A year and a half ago, it would have been impossible to see this coming.
The Miami Heat were trapped in a massive salary-cap hole, owing a ton of money to the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson, who had a year to years left on their deals, making it extremely difficult to see the team being able to clear enough cap space to sign impact free agents over the offseason, let alone a star-level one.
And yet, here we are, with Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals using a nearly completely revamped roster to arrive there after somehow signing a star last summer and multiple solid role players seemingly out of nowhere.
It’s the Heat’s first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals since the 2013-14 season, but the way this Miami team was constructed is nearly the polar opposite of the way that one was made, with this rendition being built around less star power and more diamonds in the rough and the last great Heat teams being as star-studded as any we’ve ever seen.
For today’s Heat, the majority of the players arrived without being All-Stars, without being starters elsewhere, and some weren’t even considered NBA-level material before getting there, so for Miami to accomplish what they have this season is truly impressive.
Below, we break down how the Heat landed all the players that have gotten them here.
It was no secret that the Heat were big fans of Jimmy Butler over the past couple of years and that those feelings were reciprocated by the All-Star wing. After all, when Butler’s original trade request out of the Minnesota Timberwolves surfaced, Miami was reported to be his preferred destination.
Of course, that wound up falling through with Butler being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers instead, making it appear that Miami’s dream of landing the tough-nosed forward was dead.
Until it wasn’t.
Despite a successful season for Butler in Philadelphia, things weren’t all that rosy behind the scenes between the star and his head coach at the time, Brett Brown, which led to Butler wanting to leave and the Sixers, apparently, being all right with it.
So that’s how we end up at July 30, 2019, with Miami, still having no cap space, agreeing to terms with Butler on a four-year, $142 million contract:
Sources: Jimmy Butler is signing a four-year, $142M maximum contract with the Miami Heat.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 1, 2019
To make that happen, Heat general manager and cap specialist Andy Elisburg had to make magic happen, including sending Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers, Josh Richardson to the 76ers and a protected 2023 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers, and waiving the final year of Ryan Anderson‘s deal.
Of all the players on Miami’s roster, the Heat faced by far the most competition league-wide to land Butler.
Miami started the 2016-17 season with an 11-30 record and considering how loaded everyone thought the 2017 NBA Draft class was, some thought that the Heat might decide tank the rest of the season in hopes of landing their next big star via the draft.
Of course, Miami did end up getting a star out of that draft, but they didn’t need to tank to do so.
And their reward for not tanking? The 14th overall pick of the 2017 draft, which they would go on to use on Kentucky big man Bam Adebayo, a player almost no one saw being selected that early.
What’s interesting is that the Heat weren’t even connected to Adebayo during the pre-draft process much at all besides reports of a workout held in Miami with the big man; the last two teams mentioned as possible destinations for Adebayo were actually the Atlanta Hawks (who picked 19th) and Milwaukee Bucks (who picked 17th).
How great would Adebayo have looked next to Giannis Antetokounmpo this season?
Nevertheless, Miami was smart to keep their pre-draft interest in Adebayo low key, as the bruising 6-foot-9 player has blossomed into a better player than anyone could have imagined three years ago, already an All-Star but one with so much room to grow.
The always underrated Goran Dragic actually joined Miami midway through the 2014-15 season, making him the second-longest tenured player on the Heat’s current roster.
The original idea was for Dragic to join a Miami team that still had some high-level talent on it in the form of Wade and Chris Bosh, but looked listless throughout most of the campaign feeling the effects of LeBron James’ departure the previous offseason, and help get them back into the playoff picture.
The process to land Dragic was a complicated one, as trading for All-Star-level players tends to be. The Slovenian southpaw made his original trade request, which included a list of preferred destinations featuring Miami, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, on February 17, 2015, and a deal was done two days later, though with just minutes remaining in that season’s trade deadline.
The Lakers were reportedly very interested in Dragic but lacked the assets to get the trade done.
In the end, it was a three-team deal that got Dragic to Miami, one that cost the Heat two future first-round picks, Danny Granger, Norris Cole, Shawne Williams and Justin Hamilton.
Safe to say Miami won that trade, especially with how Dragic has performed over the last three seasons after a somewhat slow start to his Heat career.
It was a far simpler path that landed first-year sharpshooter Tyler Herro in Miami.
