Was The Heat’s finals run a fluke?
The Miami Heat’s remarkable run to the 2020 NBA Finals captured the imagination of the basketball world. They ultimately fell one step short of a Cinderella championship; LeBron James and his Lakers juggernaut proving to be too much for a hobbled, though heroic Heat to overcome.
Coming into the playoffs, most bookmakers had the Heat at longer odds to win the title than the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, and Indiana Pacers – all the teams that as the fifth seed Miami overcame in the Eastern Conference. While this finals appearance was captivating, it does beg the question: was it a fluke?
Was this playoff run just a quirk of Bubble Life, a capitalization on others’ inability to adjust to the unusual surroundings, or is it a harbinger of a Heat team returning to actual contender status? There’s a lot to unpack in that question.
With the Heat roster as it currently stands, Jimmy Butler is the main man. His efforts in keeping the team afloat without Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo were career-defining.
Butler is contracted through the 2023 season, assuming he opts into his $37 million player option. He’ll be 34 by the end of that campaign. He’s certainly a remarkable athlete with an almost unmatched drive, but those years playing under Tom Thibodeau have to catch up to him eventually, right?
The squad’s other veterans are not contracted long term: Dragic, Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill, and Meyers Leonard are free agents now, with Andre Iguodala and Kelly Olynyk (you better believe he’s opting in next season) expiring at the end of 2021.
It’s expected that Miami will look to bring Dragic – probably on a 1-year deal for somewhat less than the $19 million he was earning – and Crowder back.
Leonard is an interesting case, though. He was the team’s starting center before the restart and performed well in his minutes, putting up close to a double-double per 36 minutes, and his elite outside shooting cleared the lane for Butler’s burrowing drives. Leonard is also a revered teammate, willing to do whatever, even if that means towel-waving and mean-mugging from the bench. But with Bam’s ascension and Olynyk on the books providing pretty much the same skill set as Leonard, he’s probably expendable.
The Heat’s young players, however, are just about due their payday. Adebayo is contracted through next season, but is extension eligible – it would be a huge and frankly unnecessary risk to let him get to restricted free agency. He’ll get something north of $20 million per season.
Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson are due huge raises from the minimum they earned this campaign. Robinson is already 26 years old, so he’ll surely look to strike while the iron is hot. Given his importance to the team’s structure, he could get somewhere in the $12-$14 million range in an extension.
Assuming Tyler Herro’s progression continues, he’ll get his money down the line, as well. I think it’s safe to assume that (checks Google) 126-year-old Udonis Haslem will still hold a roster spot, too.
The 2020-21 salary cap is a nebulous figure at the moment, so for the sake of the exercise, let’s stick with this season’s salary cap of $115 million. These are purely speculative figures, but let’s say that Adebayo gets $20 million per season in an extension. Then the Heat re-signs Dragic for $15 million, Crowder for $10 million, Robinson for $12 million, and Nunn for $6 million. Throw in the salary for their first-round draft pick – currently slated at No. 20– and the $5.2 million the Heat will carry for Ryan Anderson (!) for the next two seasons. We’re staring at a salary sheet of over $140 million for 13 players, without signing Derrick Jones (he’s undoubtedly off to pastures anew). In a season with potentially no game day income, that’s an expensive lineup. It’s one that the Heat brass would want to see some return on.
(As an aside, for all the talk of Miami being a player in free agency this offseason, it’s more likely that the 2021 break will be when Pat Riley throws his rings on the table. With Dragic, Iguodala, and Olynyk all off the books, the Heat opens up over $40 million in cap space for what could be a historically stacked market. We could have a bidding war on (deep breath): LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Jusuf Nurkic, and Spencer Dinwiddie. That’s before we even consider any of the 2017 draft class that do not sign extensions.)
The scenario outlined above does see them retain the core that pushed them to within a pair of wins (and perhaps some injury fortune) from a shock championship. On the surface, that’s not a bad position to be in. But you have to wonder if Miami caught lightning in a bottle these playoffs.
Goran Dragic – after finding a late-career niche as a second unit leader – emerged as the Heat’s leading scorer in the playoffs, prior to his foot injury. Tyler Herro grew from tantalising late lottery rookie to possible franchise cornerstone. Butler transformed from a second-tier star to the man that repeatedly bullied LeBron James on the way to the basket. Bam was an All-Star for a reason, but nobody expected that he would be the best player in the Conference Finals, outshining Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker. It’s unlikely that all of those stars align again. Especially with a target now on their backs.
Then we have to consider the growth of Boston’s young core or Giannis, who has added something to his game every season, returning with a point to prove (and his coach doing something novel like formulating a Plan B).
The Heat will be contenders in the East in 2021, but anyone that awards them favoritism in the East is getting ahead of themselves.
(A second aside – I really only wanted to write something about the Heat so I could run this GIF)