Heading into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat certainly weren’t expected to make a run to the NBA Finals.
The Heat had missed the playoffs in two of the three previous seasons heading into 2019-20, while their last Finals appearance was with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2014. But the arrival of Jimmy Butler and Miami’s unity ignited Miami before and after the coronavirus-enforced break.
The Heat ended up playing their best in the Orlando bubble at Walt Disney World Resort, winning the East title in stunning fashion before falling to LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
As the Heat look to build on a stellar season, let’s take a look at the upside in Miami heading into the 2020-21 season and their plans for this offseason:
BUTLER SILENCES CRITICS
After blossoming from the 30th overall pick in the 2011 draft to an All-Star for the Chicago Bulls, Butler was traded to Minnesota and then Philadelphia before landing in Miami.
Butler might have been one bounce away from leading the 76ers to the East finals in 2018-19, but Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot instead fell in to lift the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 of the semifinal. Plagued by question marks over his attitude and selfishness, Butler opted to leave the 76ers for the Heat in a sign and trade, and the 31-year-old finally appears to have found a home in Miami.
Butler led the Heat in scoring (26.2 points per game), rebounding (8.3) and assists (9.8) in his first NBA Finals appearance. His 40-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist effort in Miami’s Game 3 win was only the third 40-point triple-double in Finals history (and the only one in a win).
Butler almost singlehandedly carried the injury-hit Heat – who were without starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic for parts of the series. He averaged 43.0 minutes over the six games, more than LeBron, Anthony Davis and any other player.
DEFYING THE ODDS
The Heat had their work cut out for them in a stacked East, headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the defending champion Raptors and the talented, third-seeded Boston Celtics.
But hard-playing Miami, which finished the regular season 44-29, became the fourth team in history seeded fifth or worse to reach the Finals, following the Houston Rockets (No. 6 seeds in 1995 and 1981) and New York Knicks (No. 8 seed in 1999).
Before going to Orlando, the Heat were a far better team at home than on the road. They were 27-5 at AmericanAirlines Arena, compared to 14-19 away from Miami (42.0% differential) – only the 76ers (29-2 at home and 10-24 on the road) had a greater differential (64.1%).
ROOKIES SHOW PROMISE
The Heat received big contributions from first-year players Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro, who averaged 15.3 and 13.5 points, respectively.
They were the first team to have multiple rookies average at least 13.0 points (minimum 40 games) since Pau Gasol and Shane Battier did it for the 2001-02 Memphis Grizzlies. The only other Heat rookie duo to accomplish that feat was Sherman Douglas (14.3) and Glen Rice (13.6) in 1989-90.
Nunn’s 15.3 points per game were the most by an undrafted rookie in 70 years when Frankie Brian averaged 17.8 for the 1949-50 Anderson Packers. Herro elevated his game in the playoffs, scoring 16.0 per game in 21 contests. He particularly shined in the team’s series win over the Celtics, averaging 19.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
Duncan Robinson took a huge step forward in 2019-20, averaging 13.5 points after putting up only 3.3 as a rookie (plus-10.2). Only Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young (plus-10.5) and the Charlotte Hornets’ Devonte’ Graham (plus-13.5) enjoyed larger improvements.
STATS PERFORM’S VERDICT: EVOLUTION
The Heat are facing a challenging offseason in many respects.
With Derrick Jones Jr., Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, Solomon Hill and Meyers Leonard all free agents, they’re going to have to balance bringing back the same group and having the salary-cap flexibility in 2021 to make a run at Giannis, Kawhi, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, LeBron or others in free agency.
Dragic and Crowder were starters during the postseason, while Jones Jr., Hill and Leonard were part of the rotation until the playoffs. Dragic turned back the clock after replacing Nunn in the starting lineup on Aug. 18. He averaged 20.9 points, 4.7 assists and 4.2 boards while the Heat won 12 of 15 heading into the Finals.
Heading into the Finals (Dragic barely played versus LA due to injury), four of Miami’s five most-used lineups in the playoffs had a positive net rating. The only one that didn’t? Herro, Robinson, Crowder, Butler, Adebayo and no Dragic with a minus-8.0 rating over 239 playoff possessions.
Can the 34-year-old guard really be counted on to continue that level of play next season?
MIAMI’S MOST-USED LINEUPS, 2020 PLAYOFFS
(Heading into NBA Finals)
|PG||SG||SF||PF||C||Poss.||Off. Rating||Def. Rating||Net|
Further complicating things is that Adebayo will become a restricted free agent after next season. Miami could try to re-sign Dragic and Crowder to one-year deals and hope Adebayo waits until next offseason to rework his contract, otherwise future cap space would likely disappear.
“It’s going to be a little bit dicey for us because of wanting that flexibility,” Heat president Pat Riley told the South Florida SunSentinel. “I don’t want to contradict myself. I’d really like to take care of our own in some way, shape, or form. But we also want that other box to be filled, which is called flexibility. And we’ll see what happens.”
The best guess is that Riley will bank on Herro, Nunn and Robinson taking another step forward while keeping the team’s 2021 salary-cap sheet relatively clean.
Lineup data modeling provided by Matt Scott.
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