From LeBron James to Jimmy Butler: The ups and downs of the Miami Heat’s return to the top

Pat Riley

People don’t say no to Pat Riley.

If the Miami Heat’s President wants a player to stay in South Beach, they usually do. Then again, not many players are LeBron James.

Not many players would leave a franchise after winning two championships and two MVP awards within four years. But that’s exactly what LeBron did. He left the Miami Heat.

His return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014 signalled the end of Miami’s Big-Three era, and turned a contending team into one that missed the playoffs the following year – even if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stayed.

But in 2020, the Heat appear to be back among the best teams in the NBA. Jimmy Butler and company have the Heat making its first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the LeBron days, beating the Milwaukee Bucks 4-1 in the Conference Semifinals.

Head Coach Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley deserve all the praise for steering the franchise back in the right direction, and for never compromising that iconic Heat culture. It’s not an easy task to rebuild a team following the departure of an all-time great, just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The road back hasn’t been all bad. But it hasn’t been smooth either.

The franchise’s bubble playoff appearance is only their third since James left in 2014, with the postseason highlight between then and now arguably being Dwyane Wade’s battle with ‘Purple Shirt Man’ in Game 6 of their First-Round series against the Charlotte Hornets in 2016.

Chris Bosh missed that series due to blood clots found in his lungs the year prior, which forced him in and out of the Heat’s line-up until his final game in February 2016. He retired from the NBA in 2019 when Miami retired his jersey.

A Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters led team in 2016-17 finished 41-41, but despite a 30-11 end to the season the team failed to make the playoffs – losing out on the eighth seed to the Chicago Bulls, the team Dwyane Wade had left for in Free Agency at the start of the year.

Their last postseason berth was in 2017-18, when the team carried the momentum from the previous season to finish with the sixth seed, but they ultimately lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.

Throughout these seasons, Spoelstra deserves credit for adjusting and improving Miami’s style of play.

Obviously, the NBA has changed in recent years, as a faster pace, a spaced floor, and the 3-pointer holds more value than ever before. Miami averaged 22.3 3-point attempts per game in LeBron’s last season with the Heat, but two years later, in the 2015-16 season, they attempted just 18 – the third least in the NBA.

In the 2016-17 season, that number jumped up to 27 three-point attempts per game, and now this regular season they averaged 35.4 – the ninth most in the league. In fact, Miami’s regular season offensive rating was seventh best in the NBA, at 111.9, which is a better rating than the Heat had at any point during LeBron’s tenure, and their best league ranking in the statistic since he left.

Spoelstra’s offense this season has been based around cutting, off-ball movement, three-point shooting, and of course, passing. Miami averaged the fifth most assists per game in the league this regular season at 25.9 – a far cry from the 2014-15 season, averaging the least in the NBA.

The Heat actually created the third most assist points per game in the NBA this season with 68.6. The year after LeBron left, they averaged 49.5 – second least in the league. The ball is moving around and getting to their thee-point shooters, including Duncan Robinson, the player with the fourth best three-point percentage in the entire league. The modernization of the offense by Spoelstra has done wonders for the team, but they still have players, like Jimmy Butler, comfortable in the mid-range.

The Heat’s players are executing Spoelstra’s system incredibly well, and Miami’s roster is what enables this new style.

They’ve drafted and developed talent well, recently signing undrafted players such as Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, and taking Tyler Herro 13th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. They all fit in with the organization, and offense, perfectly – all are more than willing to shoot from distance.

But no young player has been more important than the man Riley and Spoelstra took 14th overall in 2017, Bam Adebayo.

Averages of 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this year, come with a skill set that has proved key for Miami. Adebayo’s passing and ball handling abilities let him initiate the offense, and he is often seen bringing the ball up the court, hitting a cutting teammate for a score or even orchestrating offensive sets from the post. He can switch to guard any position, and this versatility has been key to anchor the Heat’s top-10 defense.

It seems strange that the All-Star was sat behind Hassan Whiteside for much of his first two years in the league.

But Whiteside was emblematic of the Miami Heat, and Pat Riley, in the post Big-Three world. Riley gave sizeable contracts to good players, but not to the star players he has always so desperately coveted.

Goran Dragic signed a five-year $90 million deal in 2015. Hassan Whiteside got his four-year $98 million max-contract in 2016, to go alongside Tyler Johnson’s four-year $50 million deal. Dion Waiters and James Johnson signed four-year $52 million, and four-year $60 million contracts respectively in 2017. All this was after missing out on marquee free agents during the time period like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward.

The Heat would get meetings with the star players, but nothing more. People were saying no to Pat Riley.

And then, they started saying yes, once again.

At the start of this season, Riley turned a first-round draft pick, Josh Richardson, and the final year of Whiteside’s contract, into Jimmy Butler as part of a four-team trade. The sign and trade landed Butler in Miami on a four-year $140 million max-deal.

It has worked out well, with Butler undoubtedly being the Heat’s best player this year, averaging 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6 assists per game in an All-Star season. Miami got their star power back, but Riley wasn’t finished there.

He again moved some of those bad contracts, trading away Dion Waiters and James Johnson to get Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder in a three-team deal. The pair have been important players in Spoelstra’s playoff rotation, with Crowder starting every game in the postseason and Iguodala’s championship experience proving invaluable when coming off the bench.

Butler is the personification of Miami’s famous, hardworking, competitive and winning culture. He and Dragic (who has rewarded Spoelstra’s decision to start him in the playoffs) have been instrumental in this year’s playoff run, which has included a sweep of the Indiana Pacers, and a series win over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks.

This is the Miami Heat’s best season since LeBron James. They’re also in a position to improve their roster and get even better. A franchise that was once riddled with large contracts now only have Butler and rookie KZ Okpala signed through the 2021-22 season – though they are expected to extend many of their promising, young and important players.

2021 could see one of the most star-studded free agency classes in recent years – and Miami always tries to acquire stars. People have long suspected Victor Oladipo is heading to Miami at the end of his contract. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, to name a few, have player options in 2021, and Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum are restricted free agents. Anthony Davis is unrestricted in 2021 also, but the big prize is the MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Heat are reportedly keeping cap space free to offer Giannis, or any other big name free agent, the largest contract they can. That, an already competitive team with one of the best coaches in the NBA and a front office determined to win, could entice Antetokounmpo to take his talents to South Beach.

Miami have bounced back from losing LeBron and the end of the Big-Three. They have championship hopes this year, improving young players and the opportunity to sign some of the league’s best in 2021. Riley has signed the NBA’s biggest stars before, and he’s looking to do so again.

Remember, people don’t say no to Pat Riley – at least, not very often.