The franchise arguably—I said arguably!—most impacted by the three-team stunner that sent Damian Lillard to the Bucks is the Heat.
Miami was Lillard’s preferred destination when he requested a trade in July. Instead, the Heat, which surprisingly made the Finals as the eight seed in June, are left scrambling to upgrade a roster that saw significant departures this offseason, all while one of their chief rivals made a massive upgrade.
There are a few layers to unpack here. Several fan bases and media members are taking quite the victory lap in the wake of Miami’s non-acquisition. Frankly, it’s not undeserved. There was a bit of hubris emanating from South Florida this summer, with fans and media alike claiming the Heat had the ultimate leverage in the Lillard situation. Why, some wondered, should the team make an overwhelming offer for Dame if no market for him was going to materialize? Meanwhile, those outside of Miami questioned whether the Heat even had a properly-whelming offer to make in the first place.
Those who listen to The Crossover podcast (subscribe!) know my position on this—the Heat were playing with fire trying to acquire Lillard on the cheap, and there was no reason for the Trail Blazers to rush into making a decision. Portland did wait, and Miami got burned.
Except it’s unclear whether the Heat acted with the same arrogance that’s being projected onto them. The team was willing to offer the Blazers up to three first-round picks, second-year player Nikola Jović, pick swaps and multiple second-round picks, per The Athletic. If that’s the case, Miami made a more than competitive offer. Even if Portland flips Jrue Holiday for multiple firsts, the Blazers did not hold out for a vastly better deal than the one that was reportedly on the table from the Heat. You can quibble over the value of future picks, but that’s literal guesswork.
If Miami really got up to three firsts plus all that other stuff, then it appears Portland simply didn’t want to send Lillard to Miami. (In this Heat scenario, the Blazers are almost certainly still able to acquire Deandre Ayton as well. Also, don’t get me started on the Ayton part of this. How many “franchise centers” are traded away by the team that drafted them for a clear positional downgrade when that team is all-in on winning a Finals?)
Ultimately, Portland was under no obligation to operate in good faith with the Heat, especially after the public stance taken by Lillard and his agents. It’s also unclear how seriously Miami actually made that offer; multiple reports state the teams hardly engaged one another after July. If the Blazers were determined not to placate Lillard, it doesn’t matter that the Heat’s offer was essentially the same as the current return, unless the bidding war for Holiday gets substantially out of control.
(My understanding based on conversations from this summer is that the looming penalties of the second apron were also a factor in Miami’s stilted pursuit of Lillard. But if the offer of Tyler Herro to third team and three picks to Portland was out there, then the Heat were absolutely willing to meet the moment.)
With Lillard now out of the picture, though, the bottom line for the Heat is they owe it to Jimmy Butler to find help. Yes, Lillard would have been an incredible fit next to Butler and Bam Adebayo, but even incremental improvements would be impactful for a team that just made the Finals. Exactly how much better the Bucks will be remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Celtics are quite possibly worse. The Sixers’ second-best player is clubbing with people holding up “Daryl Morey is a liar” signs. And the Cavs and Knicks aren’t quite juggernauts. Miami isn’t ahead of any of these teams today, but it doesn’t need to panic.
(The reputation that Pat Riley keeps striking out on stars is also somewhat overblown, by the way. The Heat never made serious offers for guys like Kevin Durant or Bradley Beal. They were never in on Chris Paul, Zach LaVine or James Harden. While this was in large part to be in the mix for a Lillard trade, you can’t compare what happened with him to any of the aforementioned names.)
Back to Butler—since he joined the team in 2019, Miami has overachieved. Butler’s playoff heroics have saved the team from having to make massive upgrades. The Heat keep struggling to add pieces, and Butler drags them deep into the playoffs anyway. It’s a dicey strategy, to say the least, and it feels wildly unsustainable. The Heat need offense to keep up. And if the goal is to win a championship, they haven’t made any moves to go over the top.
Will the team compete? Come on, of course they will. Losing Max Strus from the playoff rotation is somewhat mitigated by the return of Herro, who missed all but one half of one game of the postseason. Josh Richardson is not the worst Gabe Vincent replacement. And immediate contributions will be needed from Jović, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Haywood Highsmith.
Even if all goes well on those fronts, arguing the Heat are a better team than the Finals one is a massive stretch. And you can’t get worse and expect to win. So if it means Riley picking up the phone to re-engage with Portland on Holiday, it’s what is required to put the team around Butler that he deserves.
Are the Heat doomed? Did Riley fail? I’m not willing to go that far yet. In large part thanks to Butler, Miami has earned some benefit of the doubt. But if the Heat actually want to get over the hump, they immediately need to start working on their backup plan.