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Jimmy Butler and the Heat flamed out of the 2021 NBA playoffs: What happens next?

The 2020 East champs got swept in the first round, leading to questions about the team’s path moving forward.

Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat - Game Four
Andre Iguodala of the Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat hug during Round One Game Four of the Eastern Conference Playoffs on May 29, 2021 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat have a lot to evaluate in the offseason.

After a surprising run to the 2020 NBA Finals in the Orlando bubble, the Heat were viewed as up-and-coming contenders. Bam Adebayo had become a two-way force. Youngsters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson could only get better after experiencing a postseason run. Perhaps most importantly, Jimmy Butler was being regarded as one of the league’s superstars and a centerpiece on a contending team.

Fast forward to the 2021 postseason and the Heat enter a summer searching for answers after a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks. It looked like the rematch of last season’s second round series would go the distance after a 109-107 Milwaukee win in overtime in Game 1, but the Bucks promptly dispatched the Heat in the next three games. So where does Miami go from here after entering the offseason far quicker than expected?

The Heat have three logical paths forward. One isn’t particularly appealing but gives Miami the most flexibility while another is the most likely course of action. The third path is what many would label as the dream scenario, but Miami has pulled off enough stunners in the past to give this option some legs.

Scenario 1: The Heat trade Jimmy Butler

In this case, the Heat will have come to the conclusion Butler will never reach the heights of the Orlando bubble again. The two-way star put up 22.2 points, 6.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game in the 2020 playoffs, well above his career averages in the postseason. He shot 48.8 percent from the floor and 34.9 percent from deep in Miami’s run to the Finals.

In 2021, Butler struggled to get going offensively. He averaged 14.5 points, 7.0 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game but only hit 31.5 percent of his shots from the field and 18.1 percent from behind the arc. Those dips in efficiency directly led to his scoring decline, but it was Butler’s defensive struggles that are more alarming. His 116 defensive rating, according to basketball-reference.com, is one of the worst of his playoff career.

Butler is 31 and has one more year left before having the option of entering free agency. He’ll be able to command a massive deal, which will likely be his final big pay day. Do the Heat believe they’ll be able to assemble a team to contend with the Nets, 76ers and Bucks by the time Butler can test the market?

If the Heat trade Butler, they can get a significant haul in return. Given the price points for Jrue Holiday and James Harden, a Butler trade would provide a solid foundation of draft picks and young players for the Heat to rebuild on.

Here’s why this option isn’t appealing: Miami doesn’t like to rebuild and Butler chose the Heat for that reason. He reportedly declined a five-year deal with the 76ers and might have even spurned other stars to do his own thing in Miami. The Heat might not feel Butler is one of the five best players in the league, but he is still a star and they don’t come around often enough to deal away after one failed run. There’s no guarantees the picks and players coming back in a Butler trade materialize into a championship team.

Scenario 2: Heat run it back, bank on development

This is the most likely course of action given Miami’s lack of moveable assets. The Heat don’t control the fate of their own first-round pick until 2024. They won’t be able to add cost-controlled young talent to this group, but they will have Butler and Adebayo. That’s something not many other teams can bank on.

Here’s how the Heat performed as a team in key statistical areas in the 2020 bubble and the 2021 playoffs.

2020 bubble: 4th in offensive rating, 8th in defensive rating, 8th in net rating, 2nd in assist/turnover ratio, 3rd in true shooting %
2021 playoffs: 16th in offensive rating, 8th in defensive rating, 16th in net rating, 12th in assist/turnover ratio, 16th in true shooting %

Miami can look at those numbers and chalk most of this up to shooting volatility. The bubble run may have been a fluke, but so was this first-round sweep against Milwaukee. The team’s defensive performance stayed at about the same level; it was the offense which cratered.

The Heat can reasonably say their team is more likely to fall in the middle ground of these two runs. The problem is that middle ground leaves them well behind the Nets, 76ers and Bucks as contenders.

Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Precious Achiuwa and even Adebayo have room to improve. Can that internal development raise Miami’s ceiling to that of a championship contender?

The Heat have team options on Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic. They can exercise those and roll over this roster for another season and see how things go. If the 2021-22 season is trending towards the 2020-21 outcome, they can move Butler at the trade deadline and still recoup some value.

Scenario 3: Heat make splash on trade market, in free agency

This is what many would call a dream scenario, but remember one thing: Miami convinced LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach after going 105-141 over three years. Florida is always going to be an attractive destination for athletes and the Heat have championship history. They will always be in the mix.

If Miami doesn’t exercise team options, it is projected to have north of $75 million in cap space. Robinson and Kendrick Nunn will be restricted free agents with the former potentially commanding a big deal with his shooting ability. For comparison, Brooklyn’s Joe Harris signed a four-year, $75 million deal. The Heat can match any offers on Robinson and Nunn.

The most obvious prize would be Kawhi Leonard. If the Clippers flame out again in the playoffs, Leonard will certainly test the free agency waters. The Heat can still bring back most of their core if Leonard joins. It is unlikely Leonard would leave Paul George, who signed a $190 million extension to stay with the Clippers, in a lurch but he reportedly did have interest in teaming up with Butler. It would also mean pulling Leonard from his hometown, something he said was a big factor in his initial decision to join the Clippers.

Outside of Leonard, there aren’t many free agents the Heat would consider “game changers”. Chris Paul and DeMar DeRozan will be available, but they’re not A-list max players currently. Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry are also options, but age is a factor. The restricted free agency market has some appeal with John Collins, Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkenen but none are instantly making the Heat contenders.

The trade market isn’t great for Miami given its general lack of moveable assets. Bradley Beal is most logical star to become available, but the Heat wouldn’t gut the entire roster to add him unless Leonard signed on. Kevin Love and Pascal Siakam could be had for less, but they’ve declined from their previous star status. The Heat could look to go even further down the line and acquire a younger player like Myles Turner or Buddy Hield and hope for a developmental leap, but that’s not a path Pat Riley has taken before and he’s unlikely to do so again.

The Verdict

I expect the Heat to swing hard for Leonard. Butler will do his lobbying and Riley will send out feelers on other stars around the league. I also expect contenders who fall short this year to make calls on Butler’s availability. The Heat will want to wait on Leonard’s decision before anything else.

The most likely scenario is Miami reaching a long-term extension with Butler while bringing most of the roster back. The Heat will play out the first half of the 2021-22 season before deciding whether to make drastic moves or stay put.

The 2022 free agency class features Beal, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Zach LaVine. Given Miami’s lack of trade pieces, rolling everything over to 2022 while having one star in hand is the most plausible path forward.

Or they could shock the world and form a new “Big 3” with Leonard, Butler and Beal.