Is the Miami Heat a serious Eastern Conference threat?

“We went to four straight finals in four years,” is what LeBron James had to say to a reporter after being questioned on his impending free agency following Miami’s five-game finals defeat to Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs in 2014, a result the rest of the NBA was perhaps quite relieved over.

“We’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish in these fours years,” James continued. “We lost one, we won two, and we lost another one. I’ll take 50 percent in four years any day.”

Dwyane Wade had a blank expression on his face, one that almost screamed out, ‘he’s gone and this dynasty is over,’ as James answered the majority of the questions presented to them in the press conference.

“You just got to come back the next year and be better as an individual, as a team, and go from there. All three of us (Wade, Chris Bosh and I), that’s the last thing we’re thinking about is what’s going on this summer.”

To make a long story short, James made his heralded return to Cleveland in the 2014 offseason before eventually delivering on his promise and overcoming a three-to-one finals deficit in 2016 to give the Cleveland Cavaliers their long-awaited championship.

The Cavs had a big three of their own in James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but that never would have happened if the LBJ/Bosh/Wade trio didn’t formulate the blueprint earlier in the decade. Wade and Bosh should feel obligated to accept some of the credit that led to the Cavs’ championship. It all started back in Miami.

“I had two or three days of tremendous anger,” said longtime Heat president Pat Riley a few years ago as he reflected on LeBron James’ ending in South Beach.

“I was absolutely livid,” Riley continued. “Which I expressed to myself and my closest friends. My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in ten years could have won five or six championships.”

Riley followed those words with comments that showed his sincere understanding of the entire process while coming out and admitting that James leaving was “the right thing to do.”

“But I get it,” said Riley. “I get the whole chronicle of LeBron’s life. I just finally came to accept the realization that he and his family said, ‘You’ll never ever be accepted back in your hometown if you don’t go back to try to win a title.'”

Riley’s unparalleled success, winning five championships as a head coach including with Miami in 2006, is what made James believe in him and that he would be able to give James the championship he had been craving for so long.

Riley had beefed up his resume even more by the time James left for Cleveland again. Wade and Bosh would not be enough to get Miami back to perennial status though. Late in the 2014-15 season, Bosh was diagnosed with a blood clot that put his career in jeopardy and shortly thereafter ended his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career.

The Heat went on to win one more playoff series with an aging Wade. Not everything was downhill from there because, to this day, the organization never plotted a rebuild as other organizations do so often after being unseated in the throne and replaced by another hard-earned survivor such as the Spurs.

Wade signed with his hometown Chicago Bulls after clashing with Heat management in the 2016 offseason. The Bulls wanted to give it one more shot in the post-Derrick Rose era. However, that didn’t last long and Wade returned to Miami at the 2018 trade deadline following a brief stint with James and the Cavaliers.

Commissioner Adam Silver declared Wade, along with Dirk Nowitzki, be a special addition to the 2019 All-Star game before retiring in a Heat jersey. Wade and Pat Riley had a falling out during contract talks in 2016. There was no way that relationship was ending on bad terms though. Wade was a staple in Miami and a Heat lifer.

Now we fast forward to the present day where it’s nearly a new decade. As previously insinuated, the Heat pretty much swung for the fences every summer since losing James. Riley finally made it happen this past summer as the Heat inked four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to a three-year deal worth over $100 million with a player option in year four.

This new Heat team was presumably a large part of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The tides have quickly turned though as the Heat has unmistakably emerged as more than just that, but also a team fighting for home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason.

Butler missed Miami’s first three games but the team hit the ground running with undrafted rookie guard Kendrick Nunn (45.2 FG%, 25.6 PTS per 100 possessions) scoring 20 points or more in seven of its first 14 games. The Heat wasn’t exactly an afterthought with contenders like the Bucks and Sixers but it also wasn’t seen as a primary enforcer in the Eastern Conference.

NBA fans outside of Florida could have misinterpreted this team for one that paid Butler what he wanted so he could be the anchor of a mediocre-to-slightly above average team, one that would allow Butler to turn the page and control his individual destiny as a top 20 player in the league.

It wouldn’t be fair to label Butler a ‘locker room killer’ or anything close to that because his work ethic is off the charts. With that said, he has been no stranger to team conflict over the years. That includes a memorable practice rant in Minnesota and calling out his teammates in Chicago for not playing to win.

Butler even had a golden opportunity after being traded to Philadelphia last season, where he would play alongside the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. However, that proved to be a suspect fit with he and Simmons perhaps wanting more ball-handling duties than one another. Butler can play off the ball but he’s most comfortable with the ball in his hands.

That happens to be the case for a lot of players in this league though and sacrifice is a major part of why teams succeed. 23-year-old point forward Justise Winslow (has missed 15 games due to injury), for example, may be far from reaching his full potential. But maybe he’s not. Maybe the Heat is content with him just serving as a lockdown defender and competent sidekick to Butler.

