Looking at Past Miami Heat Deep Playoff Runs to Look at This Season

Commentary4 months ago14 min readJohn Jablonka

So, I’ve tweeted this:

I wanted to see why people high on this team? Why they believe they can make another deep playoff run? What do they have that makes them things will work out?

Some of the response included:

  • Best coach in the league(a lot of replies about Spo)
  • Who’s going to out coach him
  • More versatility and options on the wings
  • Jimmy will be Jimmy(tough to count him out)
  • Blind faith in him
  • Rozier is a meaningful upgrade over Lowry
  • Adebayo expanded his game
  • Herro is better will and will hopefully be available
  • Richardson, Haywood, Robinson, and Jaquez make up for the loss of Vincent and Strus
  • Last year’s team made the finals and got better
  • Butler, Adebayo, and Spoelstra are the best big 3 in the conference
  • And of course, the power of friendship(which might be the most important one)

After around 50 games and now the post-trade deadline, there’s still a lot of “feel” around the Heat that they have enough, they can flip the switch and can have the same run to potentially make another finals appearance.

This isn’t meant to be a question to be negative about the team for the sake of it, hoping to have them fail, or to just have receipts of an “I told you so” if things don’t work.

This is meant to be an analysis of the team and where they’re currently at, what their ceiling realistically could be by going through what’s happened, what could happen, how things could happen, what they need to win, what their issues are that may prevent that, and whatever questions they have. Because when looking at it this way, there are a lot of reasonable question marks.

And trying to answer all of that simply because of past history or that “ah, Spo and Butler will step up and work things out, it’s fine”, that kind of thinking is lazy to me that is based only on hope, no context and looking at things solely through fans tinted glasses.

All of that is fine. Fans don’t have a reason not to just have blind faith in a team and be all positive, especially given what this team has achieved with Butler. There’s nothing wrong with fans having that irrational confidence about the team and just believing things will work out.

But this bothers me when people will use that way of thinking to criticize any negativity or question marks about the team and immediately call that out to be hating, baiting for engagement, or hoping for the team to fail just to be right and simply dismiss everything because it has worked out well in the past.

Covering a team that is and has been objectively struggling the last two seasons, hasn’t made moves to address their significant needs, has taken a step back on both ends, have significant changes in how they play, how they run the offense, how they run defense and none of it translating to success over 82 games will warrant valid criticism of the team. That’s needed instead of always being overly positive without much evidence to suggest otherwise.

We aren’t talking about a team that is on top of the conference, dominating good teams, is elite on either end of the floor, and has a strong identity. This is a team that’s 19th in net rating with minus 1.1 — they are closer to the GRIZZLIES, who are 25th in net than they are to teams that are top 8. They are all within a point in net rating around the Nets, Kings, Lakers, Hawks, and Bulls.

Let’s not pretend that this team hasn’t been struggling and doesn’t have more issues or a bigger margin of error than any other top 6 team in the conference.

That’s why I don’t understand the pushback on the criticism of this team. I’d argue that the overly positive, and ignoring the pushback by brushing it off completely to blind faith and banking on guys just working out is a worse discussion. Where is the value in any of the discussion if everything can be countered with Butler not taking the regular season seriously, Spo is Spo and they’ve done it before.

So, for today, I want to go through a couple of things:

  • Firstly, look at the first two deep playoff runs and how that’s different from the team in the last two seasons
  • Go through last year’s playoff run what they needed to win and why using last year’s playoffs as any kind of prediction of what could happen isn’t something to bank on or even hope for

One of the first counters to not counting the Heat out is that they’ve had the track record of making a deep playoff run when the odds were against them.

It started literally in the first season. Right from the start, they began to beat the odds and it didn’t matter whether people thought it was possible. I don’t think anyone had the irrational confidence that they truly believed that the Heat were capable of making a run to the finals in their first season with Butler as the fifth seed. That was unprecedented.

But that was a much different team and were much better throughout the year. In the regular season, they were the unexpected. They took the league by storm with some of the ways they were popping. No one expected Robinson to have the second-most efficient season behind Stephen Curry. That dribble hand-off offense was truly generational. No one expected to have many key contributors all chip in with Kendrick Nunn, Herro, and Adebayo stepping up to being a DPOY caliber, then making trades to get better around the edges.

