What's next for the Heat after their almost-championship run?
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You know those teams the Spurs used to throw together that were just good? Not the champs, the ones from the in-between years, when they would combine anonymous 23-year-olds suited to Gregg Popovich’s taste and random journeymen that you could pick up in an expansion draft, winning 54 games and going two rounds deep in the playoffs with, say, DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal or Roger Mason Jr. and a washed up Michael Finley. You would be going about your daily life, feeling relatively settled in the world, and then catch Jonathon Simmons dropping 17 points in a primetime game and wonder if you should switch liquors, learn to drive stick. Clearly there was a lot you didn’t know, including everything Pop did.

As the wine genius throttles it back in old age, one of his contemporaries—in fact a guy who was legendary before Pop even installed himself on the Spurs bench back in the mid-90s—is still ascending. The Heat, over the past 25 years, have been the most consistently well-run outfit in the league outside San Antonio, and if last season didn’t represent Pat Riley’s finest achievement as a coach and/or exec, that’s only because he’s had so many other excellent years.

This one in particular felt plucked from his dreams. Of course Riley and Erik Spoelstra figured out how to emphasize the most productive aspects of Jimmy Butler’s mania. Of course they’ve developed Bam Adebayo into a uniquely skilled star. Of course they took the third-best player in the draft at 13th overall. Of course their squad was exceedingly sharp in a difficult environment where others fell apart. The Heat Culture meme is annoying—here we note that Pop’s self-deprecating answer to why the Spurs were awesome was always some variation of duh: Tim Duncan—but they are great at what they do. There’s no earthly reason for us to know Duncan Robinson’s name, except that the Heat must, by cosmic decree, produce a nobody-turned-starter like that every two or three years.

They’re in the running for every big-name player who hits the market, because it’s assumed that whoever it is would like to play there, and live in Miami. It was Chris Paul last summer, and now it’s James Harden. They reportedly didn’t have much interest in Paul and it’s unclear that they’ve so much as discussed what it would take to get Harden from the Rockets. They’re also among the frontrunners for Giannis in the summer of 2021, provided he doesn’t sign his max extension with the Bucks. Again, pretty much solely because of who they are, how they operate, where the franchise is located. Fried chicken is delicious and if you’ve got the opportunity to move somewhere, you’re at least going to consider the Miami Heat. 

But back to last year: the reason their almost-championship run was inspiring is because it felt like it was entirely a product of their institutional competence. They drafted well and coached guys up. They took on Jimmy Butler, who was a free-agent prize but also somewhat damaged goods. (The Sixers certainly didn’t think they were losing someone who could outplay LeBron in a Finals game, when Jimmy walked away.) They worked every advantage they had, and against the East, they didn’t even need all of them. They clobbered the Bucks, beat the Celtics comfortably. They fell to the Lakers because sometimes LeBron James and Anthony Davis are going to be too much, but with Bam missing two games and then playing at less than 100 percent, they still took to to six. It was all very Spurs-y, very Heat-ish. They maxed out their potential; overcoming them in the end was a serious chore. 

I wouldn’t dare give them advice, but watching James Harden in a Heat uniform would be kind of a bummer. I’m not curious to see what shakes out from an Unstoppable Force vs. Immovable Object experiment featuring Riley’s gold-plated aura and the Beard’s big-game loser vibes. And the Giannis maneuver would feel like cheating, in the same way Dwyane Wade recruiting LeBron and Bosh to South Beach did. There’s a fine line between neutral fans being impressed with you and being annoyed that you seem to have winning lottery tickets falling out of your ears. Surely, Riley doesn’t care about this—regards it as art criticism, and he’s not an artist.

But just on purely aesthetic grounds, let them stand pat and keep this particular thing going for as long as possible. See if they replicate what happened at the end of a singularly weird year, what Tyler Herro can do now that he can’t surprise attack defenses anymore. There are heights, still, that Bam hasn’t visited but are definitely within traveling distance. Jimmy and Goran Dragic likely have many fine playoff performances left in the tank.

The fundamental appeal of the Spurs was the mild variation they had from season to season, an evolving style of offense, new faces filling familiar roles. It’s probably impossible to do what they did in this era, given how fluid player movement is, but it would be nice if we could see something like it in a three- or four-year window, what would pass for remarkable continuity in this era. The Heat have an opportunity to do that, with the players they have at the moment. You can bet that Pat Riley understands this, and wouldn’t care a whit about taking an axe to it if he thought it would bring him closer to another title. For now, however tenuously, the Heat embody the satisfaction of a job well done.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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