Where do the Miami Heat go Without Damian Lillard?

Insight2 months ago8 min readJohn Jablonka

Sigh. After what seemed like forever, the Damian Lillard saga has come to an end. And if you’re a Miami Heat fan, it’s a disappointing ending.

Everything was looking like it was going to work out eventually. Not only did Lillard have the Heat as the preferred choice, but it was Miami or nothing for him. And even though there were reports recently that more teams were getting involved, such as the Toronto Raptors, it still seemed the Heat were getting him — it was only a matter of when.

Well, that couldn’t have gone any worse than it did. And with all of the articles surrounding this coming out from both sides, it looked like they weren’t near making this dream a reality.

So, the Heat couldn’t get their whale. It’s another star player that has gotten away — though it doesn’t necessarily mean they were entirely at fault, but it’s still annoying and frustrating to see.

And now, it raises an important question. Where do the Heat go from here?

Before answering that question, it’s best to see where the Heat currently are because there seem to be many wildly different answers depending on who you ask.

Where are the Heat now

Earlier in the off-season, I talked about whether the Heat can afford not to trade for Lillard and my answer was no mainly because their main issues are still there with no moves made that addressed that:

That hasn’t changed to me and after more thinking about this, I wanted to expand on some of those points.

I do feel that the Heat’s post-season success has been overrated and blinded the people of their significant issues beyond health.

Health has 100% been one of, if not, the biggest issue they haven’t been able to win, but even fully healthy, they’d still have those issues. A healthy Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry or Tyler Herro wouldn’t have changed any of those points.

Because health wouldn’t have changed the whole build of this team. It wouldn’t have changed the formula that they need to win. It doesn’t change how they play and that’s the issue.

Their formula was Butler please be great and everyone else please shoot a lot of 3s and make a lot of 3s.

And I also think that because they technically have the results — three conference finals and two finals appearances — it makes it seem that it works. But good results by bad process isn’t a good thing and it isn’t something you should be aiming for.

That’s the whole thing with this core. The way they play and the personnel that they have has a very small margin of error. It means they constantly have to overachieve. It constantly means having to do every single thing right just to have a chance.

Take the Milwaukee Bucks series. As a team, they went 77-for-171(45%) from 3 and needed Butler to have one of the best series by any player to come away with nail-biting wins. The Heat were down in both games four and five in the fourth! They won in overtime in game five. This may have been a five-game series, but it wasn’t that lopsided.

Now, it may have got the job done but again, that’s not something you want to bank on to being sustainable.

And the main reason for that is their offense and health wasn’t fixing the big picture here. Where I see health helping them is just helping their poor formula better — that’s all. I guess a way to describe it is it’s fixing the symptoms but not the disease. Getting Herro back and Butler healthy is without a doubt making this team a lot better but it isn’t fixing their real issues.

For the entire four-year stretch, they’ve been overly reliant on 3s — far more than any other team.

This also doesn’t mean just making shots type of reliant. Every good team needs to hit 3s to have a good offense, there’s no going around that. With those teams though, in a way it seems that the 3pt shooting is as a result of their offense and isn’t their offense in itself.

Whereas with the Heat, it’s the complete opposite. That’s been clear since 2020 with their dribble hand-off offense with Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson. Even though they’ve been going away from that, they’ve still been 3pt dependent.

And a lot of that comes down to talent issues. This is something that I’ve talked about multiple times throughout the season. There was a piece discussing more specifically about their lackluster offense. And here, another main issue, is their offense without Butler.

There’s nothing a coach can do. There’s nothing that a better scheme can do. This isn’t about maximizing players because they already are. The reason they all have to be maximized this way and run all of those actions and bomb from 3 is because of a lack of talent.

That hasn’t changed because of the addition of Josh Richardson and Thomas Bryant. And no neither Nikola Jovic nor Jaime Jaquez Jr. is also fixing that.

That’s where I don’t see the argument that the Heat got better in this off-season. Their issues weren’t depth! As bad as Dewayne Dedmon and Cody Zeller, that also wasn’t their biggest issue. And even the point about depth, that hasn’t been improved in areas that they need.

Not a single move has been addressed to make the team less 3pt reliant. Not a single player outside of Butler can effectively take guys off the dribble and pressure the rim. No one outside of Butler can force the defense to do something.

So, where are the Heat now?

Well, right now, at best, they’re the same where they were last season. They’re still the same team that will be chucking up 3s and will need that to generate some kind of offense. It’s still the same team that won’t be able to survive without Butler.

And there’s also an argument that they got worse because they still haven’t addressed the point guard position and the backup. Losing Gabe Vincent is a big hole considering Lowry is a year old and I have no hope for him at this point.

Barring changes, this entire thing hinges on the potential leap from Herro or Bam Adebayo. That’s all. Only those two have the potential to change all of that — I will be going through this in more detail later this week.

And this doesn’t even address their defensive concerns, which have been bigger than before in this season. Their defense isn’t magically fixed because of the size Jovic gives or Richardson.

So, where do they go from here?

I still stand by that they don’t need a lot to be a legitimate contender. This is something that I’ve said throughout the year. They don’t need a whale. They don’t even need an All-Star player — sure, it would certainly improve their margin of error significantly but it’s not a necessity.

But changes nonetheless are needed. These changes need to address two things:

A primary ball handler can be a threat from 3-levels and consistently get to the rim.

A legit four that can guard up that isn’t a liability on offense.

Pretty simple and straightforward!

There are a handful of players that fit all of that and ones I think could be available:

  • James Harden
  • Tobias Harris
  • Spencer Dinwiddie
  • Jrue Holiday
  • Dorian Finney Smith
  • Royce O’Neale
  • Collin Sexton

I think those are the main targets. Some are more realistic than others. But any one of these options gives you exactly what they need — will also be going in more depth going through each player specifically.

Although I do think that each of those players will help, I don’t think their whole formula to win would change drastically. I think that can only happen with an All-Star or All-NBA caliber player. Had they got Lillard, that would’ve changed everything.

That’s why I can also see moves for players like Buddy Hield, Kelly Olynyk, and TJ McConnel also be interesting but that just builds on their current flawed formula and improves their margin of error.

When I saw flawed, I don’t think that it’s unrealistic for them to win with it — they certainly have competed like that and that’s mainly because Butler and Adebayo have been on another level. But I do think that there’s a lower ceiling and it’s prone to a lot of variance.

With all this said, right now, I’m not entirely happy with the team. They might be better in the regular season — though I’m not entirely sure there either — and could be better depending on internal development from Herro and Adebayo. But that’s still banking on so many things where nothing can go wrong.

They still need changes if they want to compete.