Who could’ve predicted the lockdown that helped everyone deal with their injuries and allowed everyone to be at 100%? That was a different maker for Dragic, which is another thing, Dragic was HUGE in the bubble — they never came close to replicating what he gave them.

Then you have the additions of Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. Both fit the team and gave Spo exactly what they needed for both offense and defense.

And of course, you had Butler stepping up the way he did. But that also wasn’t a Butler carry job. This was a very well-rounded team on both ends of the floor that had everyone stepping up. With all things considered, I don’t think they’ve had as good of a team as the one in the bubble. Remember they won each series differently by having different guys lead the team in scoring — Dragic vs Pacers, Butler vs Bucks, and Adebayo vs Celtics.

Going back to the 2022 season, when they were coming off one of the worst losses in the playoffs, getting swept by the Bucks and having Butler be outscored by Bryn Forbes. That was another elite season for them(again, significantly different and better compared to what we’ve seen in the last two years).

That was an elite team and had all of the signs of a contender throughout the 82 games. They had an identity. This was the “kennel” year. With this team, they had one of the best defenses out of any other Heat team in the Butler era — that was actually their best defense since 2012.

That remained key in the playoffs. That’s how they shut down the Hawks in the first round when they made Trae Young look like one of the worst players in the league. That’s how they made life difficult for the 76ers, holding them to only a 105.7 defensive rating.

Unfortunately, in that run, they had no other offensive weapon other than Butler. That was the big reason why they couldn’t get any further. Butler was averaging 27 points on 60% true shooting, the next was Adebayo’s 15(64%). His backcourt was so much worse with Herro’s 12(49%), Vincent’s 8(51%), or Lowry’s 8(41%). That was just bad luck with injuries and you can’t do anything about it.

But in all of these runs, they had multiple things to rely on. They dominated teams. The regular season team was a lot better. They had multiple series where they took care of business with ease. They didn’t rely on things that needed to be historic.

Now, let’s look at some of the stats in those years compared to the last two seasons.

Their net rating with both Butler and Adebayo on:

  • 2020: +6.6
  • 2020 playoffs(before the finals): +5.5
  • 2022: +6.2
  • 2022 playoffs: +11.0
  • 2023: +4.2
  • 2023 playoffs(before the finals): +0.6
  • 2024: +3.7

Having the team be worse with your best players in each season isn’t something that shows promise when talking about the upcoming season by looking at past seasons.

Their net rating in each series with both on:

  • Vs Pacers 2020: +19.9
  • Vs Bucks 2020: +10.8
  • Vs Celtics 2020: +3.9
  • Vs Hawks 2022: +25.5
  • Vs 76ers 2022: +20.7
  • Vs Celtics 2022: -2.9
  • Vs Bucks 2023: -0.5
  • Vs Knicks 2023: -0.4
  • Vs Celtics 2023: +9.4

That is a huge drop-off in how they beat teams with their best players on. They were LOSING those minutes last year in the playoffs in two of those series.

The team in the last two years isn’t the same as what they were doing in the previous two. That’s why I don’t see the point in using those teams when they were completely different.

  • They don’t have a Dragic on this team
  • They won’t have months off to get everyone healthy
  • They don’t have a historic player shooting the ball
  • They aren’t the unexpected team
  • They don’t have the elite defense nor the personnel for it to cover up offensive struggles

Comparing the last two seasons is comparing apples to oranges that bear no relevance here. I also see people say that they have the same core, but that core is also different. Herro, Adebayo, Robinson, and Butler(the only rotational players from 2022) are all different players who fit differently with different responsibilities. Everything is different — those differences are in part why they’ve been struggling the last two years.

Those teams didn’t have the struggles that this team has. This team can’t beat good teams. This team can’t defend competent offensive teams.

One thing I keep coming back to is I don’t think this team has an identity in the same way the past teams have. Is the identity just, “Hey, Jimmy, please flip the switch and save us now! Thanks”. Sure, you need your best players to be players on the team I didn’t feel that this was the case with the previous team. They did have Butler step up but it wasn’t needed in the same way.

So, when looking at this team now, there shouldn’t be comparisons to 2022 or 2020 playoff runs. But last year’s show things for this year.

