Are The Miami Heat The NBA's Biggest Sleeper Team For 2019-20?

Pat Riley couldn’t stop smiling when he introduced Jimmy Butler to the Miami media. It was like he couldn’t believe he pulled it off either. After embracing Butler at the podium, he might as well have turned to the media and rhetorically asked, ‘Holy sh*t, I still got it, don’t I?’

A Bonafide All-Star

At 74-years-old, there’s no telling when the last hurrah for the balls-to-the-wall champion executive is going to be. If it's this, we’re off to a start few saw coming prior to the transactional insanity that was this past NBA summer. Activity in today’s NBA climate shifts so quickly that we’ve already forgotten how reportedly pissed off Riley was after failing to trade for Butler the first time.

But Butler is now in South Beach, and the Heat’s social media has taken many opportunities to remind you of that. (Rightfully so.)

He’s a four-time All-Star, a four-time All-Defense honoree, a two-time All-NBA selection, and is in place of Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside. Having just turned 30, Butler is also in the middle of his prime years and is the perfect sequel to what Dwyane Wade has left behind in retirement. And judging by the following, it was probably by design.

Then there's that whole 3:30 A.M. thing, which does send a message and sets the tone for their approach this season. His workout regiment and his endurance are so strong it makes you wonder if he knows the truth about steroids because he's so well-conditioned. That type of work ethic on arguably the hardest working team in the league is culture adding to more culture.

How far could Butler and the newly (contract) extended head coach Erik Spoelstra take this team? The Heat are the only organization to remain afloat after a LeBron James exit. In spite of an abnormal Chris Bosh blood clot condition – which people forget greatly altered the team’s post-LBJ plans – the Heat have reached the playoffs twice since The King's departure five years ago. This was highlighted by the 48-win 2015-16 campaign.

Going back to Whiteside, who emerged during these latter seasons and is now with the Portland Trail Blazers, a great portion of the Heat’s 2019-20 outlook begins with his successor: Bam Adebayo.

A Most Improved Player Candidate

Butler is the team’s best player. Adebayo may be their most important.

On February 27, 2019, Adebayo became the every game starting center in favor of a healthy Whiteside, who at that point had been averaging 12.9 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in just over 25 minutes per game through 53 starts.

In 22 subsequent starts at over 27 minutes a night, Adebayo averaged 11.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block per game. He also shot 60% from the floor.

The Heat went 13-9 during this stretch, were 17-11 overall in games Adebayo started last season and went 22-32 when he came off the bench, all but one game for Whiteside.

This season, the 22-year-old 14th overall draft choice in 2017 will be theoretically given the keys to blossom into a season-long five role. He's expected to provide constant energy on both ends, which was a constant knock on Whiteside in spite of his usual statistical prowess, specifically with rebounds and blocks.

Recently, Coach Spo even lauded Adebayo as a winning center.

"He was one of the more impactful centers in terms of winning in the league,” Spoelstra said, via Ira Wilderman of the Sun Sentinel. “That’s the only thing that matters to me. Bam understands the concept of a team and bringing out more out of somebody else, and he finds enjoyment and pride out of making somebody else better.”

Adebayo’s productivity, playmaking ability, and defensive versatility should tap into a big man that breaks through into Most Improved Player discussions throughout the course of the season, and in effect, the Raekwon to Butler’s Ghostface… unless they acquire a star before the trade deadline.

An Ability To Acquire Another Star *This* Season

And here’s where else the Heat could dramatically change their 2019-20 fortunes. Justise Winslow has already publicly said he’d like to run point guard again, a role he took on in the wake of Goran Dragic’s injury-riddled 2018-19 campaign. Winslow played the best basketball of his career at the point last season.

The 6-foot-7 Duke alum doesn’t turn 24 until late March and still has $13 million coming his way for each of the next two seasons (as well as a 2021-22 team option at the same price if accepted). For 2018-19 overall, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists while hitting on 37.5% from three, which was a prior weakness in his game.

Following his ‘Point Winslow’ revelation last December, those averages improved across the board, which brings us to Dragic. The 2018 All-Star is one of several expiring contracts on this roster – we’ll touch on the other key members of this group shortly.

Dragic is coming off his worst season in Miami, having averaged 13.7 points and less than five assists per game, while only making 36 appearances and 22 starts. He also shot just over 41% from the floor, far under his impressive career-average of 46.6%, and drained just 34.8% from three, his lowest in three seasons.

He may come off the bench. At 33 with an expiring $19.2 million on the way, and with Winslow on hand, it may be ideal for the Heat. Dragic also has ‘trade’ written all over his 2019-20 season, given conventional wisdom alone.

Here’s the team’s payroll for the upcoming season and beyond, per Basketball-Reference.

Dragic, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard and Derrick Jones Jr alone assemble nearly $60 million in salary for this upcoming season. The Heat also have their 2025 first-rounder to work with, as well as youth in 2019 picks Tyler Herro – whom they reportedly love – and second-rounder KZ Okpala out of Stanford, who makes nothing by NBA standards.

Regarding expiring salaries, the Heat could put together a package that could match the salary of any attainable star who is on the market or may want to get themselves out of their respective cities between now and February.

If there’s one thing we know about Riley from afar, it’s that nothing is off-limits because this organization is always in win-now mode. Here are top player salaries for 2019-20 and onward.

On salary alone, anything is possible. The nuance arrives when discussing the addition of picks and or young talent. But league-wide, players respect Butler, Riley, Spoelstra, Wade and the Heat’s culture. It’s only a matter of time before they land another star. (Adebayo may develop into one and is signed through 2021.)

But for the moment, they’re a playoff-bound team on paper, who could (probably should) become a top two or three defensive team in the Eastern Conference, which always serves you during playoff basketball.

Additionally, Adebayo and Winslow are poised to make sizeable leaps building off of the roles they grew into last season. If Summer League could serve as a springboard, Herro – who impressed in Las Vegas this past July – may crack an All-Rookie Team this season. That would add another foundational piece to what the team is establishing going into the next decade.

And for now, they still have veteran leadership all over the organization.

Although the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics made waves during the offseason, the Heat may be the team to watch shake up the conference in the near future.

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