Pat Riley and Jimmy Butler have turned the Heat back on in Miami
PAT RILEY’S INCREDIBLE track record aside, it was hard to take him at face value nine months ago.
“Whether you believe me or not, we’re at the launching pad right now,” Riley said during his annual postseason news conference. “We’ve been through this now a long time. We know how to do this. We have done it in a myriad of different ways. We’re going to figure it out.”
Riley’s Miami Heat had missed the playoffs for a third time in five seasons. The Heat were capped out and had gone from chasing stars to overpaying role players. As a result, as the rest of the NBA was about to embark on one of the wildest summers of player movement ever, Miami seemed doomed to be relegated to the sidelines.
Riley, though, was undeterred.
“Don’t make any conclusions that we’re stuck with certain contracts. That would be foolish thinking,” Riley said. “There aren’t any obstacles, there are only opportunities.”
The Heat front office saw something they thought doubters were dismissing. Their choppy last few seasons aside, they believed their franchise and the City of Miami hadn’t dimmed as drawing cards. They felt they didn’t need cap space or high draft picks to make it happen. They needed only a star who wanted to be in Miami.
Sure, the Los Angeles and New York teams were rivals, but that was nothing new. The Heat had beaten those teams for stars in the past. Riley and his trusted lieutenants firmly believed an active marketplace played to their favor, and 2019 free agency would be active.
Once again, the old master was proved right. It showed in his wide smile as he sat alongside Jimmy Butler last July, the landing of a star that has become a turning point. To some, it was an unexpected sign-and-trade. Then — as Riley predicted he could — he unloaded Hassan Whiteside’s bloated expiring contract, creating the path for Bam Adebayo to elevate from role player to second star.
In short, the Heat are back, and back to doing what they’ve always done: gathering stars and contending. From Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway to Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal to the “Heatles” of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, Riley has done this time and again since joining the Heat 25 years ago.
Now the Heat are on the hunt for another big catch. Whether it’s a member of the desirable 2021 free agency class or another star Riley lures to South Florida, he has one more chance to create a Big Three on the shores of Biscayne Bay.
THIS REEMERGENCE OF the Heat as a force comes after five difficult years. James left in July 2014. Bosh re-signed — but recurring blood clots derailed his career. That they appeared for the first time just as the Heat were trading for Goran Dragic was a cruel twist of fate. All of it set the stage for Wade’s ugly — albeit brief — departure.
The failure to sign any major free agents — namely Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, on whom Miami put a full-court press to land — was a reversal from the success the Heat had previously enjoyed.
As a result, the Heat changed tactics. In 2017, on the heels of failing to get Hayward, and after just missing the playoffs following a 30-11 close to the regular season, Miami invested heavily in non-stars. The Heat made more than $100 million in four-year investments to retain Dion Waiters and James Johnson — deals that remain millstones around the team’s neck.
“That’s on me. You can put that all over me because I’m the one who made the deal at midnight [on July 1, 2017],” Riley said last year. “I didn’t want the two guys on someone else’s team, which would’ve been an even worse scenario.”
Riley also gave free agent Kelly Olynyk a four-year contract that summer. All of that followed the Heat’s decision in 2016 to match a $50 million offer to reserve guard Tyler Johnson.
In settling for role players, the Heat adopted a slogan and hashtag to justify the method: “Heat Culture.” And in fact, the Heat’s culture has long been considered among the best in the NBA. But culture didn’t deliver rings to Riley in Los Angeles and Miami — stars did.
“EVERYBODY IS LOOKING for a star,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. Not everyone, though, can land them. Riley has proved, time and again, that he can.
The man proved to be a wizard of a coach and one of the league’s great innovators. But Riley’s best work has always been getting stars — and getting the most from them.
By the time last season ended, Riley had made the course correction and was vowing to return to his roots. That’s what led to his brash proclamations. While the Heat were proud that they always competed hard, and swore they enjoyed the chase for a lower playoff seed, they had reached a decision to get back to being the old Heat.
Riley admitted it might take until the summer of 2020 to get a star, and he hinted he might even have to pay a surcharge to dump some of his bad contracts. But once Butler became an option, Riley pounced.
General manager Andy Elisburg executed the sign-and-trade that required four teams to pull together. Complicated deals have long been an Elisburg specialty — whether it was the five-team, 13-player mega trade they executed in 2005 that stocked their 2006 title team, the Eddie Jones sign-and-trade where Elisburg had 20 different machinations of Jones’ contact in 2000, or the James and Bosh sign-and-trade deals in 2010.