Let’s now take a deep dive into their playoff run in 2023. I see the takes where because they did it last year, there’s a formula for them to repeat that AND that they got better this year.

I don’t think some fans realize what exactly was needed to pull the magic that they did, particularly in the first round against the Bucks.

They needed Butler to have one of the greatest series ever where he averaged over 37 points on 67% TS — all it took is him having a “great” series instead of historic and it would’ve been over(I don’t remember any other teams needing players to be historic to just have a chance). They needed the team to shoot 45% from 3pt. They needed the Bucks to have a collapse in the 4th blowing 14 and 16-point leads in games four and five. They needed Robinson to go 14-for-19 from 3pt. They needed to be +30 net without Butler on the court by shooting 54% from 3pt on 39 attempts.

They needed all of that to still have every game be close and still be outscored in Butler’s minutes.

As easy as it is to say players can get hot, all this takes is one or two games where you miss open looks and the Heat’s Cinderella’s run to be over. Against the Bucks, there was no margin of error. I don’t even know if it’s possible or if it makes but they had a negative margin of error. They needed 100 things go right and 101 things did.

Speaking of the team’s net rating without Butler. The team was +14 net with a 124 ORTG in 200 minutes without Butler before the finals. They had almost FIVE players shooting 40% or better from 3pt. I know players can get hot and that will always be a possibility but also, just come on.

Their series against the Knicks was reasonable. That was a good matchup for them and they did take care of business with defense even with a limited Butler.

Then against the Celtics, another insane level of shooting. They shot 16-for-31 in game one and 19-for-35 in game three. That’s also with the Celtics going 11-for-42 and 10-for-29. They had insane luck for themselves and for the opponent. Once that hit the other way round, they almost blew a 3-0 lead.

In the first three games, with both Butler and Adebayo on, they were plus 35.9 with 133.5 ORTG — shooting 59.6% from 2pt, and 46.8% from 3pt. The Celtics on the other hand shot 26.8% from 3pt.

In the three losses, with both of them on, they were -18.8 with 108 ORTG shooting 41.9% and 42.0%. They shot better from 3pt and couldn’t score.

The Heat just had so many WTF is happening moments and they barely pulled off everything they were doing. So many of these statistical anomalies and yet they barely won their minutes with their best players. How is that any sign of things that you think will translate or should even hope for? That’s where the margin of error was nonexistent.

One major difference between that playoff run and what could happen this year is the fact they didn’t have Herro. Without making this that conversation, people do need to at least admit they do play differently. Right players had different roles that fit well into everything. This isn’t going to be the same thing.

We haven’t seen Butler, Adebayo and Herro in the playoffs with the way these players are now — the last time we saw those three, they played eight minutes per game together, now it’s around 20. That’s entirely different and that’s another point why making these comparisons is irrelevant. That alone changes how much you can take away from past seasons.

Finally, all of this isn’t saying that the Heat are trash or that they have zero chance of making a run. They aren’t a bad team. There are reasons why they struggle(at least on offense) the way they struggle now and might not be in the playoffs. That all simply depends on Butler’s involvement in the offense along with Herro and Adebayo. So, there is context as to why they’re worse than they are.

But at the same time, they aren’t an elite team. They aren’t a legit contender to me. They are a dark-horse contender that can make a push given a number of things that need to happen and happen well.

Teams that have championship aspirations don’t have these many questions or holes that need to be answered or filled to have a chance.

Now, what they do have(what a lot of people have mentioned) is Butler, Adebayo, and Spoelstra. That alone does give them a hell of a chance. It feels weird to say but at this point, those three are given the same benefit of the doubt as LeBron James got over the years. Where it was just get him to the playoffs and you will see — that’s how this feels.

But with this team, even with that I still don’t feel as confident or optimistic because of what they’ve shown in the last two seasons. That’s one thing I thought to myself, where let’s 100% agree Butler will be healthy and how he was last year, I still think they have too many holes and question marks.

And all of that wasn’t the case for past seasons. The team didn’t have these struggles, these question marks, we didn’t say they needed to have Butler play the way he did, we didn’t worry that they weren’t going to make the playoffs, and we didn’t just have blind faith. That’s where the comparisons to other seasons shouldn’t be a thing. When looking at this team, look at this team this season.