While Miami is counting on a highly-regarded lottery pick like Winslow, the organization also knows discovering hidden gems like Nunn is necessary in order to get back to the league’s upper-echelon. Power forward/center Bam Adebayo (59.1 FG%, 15.3 PTS, 10.5 REB) might not be a star quite yet, but he isn’t far from it. Riley selected him in the 2017 draft behind Josh Jackson and Zach Collins, a couple of players that Adebayo has effortlessly surpassed.

Speaking of hidden gems, we cannot dismiss sharpshooting forward Duncan Robinson (44.9 3P% on 3.1 3PM per game). Undrafted in 2018 after three years at the University of Michigan, Robinson wasn’t one that many expected to pan out as a steady rotation player outside of the NBA developmental league, otherwise known as the G-League. However, Spoelstra has successfully transformed him into a serviceable system player.

Perhaps getting lost in the hype of this eye-opening Miami team, Goran Dragic (40.3 3P%, 20.0 PTS, 6.3 AST per 36 min.) has embraced his new sixth-man role while bouncing back strongly from last year’s injury-riddled campaign. Floating around trade rumors the past couple of years, Riley has turned this into a perplexing situation. The 33-year-old continues to lead by example as a crafty veteran guard but there’s always a chance he does get dealt at the trade deadline.

Over the summer, the Heat dealt another expiring contract in Hassan Whiteside in order to clear cap space for what became a sign-and-trade for Butler. It also received center Meyers Leonard in the deal, who isn’t as physically gifted as Whiteside but probably makes more sense for the team’s short-term goals. Whiteside was one of several pricey deals granted a few summers ago but Riley has found a way to cover up those questionable decisions by building an NBA-ready youth foundation.

Well, not quite a youth foundation given that Miami is tied for the fifth-highest average age in the league of 26.5 years old. It’s just the right blend; enough experience to hold weight in the Eastern Conference but also enough youth to have the utmost confidence for the seasons ahead, or the complete marathon.

The Heat is a well-oiled machine having eight players that average at least nine points per game, the latter two of them being another promising rookie guard in Tyler Herro (37.9 3P%, 3.4 3PM, 23.4 PTS per 100 possessions) and the fundamentally smooth Kelly Olynyk, who makes key contributions in his valuable 23 minutes per game. Just to give you an idea of how much faith Coach Spoelstra puts in him: Herro was in the game a few nights ago despite being 0-for-6 when the Heat needed a made basket to go ahead.

Let’s circle back to Wade for the time being. Perimeter shooting was never his strong suit as he only connected on 0.5 three-pointers per game in his career on less than 30 percent shooting from long-range. That was with Wade’s distinctive style of play mainly before the NBA turned into a three-point shooting clinic.

Don’t get me wrong; there were Ray Allen-type players, such as the ones who ultimately bury game-winning three-pointers to win championships. That’s what made him perhaps more rare than he would be in today’s game. And to get more specific with today’s game (as of December 10th, 2019), the Heat boasts both the second-highest three-point percentage (38.2%) and best shooting efficiency in the league.

In regards to shooting efficiency, that doesn’t always directly correlate with which teams have players with the biggest reputation for hitting the three-ball. That’s because nearly every team now lives and dies by the three-point shot. It’s just that some teams need it more when they are lacking in other areas.

Having two players on the floor that don’t shoot at least fairly well from deep is considered a liability today. It’s not always about the percentage a player shoots but alerting the defense that, “hey, I am a threat to make open threes regardless of my percentage.”

Herro and Robinson are probably the only players here that could potentially win a three-point contest. It’s just in the concept of the four-or-five-player out technique. Adebayo is the one player that really doesn’t shoot from the perimeter but he knows how to create for shooters around him as evidenced by his 4.4 assists per game and first career triple-double on Tuesday vs. Chicago. That being said, it’s likely Adebayo will develop an outside jumper in the next couple of years.

So now we pose the question: exactly how legitimate is this Heat team and does it have any business competing for the conference finals? The Heat and Sixers are the only remaining undefeated teams at home and that doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

As if that wasn’t enough to convince you, we can be reassured this isn’t a fluke due to the Heat being tied for the seventh-easiest remaining schedule in the league (according to tankathon.com). Therefore, the perceived reality of Miami being a middle-of-the-pack playoff team is just getting less and less leverage.

The Heat has James and the Lakers coming into its building on Friday night. Checking that game off as a victory would go a long way. It’s only one game in theory but in looking at its schedule, the Heat doesn’t really have any home win to be overly-excited about.

While Riley’s Heat has lifted spectators in and around South Beach off their seats, only time will tell if the 2019-20 Miami Heat are contenders, pretenders, or somewhere in between.

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