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The Heat Didn’t Panic for Dame. Maybe They Should Have.

Miami didn’t lose just the Damian Lillard sweepstakes on Wednesday. It potentially lost out on its Giannis Antetokounmpo pipe dream, too. What should the Heat do after losing out on another star?

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Miami’s grand plan just imploded. The Heat missed out on Damian Lillard, who was practically begging to join the Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo party in South Beach. And where does he end up? With the rival Milwaukee Bucks, of all places. Now, the Heat will have to watch him elevate a conference foe back into NBA Finals contention. Brutal.

The Heat’s stunning first-round upset of the top-seeded Bucks this past spring now feels like ancient history. Milwaukee just added an All-NBA talent in Lillard, while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez are back and healthy. The Celtics and Cavaliers improved this summer, too. And the Heat got measurably worse, losing two starting guards in Gabe Vincent (to the Lakers) and Max Strus (to the Cavs) and replacing them with an inferior veteran in Josh Richardson and unproven young players.

Back in July, Butler guaranteed Miami would win the 2024 Finals after falling short in 2023 to the Denver Nuggets, but could he have seen this summer going so badly? With just days until training camp and only a few weeks until the season, the Heat have been boxed into a corner after losing out on Lillard, but they still have time to make more additions.

Perhaps the Heat will now pursue Jrue Holiday, whom the Bucks traded to the Blazers in Wednesday’s blockbuster to get Lillard. The Heat and Sixers are reportedly among the teams with interest in the defensive stopper. But there’s no guarantee that Miami would make the best offer for any player that becomes available, especially after losing out on Lillard and a long list of other guards in recent years.

Ever since Butler was acquired during the 2019 offseason, these are the players the Heat were reportedly interested in but didn’t land:

Miami ultimately felt the price was too high for all of them, instead settling for past-their-prime options like Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo. Pat Riley can flaunt his rings, but he’s failed to add elite talent when there have been legitimate chances to do so.

For Lillard, the Heat were offering a deal that included Tyler Herro, Nikola Jovic, and draft picks, which didn’t interest the Blazers. Herro is redundant alongside Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, so they wanted Herro forwarded elsewhere for different assets. Miami was unwilling to compensate Portland with every pick and every young player it owns. So ultimately, the Blazers just didn’t want to send Dame to Miami, maybe in part out of spite, but largely because the Heat’s offer just wasn’t good enough.

I’ve long argued that Miami’s best possible offer was pretty weak. But that stance was rooted in my belief that the potential Portland-bound assets just didn’t make sense for Portland. Herro wasn’t a fit, and Holiday will net the Blazers more in a trade than Herro would have. Jovic is fine. Jaime Jaquez Jr. will turn 23 during his rookie season. And the Bucks are more likely to bottom out in the future than the Heat, giving their picks more value. But young Heat talent makes sense for Miami’s own needs: I was high on Jaquez leading into the draft, and he balled out at summer league, while Jovic impressed during the FIBA World Cup.

The Heat’s future now hinges on a series of uncertain questions. Can Jaquez and Jovic make immediate impacts? Will Herro evolve into a star? Will Adebayo take another leap? Will Caleb Martin replicate his playoff success? These are not certainties; they’re gambles. If any of those players do make progress, it’ll improve the odds the Heat can find a future great deal, or the team can decide to keep them. But Butler just turned 34. Unless the young guys really pop, the Heat will need to make a move to win with their existing core.

The Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson reported on Twitter that the Heat never even called the Blazers back before Wednesday’s trade to improve their offer because they were “not desperate.”

Maybe that’s true, but the Heat won just 44 games last season, were minutes away from being eliminated in the play-in tournament, and benefited from a fortunate path to the Finals, facing an injured Bucks squad, the unready Knicks, and a collapsing Celtics team. Even the most die-hard Heat fans have to admit that improvements will be needed to get back to the Finals with the current core, particularly after they lost Vincent and Strus.

So, who’s next on the market aside from Holiday? As discussed on this week’s episode of The Mismatch, we could see an active trade season ahead.

Here’s a quick-hit list of theoretical targets that would move the needle for the Heat:

Joel Embiid: It’s highly unlikely the Heat would have the best offer considering the tall asset piles teams like the Jazz and Thunder are sitting on, even if Embiid did try to force his way to Miami like Lillard did.

Donovan Mitchell: The Cavs haven’t signed Mitchell to a contract extension yet, so maybe the Heat could get another shot at him ahead of the deadline (or in a sign-and-trade next summer).

Chris Paul: Let’s say things go poorly for CP3 with the Warriors. Not many teams need a lead point guard, and not many teams could offer playoff-ready assets in return. Miami could, though.

DeMar DeRozan or Zach LaVine: It seems like the Bulls are trying to be competitive next season. But if their two best players become available, either one could boost the Heat with their scoring. They’re not franchise cornerstones, though.

Zion Williamson or Brandon Ingram: If the Pelicans underwhelm, then one of these two could be on the move. But if they do, that probably means Zion can’t stay healthy, diminishing his value even further. And Ingram doesn’t exactly address what the Heat need.

Paul George or Kawhi Leonard: Now this one’s interesting. The Clippers are opening a new arena next year. If the season isn’t going well, then maybe they’ll look to restart. Given their age, injury history, and contract statuses, the market might not be significant for the Clippers stars.

Time will tell if any of the players above become available and if Miami can or will make a competitive offer. But it feels like the Heat lost out on not just Dame, but also Giannis. For years, Miami has been thought of as a potential destination for him if he were to leave Milwaukee. Maybe in three or four years, once Dame, Lopez, and Middleton age even more, he will feel attainable again. But it’s a pipe dream that may never come to fruition for the Heat, at least not with this core led by Butler in the prime of his career.

The Heat have been to two Finals since Butler arrived, and he’s reached new heights in Miami, both professionally and personally. While Butler may be content with his life in Miami, one has to wonder whether Miami is content with him. If the Heat don’t make any moves that dramatically improve their Finals odds, or if they fall short of even making a run, at what point will they begin thinking longer term? Could there be a point when Riley decides it’s in Miami’s best interest to trade Butler for a haul and build around Adebayo with the young core? In a few years, Giannis could be back on the trade radar, Luka Doncic could be looking for an exit from Dallas, and a new group of stars could want to take its talents to South Beach.

Riley is 78 years old, but he’s clearly in no rush, or else he would have gone all in for another star by this point. For now, the Heat are still eyeing a run back to the Finals. But time is ticking for Butler, and Miami’s window is narrowing.