Yahoo Sports’ 5 Most Interesting NBA Teams: The Miami Heat

(Illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

(Illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

As the start of the 2023-24 NBA season draws closer, I’m spending the week training the microscope on a handful of the most interesting teams in the NBA (to me, if not necessarily to anyone else). After stops in Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Cleveland, we finish things off in Miami, where an offseason that didn’t quite go according to plan gives way to a new campaign full of intriguing possibilities:

Here’s the zag: When things don’t work out for the Miami Heat? That just means that things worked out exactly the way the Miami Heat wanted them to work out.

Oh, you don’t think so? You don’t think Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the gang are exactly where they want to be entering this season?


You poor, simple fool. I’d pity you, if your take wasn’t already so pitiful.

Just six months ago, idiot pundits like that casual at Yahoo Sports were leaving the Heat for dead. “There’s no way that a 44-win team with a negative point differential and a 25th-ranked offense, that got dominated by the Hawks and was three minutes of Max Strus fury away from losing to the friggin’ Bulls in the play-in will spend more than a week in the playoffs,” they said. The rubes. The dullards.

So what did the disrespected, overlooked, underdog Heat do? Smoke the Bucks, suffocate the Knicks and grind out the Celtics, becoming just the second No. 8 seed ever to reach the NBA Finals — a surprise to everyone except those in the Miami locker room.

“Because we do it every single day, and we know what we’re capable of,” Butler told reporters before the start of the 2023 NBA Finals. “The outside individuals don’t get the opportunity to see that, and I wish that y’all did, because then you would see that the guys that we have on this team, on this roster, can really play some high-level basketball.”

OK, yeah, they went on to get dusted by Denver, struggling mightily to score in a series that laid out what some dopes thought were fundamental weaknesses in Miami’s offensive infrastructure. Weaknesses that could be strengthened, they argued, with a home-run-swing trade for Damian Lillard, following his estrangement from the Trail Blazers. That, as you might’ve heard, didn’t work out: After Strus and Gabe Vincent, the two starting guards from Miami’s Finals team, both departed in free agency, Lillard wound up getting dealt to the Milwaukee team that the Heat eliminated in Round 1 for Jrue Holiday, who was then redirected to the Boston squad that the Heat took out in the Eastern Conference finals.

While their two chief Eastern rivals reloaded, cash-and-asset-strapped Miami worked the margins: drafting UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr., re-upping buyout signing-turned-playoff starter Kevin Love and adding minor-key free agents Josh Richardson (the prodigal son shipped to Philadelphia in the sign-and-trade that brought Butler to South Beach) and Thomas Bryant (who logged a brisk 29 seconds of burn in the postseason backing up Nikola Jokić). Those smaller moves didn’t really move the needle in the eyes of the sharps: BetMGM lists the Heat as a 30-to-1 shot to win the 2024 NBA title, with an over/under win total line set at 45.5 wins.

Those projections slot Miami in fifth in the Eastern Conference — behind the Bucks and Celtics (who we covered in our look at the favorites) as well as the 76ers and Cavaliers (who we’ve covered in this series). Out of home-court advantage, on the road, fighting from underneath.

Which is, of course, just the way they like it.

“You just want to come into camp having a team that you know is going to be one of those teams competing for the title, and we have one of those teams right now,” Spoelstra told reporters on Heat media day. “… I understand the fandom and the buzz and everything — everybody wants change after every single year. You don’t know if those changes will lead to anything on those other teams. But we like our group.”

“Yeah, we straight,” Butler added during a media day session where his coiffure drew much more attention than his comments. “Like I always say, I know what I’m capable of. I know what my guys are capable of. So we’ll continue to play basketball as a unit, as a team and somehow, some way, end up in the Finals.”

It’s kind of hard to blame Butler for his unswerving confidence; after all, the guy’s a front-rimmed transition 3 shy of three Finals appearances in four seasons in South Beach. His declarative sentences do invite questions, though — namely what “somehow, some way” might look like, and how Miami might position itself for more success in the upcoming regular season to avoid needing to withstand a similarly daunting gauntlet next postseason.

Some of Miami’s underwhelming regular-season profile owed to Butler missing 18 games — in fairness, an annual occurrence, as the six-time All-Star hasn’t topped 65 games since 2017 — as one of a number of Heat rotation regulars to spend a ton of time on the shelf. But if you’re going to have guys in and out of the lineup, and if you’re not always going to be able to go with Plan A in your offensive attack and defensive scheme, there’s no better weapon to have on your bench than Spoelstra, who spent this past postseason burnishing his bona fides as his the sport’s premier tactician, thanks partly to his gift for spending the regular season squirreling away duct-tape answers for damn near every problem.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 10: Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat (C) looks on from the bench during the second quarter of a preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets at Kaseya Center on October 10, 2023 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Jimmy Butler (center) and the Miami Heat still believe they are title contenders. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images) (Megan Briggs via Getty Images)

“I think that we found the value in the grind of the regular season. … I’ve said that repeatedly: We found a beauty in that struggle,” Spoelstra said during Miami’s Round 2 playoff victory over the Knicks. “But without that struggle, [if] we didn’t have to find different solutions to win, and different guys stepping up so that they had the confidence for these kinds of moments … then you have zero chance to be able to do that in the playoffs.”