The Heat, saddled by the bad contracts to average players we mentioned before (Whiteside, Waiters, James and Tyler Johnson), slugged their way through an inconsistent 2018-19 campaign, finishing the season 39-43 two games out of the playoffs. The only saving grace of the year was that it was Dwyane Wade’s last dance, and the future Hall-of-Famer was able to make a few final special memories with the team he spent most of his career with.
Regardless, Miami ended up with the 13th pick of the 2019 draft for their troubles, which they used on Herro after working him out and being blown away by his shooting touch (via the Miami Herald):
“He shot the ball extremely well,” Riley said of Herro’s workout at AmericanAirlines Arena. “But I think he shot the ball extremely well in most of his workouts. But in one of our workouts, we have one particular shooting drill that not one of our guards in all the years that we brought them in for workouts even came close to what he did. It usually takes the Ray Allens of the world and the Wayne Ellingtons of the world to really, it’s a challenging three-point shooting drill, and he just buried it.”
Other teams who worked out Herro during the pre-draft process include the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Miami was able to snag him before any of those teams were on the clock, however, and right now, they’re probably elated they did.
These next two might be the most impressive finds by Miami, and two of the most important in getting them to where they are today.
Duncan Robinson – who has become one of deadliest shooters in the NBA, knocking down 44.6 percent of his triples this season and 39.3 percent of them in the playoffs – went undrafted in 2018 and agreed to a two-way contract with Miami on July 10, 2018:
The Miami Heat and Duncan Robinson (Michigan) have agreed to a one-year, 2-way deal, league sources told The Athletic. Robinson, who attended Williams Ephs before Michigan, will have the opportunity to become the first D-III player since Devean George to play in the NBA.
— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) July 10, 2018
There wasn’t a single other report about a team being interested in signing Robinson that offseason, though odds are he would have ended up on someone’s Summer League team with a chance of earning a two-way deal.
The teams who we know for sure worked out Robinson during the pre-draft process are the Lakers (imagine Robinson spotting up for LeBron and Anthony Davis these days… scary), the Memphis Grizzlies, the Sixers (boy, could they use his abilities on their roster) and the Timberwolves, and there were probably more workouts beyond that.
Nevertheless, Robinson blew Miami brass away in his draft workout with the team, which forced the Heat to be aggressive in their pursuit of his signature (via the Miami Herald):
But when Robinson went through a private pre-draft workout for the Heat in a Los Angeles gym, then-Heat Vice President of Player Personnel Chet Kammerer left impressed. So impressed he immediately called coach Erik Spoelstra during the car ride home. “Chet was in LA traffic and he called me and said, ‘I really am interested in this Duncan Robinson. Can you do some research on him? We should invite him in. I just saw him perform one of the best shooting exhibitions I’ve ever seen,’” Spoelstra recalls from that conversation.
Chet Kammerer is extremely well-respected within the Heat’s organization, and after seeing what Robinson has become just a couple of years after that fated draft workout, it’s easy to see why.
Kendrick Nunn, who averaged 15.3 points and 3.3 assists this season and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, might have been an equally impressive find by the Heat.
Like Robinson, Nunn went undrafted in 2018 (despite coming off a stellar senior season with Oakland), after going through pre-draft workouts with the Lakers, Suns, Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings, and wound up signing with the then-champion Golden State Warriors, who waived him on October 13, 2018 and signed him to their G League team.
Six months later, near the very end of the 2018-19 regular season, Miami signed Nunn after the left-handed ball-handler had a productive G League season, averaging over 19 points and three rebounds for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Considering how lacking Golden State’s bench was at that point in their run of Finals appearances, it’s a bit surprising Nunn never got a shot to show what he could do for them at any point, though that’s the life of top-tier contenders – there aren’t just many minutes to go around, especially for undrafted rookies.
Nevertheless, the Warriors’ loss became Miami’s gain, and Nunn looks to be firmly in the team’s plans for the next few seasons. He could even become a valuable trade chip at some point.
Nunn is signed through next season, earning $1.7 million in 2020-21, an outrageously low price (he’s currently the 423rd-highest-paid player in the league) for someone who has proven he has start-level abilities for a playoff-caliber team.
Veteran swingman and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala landed on the Heat roughly around this season’s trade deadline in a deal that saw the savvy 36-year-old receive a two-year, $30 million contract extension with Miami.
