It was Miami's flipping two first-round picks to acquire Dragic (on an expiring contract) at the 2015 trade deadline that set off the first round of fearful snickering among rivals -- clucking that Pat Riley was mortgaging the team's future because that future would belong to his successor. The clucking was always laced with anxiety: Somehow, the Heat -- slick, beachy, with a friendly tax regime -- would climb out of whatever hole Riley dug.
Three years later, it appeared as if the Heat might be buried without a shovel. Chris Bosh's blood clot issues upended the promising 2015-16 Heat featuring Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Dragic. The Heat struck out on Kevin Durant in 2016 and then Gordon Hayward the next offseason, and responded by re-signing their own free agents to huge deals: Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson, Dion Waiters.
As the calendar flipped to 2018, they all looked like cap-clogging overpays whose contracts would be hard to move. Justise Winslow, the manna-from-heaven pick that represented Miami's salvation, was injured and developing unevenly. Their quiver of first-round picks was half empty.
When I spent a week in Miami that January, those in and around the franchise were as uncertain about their path forward as I had ever seen or heard them. They were determined, hopeful, but unsure. On the Lowe Post podcast last year, Dan Le Batard, who knows Riley well, recalled strolling Heat headquarters around that time with Riley and passing walls adorned with photos of Waiters and Whiteside. "He, like, snorts in disdain," Le Batard said, "and he just blurted, 'Our so-called leaders.' And I'm like, 'Oof. This is not a good place for these people to be.'"
Two years later, they were in the Finals -- one of the greatest short-term turnarounds ever executed from an on-paper position of weakness. The Heat nailed late lottery picks (Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro) that usually yield league-average players at best; turned undrafted guys into starters and key contributors (the newly ultra-wealthy Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr.); and swapped one second-round hit (Josh Richardson) into the best star that was realistically available to them -- Jimmy Butler, about to sign a mega-extension that will take him into his mid-30s, sources said.
They caught some breaks, as any team does amid a successful retool. The Butler situation with the Philadelphia 76ers went haywire. Teams passed on Adebayo and Herro in favor of worse players. The Heat got off a lot of those bad contracts with minimal pain thanks to injuries and desperation in trading partners, and the Memphis Grizzlies' lust for Winslow -- with the Heat sending out James Johnson and Waiters in that deal, and somehow netting Solomon Hill, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder.
Crowder was the last puzzle piece that made sense of the 2020 Heat: the small-ball power forward with enough size, toughness, and 3-point shooting to unlock Adebayo-at-center lineups that had two-way balance. The Heat in 2020 demurred on one last trade for Danilo Gallinari, wary of committing too much future cap space over too many years -- and wagering Crowder and Iguodala would perform.
The same shielding of cap space cost them Crowder, who signed a long-term deal with the Phoenix Suns after Miami's Finals run. The Heat last season never found a replacement, toggling between imperfect solutions. Makeshift lineups were either too small, with Butler at power forward and multiple below-average perimeter defenders, or lacking in shooting.
ONCE THE HEAT finalized their deal for Lowry on Monday, the biggest remaining question about their roster -- perhaps aside from depth -- was whom Erik Spoelstra would start at power forward. Could they find another Crowder? (The other big question following Lowry's signing -- bigger than the game of point guard roulette going around the league -- was this: What is Philadelphia's backup plan after missing out on Lowry for the second time in four months? Are they just going to stand pat and wait out the Ben Simmons market?)