As important as Spoelstra’s ingenuity and the two-way brilliance of Butler and Adebayo will be to Miami’s chances of keeping pace in the East, plenty of responsibility also rests on the shoulders of Tyler Herro. The former Sixth Man of the Year turned starter/co-lead ball-handler watched virtually the entirety of the Heat’s Finals run from the bench with a broken hand, and then spent his summer hearing his name bandied about in trade talks as the Heat not-so-quietly pursued Lillard.

“I thought I was out of here,” Herro told Wes Goldberg of The Ringer. “I damn near had my s*** packed up.”

Instead, with Lillard and Holiday landing elsewhere — and with a deal for James Harden reportedly “not a direction [the Heat are] considering,” even if you can make an argument that it’s one they should — and with 37-year-old Kyle Lowry unlikely to suddenly start shouldering a significantly larger playmaking burden, Herro now occupies a critical role in Miami’s chances of improving that bottom-six offense and, even more importantly, helping to keep the 34-year-old Butler from accumulating too many miles during the regular-season marathon to perform his annual playoff transformation into The Best Player in the World.

Herro certainly won’t lack for motivation to turn in a career season, whether in the form of smiting his haters throughout the league (“For the teams that didn’t want me, that’s on you”), the imperative to play well enough to establish himself firmly as part of Miami’s long-term core (“I want to get myself to a place where I’m not thinking about if I’m getting traded every summer”), or the desire to prove that he’s better than what seems to be the emerging public consensus (“I don’t know, I feel like I’m valuable as hell”).

“At first, they said I couldn’t be a 20-point scorer,” he told Will Guillory of The Athletic. “Then, I became a 20-point scorer; now, I’m just a scorer. And my assist and rebound numbers go up every year. No one can put a ceiling or a cap on my value because every year I get better.”

There are still several areas with clear opportunity for growth, though — starting with the paint.

The 23-year-old has proven to be a lights-out 3-point shooter who can torch defenses whether he’s spotting up (38.3% last season on catch-and-shoot triples) or firing off a live dribble (36.9% on pull-up 3s). Despite his long-range accuracy, though, Herro has yet to post a league-average true-shooting percentage in four pro seasons, in part because he rarely presses the action in attacking the lane. He averaged just 10.7 drives to the basket per game last season — tied for 49th in the league, about half as many as guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ja Morant — and attempted a career-low 15% of his shots at the rim.

That lack of north-south pressure makes it tough to rack up easy points. While Herro’s a career 87.5% free-throw shooter and led the league last season at 93.4%, he got to the charity stripe fewer than three times per game. That’s been a persistent issue: Among high-usage players to log at least 2,000 minutes over the past four seasons, Herro’s got the sixth-lowest free-throw attempt rate, ahead of only Klay Thompson, Nikola Vučević, C.J. McCollum and Derrick Rose.

In keeping with age-old #musclewatch traditions, Herro has reportedly bulked up to 205 pounds to better bulldoze his way to the basket — and, just as crucially, withstand the physical pounding that comes with having to navigate thickets of on- and off-ball screens on defense. If he can take the next step on both ends, becoming a more efficient scorer and more advanced pick-and-roll playmaker while also limiting the degree to which he’s a liability on defense, it would go a long way toward solidifying the potential ceiling of Miami’s core players.

From there, it’ll be on Spoelstra and a Heat player development apparatus that seems to spin straw into gold every season to plug whichever gaps need filling. Maybe they’ll use first-round picks like Jaquez and Nikola Jović (who showed some flashes of advancement as a playmaking stretch 4 for Serbia during this summer’s FIBA World Cup). Maybe it’ll be grind-it-out reclamation projects like Haywood Highsmith, Jamal Cain, Cole Swider and Dru Smith, all eager to prove that they’re next up in the lineage of Strus, Vincent and Caleb Martin. Maybe it’ll be some other surprise midstream arrival, like Love was last year.

Wherever the help winds up coming from, what’s crystal clear is that as long as Jimmy, Bam and Spo are upright and operational come April, May and June, the Heat will remain confident that no weapon formed against them will prosper. If you don’t believe it, that’s fine. They believe more than enough on their own.

“This time, we’re going to win it,” Butler said on media day. “And then y’all going to say we got lucky.”

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