The Heat were doing Heat things yet again.
LAST SEASON THE Heat were 10-14 in games decided by five points or fewer, and just 19-22 record at home, where they let winnable games slip away. They missed the playoffs by two games and were full of regret.
With one of the league’s best closers in Butler leading them this season, the Heat have made a huge turnaround in their clutch-time execution. They’re a dominating 6-0 in overtime games. At home they’ve been almost untouchable, going 17-1.
“There’s a reason why we chased him so hard, and backed up the Brink’s truck to get a max player,” Spoelstra said. “That was the idea: to have a guy that we believe can take us to a different level.
“That’s what he’s doing right now.”
Butler is averaging a career high in assists, making the Heat’s offense go without a traditional point guard and allowing Dragic to settle perfectly into a sixth man role — one he’s played arguably better than anyone in the league this season.
Butler also espouses all the principles of “Heat Culture” — to the point where Spoelstra thinks about what could have been had the Heat drafted Butler in 2011 rather than Norris Cole, two picks before the Chicago Bulls took Butler with the final pick of the first round.
“It felt like he should’ve been with us all along,” Spoelstra said with a smile. “All along. I was joking about it with [Heat senior adviser] Chet Kammerer. … I was saying, ‘Man, looking back on it now, how great would Jimmy Butler have been drafting him after that first year with the Big Three?’ Could’ve slotted him in with LeBron be the point, Dwyane, Jimmy be your 3, CB, Shane … that team could’ve gone on.”
That is an alternate reality. In this one, the Heat are hoping Butler can be the lure to stars in the way Wade, his fellow Marquette product, was 10 years ago. Yes, Riley was able to persuade James and Bosh to come to the Heat in that wild summer of 2010 — but that happened only because Wade was already there.
Part of why the Heat struck out in free agency for several years was they didn’t have anyone for stars to play alongside — just one of the reasons Bosh’s medical retirement was so devastating. Butler, they hope, changes that.
“I’m just here to hoop,” Butler said when asked if he thought about the future possibilities for the organization when he agreed to come to Miami. “I’ll let Coach Pat, Coach Spo and everybody else in the front office deal with all of that.
“I just know that I wanted to be here, I am here, and whatever we do, if we stick with this team, our job is still to win. We’re locked in right now, and we’ll worry about the future when it gets here.”
THE ASCENSION OF Adebayo might prove as important as the addition of Butler. Adebayo is an ideal fit for today’s NBA — athletic enough to switch onto virtually anyone on the court and skilled enough to dribble and pass like a wing. The differences between Adebayo and his talented but less versatile predecessor at center in Miami, Whiteside, are glaring.
“Our organization is built on: You’ve got to earn it,” Adebayo said. “I feel like I’ve earned the right to be here and they’re letting me expand my game.”
The max contract handed to Whiteside in 2016 is as telling as any of Miami’s other questionable deals. He frustrated the Heat with his inconsistent effort. When asked about how Miami was winning despite Butler’s modest numbers, Spoelstra referenced Whiteside repeatedly without ever mentioning his name — including Whiteside once saying he was “trying to get my 2K rating up” in a postgame interview.
The Heat have surrounded Butler and Adebayo with the type of under-the-radar finds the Heat are known for developing. Kendrick Nunn, winner of the first two East Rookie of the Month awards this season, was an undrafted free agent the team signed at the end of last season. Duncan Robinson was on a two-way deal with the Heat last season and has developed into one of the league’s most accurate 3-point shooters. Chris Silva is on a two-way deal and is playing himself into a full roster spot down the road, while Tyler Herro has looked like a potential steal with the 13th pick in the draft.
Spoelstra credits Butler and Dragic, veteran players who have allowed those younger guys to take on specific roles, an assessment Robinson agreed with.
“For sure,” he said. “Both those guys, particularly on offense, get us organized and get into stuff. It makes it more palatable for us. Particularly for myself, I know my job is to be aggressive on offense, space the floor, shoot it when I’m open, and sometimes when I’m not, and defense, just compete, be in the right spots, contain the ball and just focus on what’s in front of me instead of getting too far ahead of myself.
“They’ve both been awesome.”
The Heat are third in the East, back among the elite. They’ll keep looking to add another star this season or this summer, though any such deal could cut into their ability to get a big free agent in 2021. But any doubts about Riley’s ability to make a major move should be suspended. Riley is feeling lucky.
“I’m an Irish guy,” he said. “I sling shamrocks around to my friends all the time. It’s my favorite emoji.”
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