Moments after Jimmy Butler’s potential game-winning 3-pointer clanked off the front of the rim in Game 7 of last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Miami Heat players sat at their lockers in silence. With heads hung and shoulders sunk, their thoughts drifted to what could have been—a second trip to the NBA Finals in three seasons.
“Everybody was done,” Bam Adebayo recently told The Ringer. “When you go home and you were maybe 2 inches away from being in the Finals again, everybody’s miserable. And then everybody goes their separate ways.”
During the offseason, the front office sought to make a splashy acquisition to get them over the hump, but failed. Miami investigated deals for Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell, only to see Durant stay in Brooklyn and Mitchell be traded to Cleveland. With few other options, the Heat re-signed most of their own free agents, bringing back everyone but P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris, putting the onus on the players.
“Knowing that the team is coming back the same, nobody can come back the same,” Adebayo said. “Everybody looked at themself in the mirror and was like, ‘I have to be better at something when I come back.’”
Now two months into a new season, there’s little doubt that players have improved. Adebayo is averaging a career-high 20.9 points, looking more aggressive than ever on offense. Tyler Herro has leveled up as a playmaker. Kyle Lowry has renewed pep in his step and Caleb Martin has grown into a better all-around player. But the Heat had to wait two months to get above .500 for the first time this season. The uneven start exposed a flawed roster, underlined the short-term limits of player development, and tested the strength of Heat culture.
Without a superstar on the level of Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, or Joel Embiid, Miami’s hopes for a deep postseason run in the East rely on internal improvement and incumbent chemistry. So far, the Heat rank just 20th in net rating and injuries have hampered an aging roster. If more star-studded teams like the Bucks, Celtics, and Cavaliers remain ahead of them in the standings, it’s fair to wonder whether the Heat’s window to win a championship with this core has already closed.
All of this raises a question: How far can culture take the Heat this season?
After Udonis Haslem announced that this would indeed be his final NBA season, he also named a successor. For 20 years, Haslem has been the embodiment of Heat culture—mental toughness, elite conditioning, and accountability. Adebayo, according to Haslem, is ready to shepherd this culture.
“His voice carries through everybody,” Haslem said. “Ain’t nobody can question anything Bam says because he’s literally our hardest worker.”
Adebayo is already feeling the strains of the responsibility. “It’s not easy,” he said, “because we’re in the hole with our record.”
The Heat are 16-16 after winning four of their last five games, including a win over the Spurs on Saturday. Butler was limited to just 13 of Miami’s first 22 games and knee issues derailed the start to Victor Oladipo’s season, which hasn’t made things any easier. As injuries piled up, the Heat have used 11 different starting lineups. This past weekend they listed all 16 players on the injury report.
“We do have some moving parts,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of the changing lineups. “So each game we have to understand what our identity is, how can we get to that more consistently, and then get the group playing comfortable, confident, in rhythm.”
But injuries have been more of a rule than an exception for these Heat, who entered the season with the league’s second-oldest roster. Since coming to Miami, Butler has yet to play 60 games in a season. At 33, he has played roughly as many regular-season and playoff minutes in his career as past-their-prime stars such as Kevin Love and Goran Dragic. Lowry, 36, is averaging the 14th-most minutes in the league this season. It’s only a matter of time before he misses games.
Besides wear and tear, there are other issues with this roster—namely, Miami’s lack of size and top-end talent.
The Heat are small, with the 6-foot-5 Martin masquerading as a power forward. Only one player in Miami’s rotation stands taller than 6-foot-9 (33-year-old Dewayne Dedmon).
A league-leading eight of the team’s 14 players (not including two-way contracts) went undrafted. Many of them, such as Martin, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, Haywood Highsmith, and Gabe Vincent, play key roles. Oladipo, playing for his fifth team, is Miami’s only player who was taken in the top 10 of his draft, and it’s unclear whether he’ll ever regain his elite athleticism. The Heat don’t have a single player that has made an All-NBA first or second team. Suffice it to say, this is not a team built around 99th-percentile talent.
All of this amounts to a squad that has to give maximum effort to compete, let alone contend. The Heat need to play like it’s Game 5 of a 2-2 series in May to win regular-season games in December.
“We ain’t that good,” Butler said after a recent loss to the Spurs. “We can’t afford to play a 45-minute game or 47-minute game. We need all 48.”
For years the Heat have worn their work ethic like a badge of honor. As legend has it, team president and former coach Pat Riley once made players practice in knee pads. Spoelstra replaced Riley only after climbing his way up from the video room. They view working hard as a skill, and they’ve scouted and developed players willing to grind to complement their core.
“We like guys like that,” Adebayo said. “We like guys with those stories of ‘I got cut, this that and the third.’ You know, blue-collar people that had to work for what they got.”
But that approach has an exposed ceiling. In 2020, the Heat lost in the Finals to the Lakers, who were headlined by blue-chippers LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Two years later, despite Butler’s 48-minute effort in Game 7, the Heat were outlasted by a Celtics team that rostered 10 first-round picks. In both series, the Heat wrung out everything they could from their team but ultimately succumbed to injuries and opposing talent.
This season, the Heat came out unusually flat, starting 0-2 for the first time since Spoelstra took over 14 years ago.
“Sometimes you have a little hangover,” Haslem admitted. “We had a long season last year. One shot away from the Finals.
“Sometimes you just expect to pick up where you left off,” he continued. “We expect the camaraderie and everything to pick up where it left off and we maybe forgot how hard we had to work to get that chemistry.”
Only the Bucks, Pelicans, and Magic returned more players than the Heat this season. Continuity was supposed to be a strength of Miami’s, but that hasn’t been the case.
