What a night for Miami Heat fans. The Heat defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 105-89 and exemplified arguably their best defensive performance of the season, becoming the only team to have beaten the Bucks multiple times this season. They seem ready to roll again and hopefully leave the sour taste of the last few weeks behind.
But how did we get here?
At the start of the season, the general consensus surrounding the Heat were that they were going to be a fringe playoff team; at best a first-round exit. Even getting to THAT point, however, took an exhausting level of roster maneuvering. To truly understand the miraculous transformation that Pat Riley and the Heat front office have made with this current roster, we need to rewind to the 2016-2017 NBA season.
Over the summer of 2016, Dwyane Wade and Riley reached an impasse during contract negotiations which ultimately led to Wade departing Miami for the Chicago Bulls. That same summer, the Heat signed Hassan Whiteside to a max contract and gave Tyler Johnson a four year, $50 million deal. The Heat played the majority of the season with a starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Luke Babbitt, and Rodney McGruder. Spearheaded by head coach Erik Spoelstra, this team somehow went on a 30-11 miracle run to end the season but fell just a hair short of a playoff spot.
The summer immediately following that season was perhaps the biggest mistake of Riley’s tenure with the Heat. After striking out on Gordon Hayward in free agency, the Heat front office handsomely paid Dion Waiters and James Johnson massive, multi-year contracts to reward their efforts from the late 2016-2017 season run and signed Kelly Olynyk to a similar contract that summer, as well.
Not surprisingly, the Heat were never again unable to replicate the same level of success in following years that they achieved during the 41-game sample size that led to multiple players earning big contracts. The Heat did manage to sneak into the playoffs during the 2017-2018 season largely due to the brilliance that is Spoelstra and the return of Dwyane Wade, but were quickly eliminated in five games by the Philadelphia 76ers.
In the process, however, the Heat had no cap space to work with in free agency, and the players that Riley awarded big contracts to experienced significant drop-offs after getting paid to the point where their contracts became downright untradeable. The Heat were stuck in NBA purgatory by many accounts, and it seemed the only way they would be able to get out of this was to wait until 2021 when these contracts would all inevitably expire.
But then, all of a sudden in the summer of 2019, Riley finally came alive again.
The Heat are notorious throughout the NBA for having the most rigorous training and for upholding a level of strict discipline known infamously as the “Heat Culture”. This mindset helped Riley entice Jimmy Butler’s interest in Miami, but the problem still remained that the Heat had no cap space to sign him in free agency. After several unsuccessful attempts to trade Whiteside, Riley somehow pulled it off in July of 2019 and executed a four-team deal that sent Whiteside to Portland, Josh Richardson to Philadelphia, and freed up the necessary roster space to bring Jimmy Butler to Miami. While many saw the Butler acquisition as a move that only marginally improved the borderline playoff team, this only begun to scratch the surface of what Riley had meant to accomplish.
The obvious benefit of the Jimmy Butler move was that the Heat brought in a much-needed superstar player and one of the best two-way players in the league. However, trading Whiteside to Portland inherently allowed Bam Adebayo to officially become Miami’s starting big man. In his first season as a starter, Bam has responded with major improvements in essentially every statistical category, was named a first time NBA All-Star, and has a legitimate shot at winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The Heat front office also drafted Tyler Herro over the summer, another move that was initially met with criticism but ultimately ended up being the right move. At the 2020 NBA trade deadline, Pat Riley finally was able to unload the remaining contracts that he had signed over the summer of 2017 when he sent Dion Waiters, Justise Winslow, and James Johnson to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder.
So, just to recap, in the span of less than one full season and with absolutely no cap space to work with, Pat Riley was able to right his wrongs and turn Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson into Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder, all while unleashing the full potential of Bam Adebayo.
Now, the Heat are a top four seed in the East, just became the only team to defeat the Bucks multiple times this year, and will have all the cap space in the world to work with during the gargantuan 2021 free agency class that includes the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Bradley Beal (just to name a few).
The Heat have wildly exceeded any and all preseason expectations placed upon them, and the team is suddenly more than well-equipped for both the present and the future.
Moral of the story? Never doubt Pat Riley.