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Why the Heat Could Define the Eastern Conference in the 2020s

What will happen to Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the Heat after their run to the 2020 Finals? There's significant reason for optimism

The sight of Miami players crestfallen on the bench at the end of Game 6 on Sunday wasn’t exactly foreign to NBA fans across the last decade. We saw Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lock arms as LeBron James hoisted his first Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2012, and a similar image arose one year later as the Heat eliminated the Spurs in a seven-game classic. The Spurs and Warriors reloaded after losing to James. The Thunder couldn’t build on their success. What will happen to Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and the Heat after their run to the 2020 Finals? There's significant reason for optimism.

Let’s take a moment to examine Miami’s roster construction as we enter a new decade. Jimmy Butler is the highest-paid Heat player at the moment, but in terms of the team’s future core, he’s unlikely to be Miami’s most prized asset. Bam Adebayo became an All-Star in 2019–20, and he should receive an extension offer after 2020-21. Tyler Herro hasn’t quite ascended to Adebayo’s status, though he appears to be a true franchise cornerstone after an impressive postseason. Considering rookie contracts plus the likely subsequent extensions, and Miami’s young duo should be on the roster into the latter part of the next decade. Not exactly a bad return for a pair of late lottery picks.

We know Miami is likely to have a bankable dynamic duo for the greater part of the 2020s. Who will join the pair of homegrown talents? The Heat can afford to get creative. Jimmy Butler’s contract runs through the end of the 2021–22 season, and barring a strange decision to opt out, he should stay on the roster through 2022–23. The rest of Miami’s contract sheet is relatively bare. Andre Iguodala will come off the cap sheet following 2020–21. Kelly Olynyk will do the same assuming he opts into the final year of his deal. Perhaps Meyers Leonard or Goran Dragic return next season on a one-year deal, but anything beyond that is dubious. The Heat are set to have plenty of cap space for a max contract in the summer (or early fall) of 2021. Any commitments beyond Butler, Herro and Adebayo—and the rookie contracts of Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn—after next season are unlikely.

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Miami’s cap space in 2021 creates an interesting tightrope for Pat Riley and Co., at least regarding next season. This is a roster that’s far better than the sum of its parts, yet even with Erik Spoelstra’s supreme coaching, this still feels like a relatively thin rotation. Can the Heat find a replacement for Leonard and Jae Crowder next season? Can we really expect Andre Iguodala to produce in Year 17? Miami’s ability to replace rotational assets on the cheap could decide its fate as an Eastern Conference contender in 2020–21.

To be frank, the conversation surrounding next season feels a bit ancillary in the big picture. The Heat aren’t looking to simply contend for the Finals in 2021. They’re hoping to form the league’s next dynasty. The proposition isn’t as far-fetched as one would assume, especially given Miami’s abundance of cap space. Landing Giannis Antetokounmpo in free agency would certainly accelerate that plan. Would any other prospective free agent create a true juggernaut? The answer is hard to parse. LeBron James isn’t bolting from Los Angeles anytime soon, and even another pre-Finals exit may not be enough to sway Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. The rest of the free-agent class isn’t exactly packed with superstars, though it wouldn’t be out of the question for Miami to pursue the likes of Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday or Gordon Hayward. There will be plenty of options on the board, even if the top of the class stays put or chooses another contender.

In a way, it could be clarifying for Antetokounmpo to sign an extension with Milwaukee. Taking the biggest fish on the market out of play could allow for healthier roster construction in 2020–21, letting Riley build his team without the allure of the game’s most dominant physical force. If Antetokounmpo is available, the decision is easy. Clear the deck, make a pitch and hope to rule the conference for the next decade. If he’s not, Miami must tread carefully. Herro and Adebayo’s excellence at such a young age opens the door for a decade-long contender. But make the wrong splash in the offseason, and the championship window can close sooner than one would think. With the league’s talent near an all-time high, front office misfires will be magnified.

It’s quite startling to consider Miami’s current trajectory given the franchise’s direction across the last half decade. The post-LeBron era featured just two playoff appearances in five years before this season, and the Heat shelled out big contracts for James Johnson, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters following James’s departure. This was a franchise stuck in the mud before Butler’s arrival, wandering the middle of the Eastern Conference without any real path to contention. Miami’s franchise turnaround is as startling as it is impressive, and the Heat are nowhere close to done. Spoelstra’s squad should be among the East’s top tier of contenders for years to come.