be set up. It’s supposed to get tougher and more challenging every single round and may the best team win at the very end.”
Adjustments like this motivated the move to bring Crowder into the starting lineup in the first place. “It’s not necessarily how well you play,” Spoelstra said at the time. “It’s how well you complement other guys.” In a small-ball series against the Celtics, Crowder could bounce between Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Smart without issue. When dealing with the Lakers, he helps limit the Heat’s broader liability. LeBron won’t hunt down Crowder in the way he might Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro, and that gives Miami some small influence over how James plays the mismatch game. The same principle applies to Iguodala, who is even more formidable as a one-on-one defender.
“All of the stuff you don’t see in the stat sheet is what those guys do for us,” says Butler. “They’re all winning plays, every single one of them. We respect that. We love that.” Crowder has played more minutes alongside Butler during this playoff run than any other Heat player. There is simply never a bad time to have flexible defenders at both forward positions, particularly for a team that will use three or four different team concepts in a game. Yet players like Crowder and Iguodala are constantly making small, individual choices on the edge of the frame that can shape an entire possession. Watch here as Crowder, even after getting switched out of the play, discouraged LeBron from driving and steered the Lakers instead toward a Markieff Morris jumper:
Or here, as Iguodala challenges an entry pass to Davis to the point that LeBron throws the ball out of bounds:
To Butler’s point, these kinds of plays are uncredited by the box score—and yet vital to the Heat’s chances of winning a Finals game against two of the best players in the world. “I tell them as much as I can how much I appreciate playing with them,” Butler says of Crowder and Iguodala. ”How much I appreciate playing alongside those guys, what they do for me, for our young guys, and just for the organization as a whole. I do.” Outside the Heat organization, Crowder’s play has earned the endorsement of Draymond Green—an authority in this particular genre. Some playoff games are won in the offseason, when a team pairs one unguardable superstar with another. Some are won in the film room, where a coach lays out the adjustment that will break a matchup wide open. Others are won with brass tacks, and the sort of living details that decide a team’s most ordinary possessions. Crowder and Iguodala make their living in that space. They are masters of the prosaic.
“It’s being able to recognize adjustments,” Elisburg says. “Being able to be a leader to your teammates. Being able to be accountable to your teammates. Those things that aren’t necessarily always noticed. They may do the play that sets up the play that sets up the play.”
For a team built like the Heat, that sort of micro-execution is the only way to survive. The entire team needs to play as meticulously as a 16-year veteran like Iguodala. When Spoelstra describes a player who is reliable under pressure, he will often say that they “don’t get sick at sea.” Wade. Butler. Adebayo. ( … Beno Udrih.) These are players who can keep their wits about them in the most pivotal moments of a game, even as it slips into chaos. Now that Miami is on the brink of elimination, all that’s left are crushing waves. There will be a storm in every possession, to be weathered only if the Heat have the stomach for it.
“Jimmy, Goran, Jae, Andre, they’ve been through so many playoff series before,” Spoelstra says. “They’ve felt disappointment. They’ve felt elation. They know how hard it is in the playoffs. If you have that kind of stability and leadership that trickles down to our young players, who we rely on. It allows them to be themselves. It allows them to play without knowing what they don’t know.”
It allows the Heat one more chance to reinvent themselves—now with a tweak to the rotation or some timely adjustment, the moves that changed their season are played out in a single game.