The Lakers were rumored to be heavily interested in Iguodala, though the Heat won out in the sweepstakes after agreeing to send the Memphis Grizzlies Justise Winslow and a disgruntled Waiters, while shipping James Johnson to the Timberwolves to make the money swaps work.
Iguodala, who has been closing games for the Heat this postseason and plays a vital part in the team’s rotation, wasn’t the only piece Memphis sent Miami, however.
3-and-D specialist Jae Crowder was also included in the Winslow/Iguodala swap, and he was almost inexplicably considered a mere throw-in to get the deal done.
The Grizzlies must expect Winslow to be the missing piece to get them back in the playoffs next season, because giving up Iguodala – who, granted, had an agreement with Memphis that he wouldn’t play for them as they found him a new home – and Crowder seems like a pretty steep price to pay for the oft-injured swingman in hindsight.
That deal looks even worse now, with Crowder shooting the basketball better than he ever has before as a member of the Heat (the bubble might have something to do with that, though he was also shooting it pretty well prior to the league’s months-long hiatus), knocking down 42.9 percent of his outside chances as a member of Miami’s team while still playing the hard-nosed defense he has become so known for.
It’s also surprising to note that before the Heat deal was agreed upon, no other teams were reported to have called Memphis with regards to a Crowder trade, an absolute shocker considering how important a player like Crowder – who spaces the floor from three and plays stingy perimeter defense – can be for contenders.
Miami had a rough summer of 2017, missing out on their top target Gordon Hayward and responding by shelling out a boatload of money to Waiters and James Johnson just a year after signing Whiteside and Tyler Johnson to huge contracts.
The least bad deal of the bunch for the Heat those two summers was signing Kelly Olynyk to a four-year, $50 million contract, which seemed ridiculous at the time but has actually aged pretty well.
Free agent Kelly Olynyk has agreed to a four-year, $50M-plus deal with the Miami Heat, agent Greg Lawrence tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 6, 2017
Olynyk will never be mistaken for a star, but he’s a reliable role-playing big man who can really space the floor and has surprising playmaking ability, one who always seems to step up his game in the playoffs.
Miami wasn’t alone in their Olynyk interest that offseason, however, as the Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz and Kings were all reported to have eyes on the Gonzaga product that summer… just maybe not at the price tag that the Heat wound up putting on him.
In the end, it’s worked out pretty well for Miami and Olynyk, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the pair try to extend their partnership whenever the sharpshooting center does decide to hit free agency again, which could happen as early as this offseason.
After being waived by the Suns on December 7. 2017 in order to sign Mike James (who has been back playing in Europe for a couple of seasons now), Derrick Jones was signed by Miami on December 31 of that year, to a two-way contract.
That following summer, the Heat re-signed him to a two-year minimum contract with a team option on Year-2.
There weren’t rumors connecting Jones to any other team when he did hit free agency (either time), and the fact that even the Suns, who went 21-61 that year, didn’t deem him worthy of a roster spot is pretty telling.
And yet, Miami managed to turn him into a regular contributor for a conference finalist.
Needless to say: The Heat’s player development over the past few years has been quite effective.
A staple of the Heat for the last 17 years and a legit native of the city (he even attended Miami High School) he spent his entire career in, Udonis Haslem was one of the first diamonds in the rough Miami ever discovered, one that they turned into a starter on one championship team and a contributor on two others.
Haslem went undrafted in 2002, undersized and overweight, and headed overseas for a year before returning after losing 50 pounds and excelling in his one year in the French LNB Pro A.
Haslem signed with his hometown Heat on August 6, 2003, and the rest, as they say, is history. The big man earned a roster spot, made 2nd Team All-Rookie in his first year and is now the team’s all-time leading rebounder.
When Miami sent Whiteside to Portland, part of the return was a fellow big man, Meyers Leonard, though one who had a different skillset from Hassan’s.
Leonard doesn’t have the rim-protecting abilities that Whiteside does, but he has a far better outside shooter.
Leonard started nearly every game for the Heat in the regular season, though has since been supplanted for the more modern frontcourt option in Crowder.
Regardless, Leonard, after being a bench player last season for the Blazers and not attracting much interest on the trade market due to his massive contract size, turned into a solid contributor for Miami this season.