• Kyle Russell

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Miami Heat

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I’ll be subbing in to write the "obituary" for the Miami Heat.

The Miami Heat’s 2019-20 season is a reminder of how far a team can go in a year. The Heat ended last season missing the playoffs and with one of the bleakest outlooks for a team with contending aspirations. After a masterclass in team reconstruction, they ended this season two wins short of an NBA title.

The 2018-19 Heat season was ultimately remembered as the retirement tour of franchise icon and future guy-with-a-statue-outside-the-arena Dwyane Wade. But masked by all the happy memories and celebrations was a team in dire times. In the wake of losing LeBron James in 2014, the Heat bounced between barely missing the playoffs and making it but never being a real title threat. Various bad deals and win now trades left the Heat with few picks to trade and even less cap space. Worst of all, the current roster looked to have a pretty hard ceiling below Finals contender, let alone title contender.

The 2019 offseason could be best described as that time Heat President Pat RIley got his groove back. Ruling over the NBA for decades as a coach and executive, the Godfather had been stumbling the last few years and was going in with minimal resources to work with. And yet, he swung a four team deal that sent out mercurial center Hassan Whiteside, clearing the way for Bam Adebayo to be the full time starter, and brought in All-NBA player, and Heat culture personified, Jimmy Butler. The Heat also drafted Tyler Herro, picked up undrafted Kendrick Nunn, and continued developing g-leaguer Duncan Robinson. And on the horizon, in the 2021 offseason, the Heat would have max level cap space in what is projected to be a huge free agency class.

Over the course of a few months, the sense of doom and gloom around the Heat soon shifted to hope and optimism. Still, 2021 was a ways away and there was the upcoming season. With its retooled roster around new All-Star Butler, the Heat projected to be a playoff lock and were ready to compete for home court advantage.

The Results

Outside of Adebayo, who just began his run as a starter late previous season, the Heat had an entirely new starting lineup. Goran Dragic graciously stepped down as a starter and became the Heat’s sixth man. Herro and Nunn outperformed expectations, with both making All-Rookie teams and the latter ending up the runner-up Rookie of the Year. Robinson lit up opposing defenses as one of the NBA’s deadliest shooters. Adebayo blossomed into an All-Star player and arguably the Most Improved Player in the league. And in the middle of this all was Butler, the two-way superstar leading the Heat to elite status in the East.

Riley wasn’t done with the Heat yet, though, and swung another big trade at the February deadline. Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters, and James Johnson were sent out for Solomon Hill, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder. Going back to the previous trade deadline, this capped off Riley’s incredible one year overhaul that saw him send out nearly every bad contract he made over the last few years. During that time the Heat sent out nine players, a minimum of 10 minutes per game, and got back eight new players that averaged at least 10 mpg.

For a team as disciplined as the Heat, the pandemic and the ensuing break became an opportunity to get healthy, get in better shape, and get ready for the return of the season. In the Orlando bubble, Miami coasted down the stretch and ended the regular season as the fifth seed in the East and a 44-29 record.

In the first round against the injured Indiana Pacers, the Heat took care of them in four competitive games. Against the first seed Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat were well equipped defensively to slow two-time MVP Giannis Antetkounmpo and close out tight games. With Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer refusing to make big adjustments, the Heat shocked the NBA world by taking care of the Bucks in five games. Now in the Eastern Conference FInals against a more talented Boston Celtics team, the Heat continued their improbable run. Bam Adebayo stepped up big in this series, being arguably the best player in a series with Butler, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker, as the Heat advanced to the NBA Finals in six games.

Unfortunately for the Heat, injuries struck at the worst time in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers. Any chance of the series being legitimately competitive ended when Dragic, the Heat’s leading playoff scorer, and Adebayo, their two-way lynch pin, got injured in Game 1. Butler heroically put the team on his back, delivering wins in Games 3 and 5 while dropping 35-point triple-doubles in both games. But the Lakers were still too dominant, crushing the Heat in Game 6 and winning the NBA title. It’ll always be arguable that the Lakers would have won regardless of the Heat’s health as they had the two best players, but that’s just something that’ll never be known.

The Outlook

Despite coming that close and ultimately failing, the Heat still way outperformed expectations this season and in the playoffs. They’re set up with an impressive mix of savvy, still effective veteran players and talented, still rising young players that have proven they can win already. The Heat don’t have much in the way of draft picks available, but they do have young players and short contracts to get trades done. Given the aforementioned Finals run, however, Riley is unlikely to pull the trigger unless it’s a guaranteed home run.

The Heat are one of the few teams this offseason with significant max level cap space available. While the Heat are the best of those teams, they’ll most likely look to maintain financial flexibility for next offseason. That summer will see multiple superstars like Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard hitting free agency. With a tax friendly state, a player friendly city, and an established roster ready to be taken over the hump, the Heat project to be one of the best free agent destinations next summer.

Until then, it would be unwise to think the Heat will just rest. Many thought 2019-20 would be a bridge season as well, and yet Riley pounced on a trade that helped the Heat make the Finals. While obviously forward thinking, the Heat are still an organization that believes they can win now. Within a year, that idea went from a talking point to a reality.