Miami Heat was caught between two eras, and staying in the title hunt could depend on finding a path

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The Miami Heat are caught between two eras, and to stay in the title hunt might come down to finding a path

The ideal NBA roster build is similar to what the Miami Heat currently has: a few All-Stars backed by younger, cheaper supporting roles that can steadily grow into larger roles as the veterans outgrow them. This is a lifecycle that virtually every NBA team aspires to, and as we see with the Golden State Warriors, it’s essentially a path to immortality. If you get it right, you can turn one competitor into another and win championships in that golden age before the first generation has fallen but after the second has risen.

But it’s a tiny needle to thread. For every Spurs or Warriors dynasty, there are a dozen teams halfway competing with a trophy. There’s a reason so many teams choose a defined path: the all-in method, where you cash in your chips for stars, or the slow, deliberate rebuild. Miami aimed for that sweet, sweet middle ground. They were five points short of the final. A little more injury luck and they might be gearing up for Golden State right now.

They are not for reasons beyond health. Choose your poison: a limited half-court offense that finished 24th in regular-season clutch minutes, a small roster that had no fix for the minutes that saw Bam Adebayo rest against a stronger frontcourt, one Defense so aggressive that they often struggled to avoid a foul. Maybe the Heat would be in the finals if they were healthy. Maybe they would have been eliminated a round earlier if it had been the 76ers. The hypothetical game rarely has winners. The actual game the Heat played just Sunday left Miami a heartbreaking loser. They had a golden opportunity to reach the final and narrowly escaped.

The Heat are now fully focused on next season when the Bucks and Nets return to the fray with significantly more focused roster constructions. The Bucks have three All-Stars between the ages of 27 and 31. Expand that age group a bit and Brooklyn is in the same boat. Boston’s post-season run speaks for itself.

All three are more likely to age gracefully than a Miami team facing issues at both ends of the age spectrum. PJ Tucker just turned 37 and Kyle Lowry is not far behind. Jimmy Butler turns 33 before opening night. The best version of him looks a decade younger, but he’s only played 70 games twice in one season. He’s missed an average of 20 games a season since leaving Chicago, and Miami is staring at four more maximum-money seasons with Butler’s contract.

That was one of the reasons why it was so important to win now. Butler, Lowry and Tucker are likely to be relegated next season. You have enough youth to make up for that lost value, but it won’t be cheap for much longer. Tyler Herro, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus all expire after next season. Bam Adebayo is on a maximum contract and Duncan Robinson is suspended for four more seasons despite falling out of the rotation and lest you think this issue is exclusive to the youngsters, Tucker has a player option, and after a strong run after of the season, could likely opt out and command at least several years on his current salary. Throw in Victor Oladipo, who is also headed for the free hand, and only Butler, Lowry, Adebayo and Robinson are locked in after the next year. This is a franchise that once used the amnesty clause to forego Mike Miller as the two-time defending champion. The Heat don’t like paying the luxury tax.

That’s an important difference between them and the Warriors. Part of Golden State’s never-ending runway depends on Joe Lacob’s deep pockets. Golden State is scheduled to pay an estimated $170 million in tax bills in addition to its $176 million list. The Heat are more affordable at $135 million, just below the luxury tax since they are most seasons. Warriors can afford to pay youngsters before their worth is established and veterans after it has waned. Can the heat?

If they can’t, it’s worth asking how practical the middle ground really is for them. Most of the league would rather have Butler, Lowry and Adebayo as their own top three, but Miami lacks the unchanging Golden State centerpiece in Stephen Curry. A top 5 player covers many mistakes. Miami’s alternative was player development. Their squad rarely has aggressive flaws because they’re so good at turning players that nobody else would want into contributors. Chances are if they let go of a combination of Herro, Strus and Vincent they will be able to generate internal replacements. But these replacements only go so far. Players like Strus and Vincent can’t make up for an injured Butler, who shoots 7-of-32 in games 4 and 5. Miami’s championship justice hinges on Butler being a top 10 or 15 player. The equation changes when he’s a top 25 player. It goes completely off balance once he slips into his 40s and 50s.

The Bulls once feared Butler’s supermax cost would exceed his worth on the pitch. They took him to Minnesota not to find out. There will of course be a hint of temptation for Miami to consider a similar path before age and injuries take the decision out of their hands, but nothing the Heat have ever done suggests they will willingly take an all -Star will sacrifice. They saw how dark the road without stars can be when they dedicated most of their space to Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk a few years ago. Butler saved her from this mediocrity. With 82 combined points in Games 6 and 7, he nearly led the Heat to the finals. Finding players like him is a lot harder than finding another Strus or Vincent. The Heat have proven their ability to grow such supporting parts in their Sioux Falls lab. If anything, they’ll likely try to redeem some of these soon-to-be-expensive youngsters for more butler assistance.

You have already been linked to Bradley Beal. Zach LaVine also feels approachable. A few surprising stars move every year, and with the juicy deals of Herro, Strus, Vincent and Robinson, they’re able to offer compelling packages. The Heat quietly negotiated relaxed protections on a pick they owe Oklahoma City by deadline, making either the 2022 or 2023 first-round pick tradable. Miami has been preparing for a big trade since February.

Finding one is probably their best shot at keeping up with the rest of the Eastern Conference elite, as playing on either side of the age curve is becoming less and less profitable every year. Sooner or later Butler won’t be the top 15 player he is now and someone else will have to take that mantle. As good as Miami is at incubating roleplayers, these are the types of players that are just easier to find externally. Heat can replace the Herros and Vincents of the world much more easily than they can develop another star.

It’s frustratingly easy to say that a team’s road to victory is just by adding an All-Star, but that’s usually just the reality of the NBA. The Heat acknowledged this a year ago when they built their off-season around Lowry’s landing. Not everyone becomes a warrior. The Heat won their championships much more aggressively. If they’re going to make it back to the top of the mountain, they’ll probably have to accept that their time is here and now.

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