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Best Case, Worst Case: Miami Heat

A lot can change before the start of the regular season for the no. 17 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings. But for now, their season looks like a repeat of the last one.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 17

Last Season: 44-38

Notable Additions: Dwyane Wade for a whole season! (re-signed)

Notable Subtractions: None ... yet.

Vegas Over/Under: 41.5

Team MVP: Goran Dragic, or maybe Jimmy Butler?

Best-Case Scenario: Trade for Butler, finish in the top four in the East, and send Wade into retirement with one last playoff run.

This Heat season is already going to be memorable, no matter their final record or playoff result. Wade made sure of that when he released a 10-minute video—yep, 10 minutes—in mid-September announcing that this would be his final season in the NBA. He was joined at media day by longtime teammate Udonis Haslem, who literally stood on top of a backboard. Go crazy Miami; this is the end of an era.

But as Heat fans savor their final moments with the last relics of the team’s heyday, it’s hard not to wonder what’s ahead. To that end, Pat Riley and the Heat received a gift from the basketball god with Butler’s trade request. It’s been widely reported that the Heat are the most aggressive suitors for Butler, who asked out of Minnesota almost two weeks ago. Butler had originally given the Wolves a list of three teams—Clippers, Nets, Knicks—but on Wednesday, Marc Stein reported that he now wanted to be in Miami. The fit makes sense. Though their current roster doesn’t exactly scream “contender,” the Heat’s regimented culture seems like a perfect fit for Butler’s sandpaper on-court demeanor. Though retaining a bunch of middle-tier veterans with big contracts has left Miami in limbo, it did well for itself last season by winning 44 games and taking a game of the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs. Goran Dragic was the team’s pacemaker, but their system allowed for any guy to flourish on a given night. Case in point: The top six Heat players in minutes last season all recorded usage rates between 17 and 26 percent. Dragic led them all at 25.7 percent, but his 17.3 points per game were 37th in the league.

Miami’s cap situation isn’t exactly ideal (we’ll get to that in a bit), but its younger players offer some hope for the future. Josh Richardson, whom the Heat drafted in the second round in 2015, nearly doubled his scoring average from his rookie year last season, while shooting 37.8 percent from 3 on four attempts per game. Justise Winslow has taken some time to develop offensively, but his shot took a leap last season and his defense remains solid. And then there’s Bam Adebayo, an athletic freak who dropped jaws in his first season with his blend of skill and physicality. A breakout season from one of these players would really help the Heat. Two or even all three making a leap could change the outlook of their season altogether—no matter what happens with Butler.

Worst-Case Scenario: Fall out of the playoffs because of a lack of starpower, their young players regress, and injuries befall the vets.

Miami’s worst-case scenario arguably has already happened; all you have to do is take a look at their payroll. The Heat owe more than $36 million to Dion Waiter the next three years, more than $52 million to Hassan Whiteside in the next two years (the second year is a player option), nearly $40 million over two years to Tyler Johnson, and roughly $46 million to James Johnson over the next three years. Save for some Houdini-like transactions, the Heat are locked in. What’s worse is that they’re locked into a core that’s OK, and nothing more.

Whiteside and Waiters have had moments in Miami, but the two seem to have reverted back to what made them questionable signings in the first place. In fact, after missing most of last season, Waiters reported to training camp out of shape, and the Heat are now “aggressively” trying to move him, according to local reports. Even if Waiters and Whiteside show signs of improvement this season, it’s hard to think they’ll ever live up to their gaudy deals. The same could be said for a player like Tyler Johnson, whose production decreased across the board last season.

Miami’s all-inclusive style on the court served it well during the regular season—or, at least well enough. But once the playoffs came around, the Heat lacked the star punch they needed in the fourth quarters. Wade, now 36 and in his 16th season, can turn back the clock only so many times. But considering no major changes have (yet) been made to last season’s team, the Heat may have to turn to Wade more than they’d like to. Absent someone like Butler parachuting in before the regular season, it’s hard to see Miami doing anything more than hitting its head on the same ceiling.

TL;DR: Note to Pat Riley: Go get Jimmy.