The Heat’s projected starting lineup—Lowry, Herro, Butler, Martin, and Adebayo—has been together for just 11 games this season. Tucker’s departure to Philadelphia left Martin as the only viable option at power forward. Herro, fresh off winning Sixth Man of the Year and signing a $120 million extension, was elevated into the starting group. The learning curve has been real as everyone adjusts to new responsibilities.
“Part of the process of this league is sometimes going through some pain,” Spoelstra said. “Hopefully this pain will drive us to a higher level.”
Defensively, Tucker’s loss removed needed experience and versatility from the starting lineup, which left the Heat weaker and younger and resulted in a sloppy start. After ranking as low as 18th in defensive rating this season, the Heat are up to ninth. It takes hard work: Adebayo and Martin fronting bigger post players, toggling between multiple defensive schemes, and smaller players with limited athleticism fighting through every screen.
“Does it feel like a challenge? Yes,” Adebayo said.
“That doesn’t get tiring when you’re in a pack with other people willing to go through a brick wall with you.”
No one this season has embodied this more than Lowry, who ranks third on the team in real plus-minus and is averaging his most minutes in three seasons. His 51 minutes in an overtime loss to Washington is the most played by anyone in the league this season.
Lowry approached the offseason committed to improving his conditioning after injuries reduced his impact last postseason. People within the Heat organization hoped last season’s big acquisition was prepared for a bounceback season.
When Adebayo visited him in Las Vegas over the summer, he witnessed a shift in Lowry’s mood.
“He had his joy back,” Adebayo said of Lowry, who missed 19 games last season because of personal reasons and injuries. “He really was 100 percent invested in himself. He felt like he let someone down.”
Adebayo himself has taken a noticeable leap. After Miami’s 0-4 trip in mid-November, Lowry pulled Adebayo aside and told him the team needed him to carry the offense. Adebayo responded by scoring 38 points against the Wizards and 32 against the Hawks to lead Miami to a pair of wins.
“We depend on each other,” Adebayo said. “Every once in a while we’ll be like, ‘Dawg, I need to lean on you tonight.’ And that’s what being a team is all about, having those teammates to lean on when you’re down.”
Adebayo has gotten better at creating his own shot, with 12.7 percent of his attempts coming in isolation compared to 7.4 percent last season. The Heat are scoring on a reliable 51 percent of those possessions. Adebayo is more decisive. In years past, he would occasionally take too many dribbles and meander into a tough 2-pointer. Now, it’s more often one dribble to get to his spot and a decision to shoot or pass.
This offensive growth combined with his best-in-class defense has made Adebayo Miami’s best player this season. The Heat are 11.6 points per 100 possessions better with Adebayo on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Then there’s Herro, still getting his numbers as a member of the starting lineup (21 points per game) and doing more than just scoring. He’s averaging the most rebounds and assists of his career and recently recorded his first NBA triple-double.
Continued growth from Adebayo, 25, and Herro, 22, is the Heat’s best chance to raise the team’s ceiling. The question is whether they can become the kind of All-NBA-level stars the Heat need in time to make the most of Butler and Lowry’s window.
But this individual growth has yet to yield team success on offense. After making a league-leading 37.9 percent of their 3-pointers last season, the Heat are tied for 23rd (34.3 percent) this season. Ball movement has not been as crisp, and the Heat have also fallen from near the top of the league in assists to 22nd. Overall, the Heat are 26th in offensive rating.
“I shouldn’t say I’m not worried,” Butler said following a recent loss. “We show flashes of what we can be and who we are. It’s just, damn, whenever we get away from that, it looks bad. At the end of the day, we got to be honest with ourselves and everybody has to be better.”
There are reasons for optimism. After a 1-3 stretch that included losses to a shorthanded Grizzlies squad and Victor Wembanyama-eyeing Pistons and Spurs, the Heat have won four of their past five games.
The Heat have also played the third-toughest schedule in the league but have one of the easiest going forward. With 50 games left, just two games separate the eighth-place Heat from fifth place in the East. Playoffs are still the expectation.
“It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Lowry explained. “I think we’re coming together.”
Even if the Heat do go on a run, questions will remain about their ceiling. But as much as injuries, elbow grease, and perceived slights are a constant with this group, so too is defying doubters.
“Count us out,” Butler persistently told The Athletic after Miami’s 2-5 start.
“We’re going to win the fucking championship.”
Maybe this group can evolve into into a plucky playoff team but, Butler’s brashness notwithstanding, the Heat don’t have enough talent to be considered among the upper echelon of contenders. Any outside confidence in Miami is derived purely from the benefit of the doubt this organization has earned, and the culture it has built, over the years.
The Heat are a team to watch as trade season begins. Adding depth in the frontcourt and second-unit scoring would be helpful.
But a marginal addition won’t address this team’s need for more top-flight talent. If a star does become available, Miami has limited assets (two of its own first-round picks, a third if it can lift lottery protections on one owed to Oklahoma City in 2025) to swing a deal.
Look at the standings, however, and the Heat’s record compares to that of star-led teams such as the Lakers, Hawks, and Mavericks. To even be here, Miami asks a lot of its players, but that’s sort of the point. Working hard, maximizing potential and self-belief—culture—isn’t enough to win a championship, but it can keep a team in the mix.
For how long?
“I’m not even thinking about that,” Adebayo said. “Right now, we’re thinking about it game by game, quarter by quarter.”
Wes Goldberg has written for the Miami Herald, Mercury News, Bleacher Report, Forbes, and more. You can hear him on the Locked on NBA and Locked on Heat podcasts.