It didn't feel right for the Miami Heat to run out of gas. Not after all the times throughout their extraordinary playoff run that they'd danced circles around their wheezing opponents while never seeming to tire themselves. Alas, attrition finally caught up to the Heat in Game 6 of The Finals, and they ended their inspiring season on the wrong end of a blowout against the Los Angeles Lakers.
So much went right for Miami all year, especially inside the bubble. Plenty of teams stood out as examples of the schism between the pre- and post-shutdown season - some for better, some worse - but no team seemed to benefit more than the Heat. They emerged from the hiatus a different team in both form and function.
Bam Adebayo became a full-time center after starting at power forward all year and unleashed the full force of his offensive creativity and defensive versatility. Goran Dragic was nudged into the starting lineup, and after the four-month break, he looked more explosive than he had in years. Meyers Leonard and Kendrick Nunn were virtually excised from the rotation, and the defense became a suffocating switching machine.
And then, in The Finals, things finally started to go wrong. The Heat dropped Game 1 to the Lakers - marking the first time in the postseason they'd trailed in a series - but that was the least of what they lost. Dragic tore his plantar fascia, Adebayo strained his neck, and Miami fought an uphill battle of Everest-like proportions from that point forward.
Incredibly, with the rest of the team on his back, Jimmy Butler managed to scale half the mountain. He willed the Heat to a Game 3 win with a 40-point triple-double in which he accounted for 75 of their 115 points with his own baskets and those he created for others. In Game 4, with a compromised Adebayo back in the lineup, Miami took the Lakers down to the wire but came out on the losing end of a tactical chess match because their opponent had the equivalent of two queens on the board. Then Butler one-upped himself in Game 5 with a 35-point triple-double that saw him play all but 48 seconds and emerge victorious after going blow-for-blow with LeBron in the fourth quarter.
If there's a silver lining to Miami's injury misfortune, it's that it paved the way for Butler to show just how much he's capable of, and cement himself as a legend forever. The downside is that it left his tank bone-dry for Game 6.
Still, though the Heat came up short of the ultimate prize, and the concept of a moral victory feels antithetical to the franchise's mission statement, this season was a massive win for the whole organization, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players to that vaunted #HeatCulture. It's rare for a team to get this close to winning it all without a consensus top-10 player on the roster (though Butler has made a strong case for inclusion). Doing so required a confluence of ability, scheme, growth, and character.
The term "player empowerment" has a very specific connotation in the NBA: It's shorthand for high-profile players flexing their leverage, pulling the strings on personnel moves, recruiting one another, and generally shaping the league's competitive landscape themselves. The Heat helped usher that term into the mainstream a decade ago by facilitating the union of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
The 2019-20 version of the Heat also benefited, in its own small way, from that particular brand of player empowerment. Butler made up his mind to join them as a free agent even though they didn't have the cap space to sign him outright, so he was able to press the 76ers to work out a sign-and-trade. Andre Iguodala held out on the Grizzlies for more than half the season before finally maneuvering his way to Miami in a trade that also delivered Jae Crowder.
But this Heat team - the first to reach The Finals since the dissolution of that famed Big Three - thrived on a different kind of empowerment, one defined by collective confidence and habit-building on the court. Head coach Erik Spoelstra sought to turn each player on the floor into a threat in some form or fashion and challenged them all to explore the bounds of their abilities. He showed a remarkable knack for hiding his players' weaknesses, amplifying their strengths, and putting them in positions to succeed.
His motion-heavy, equal-opportunity offense gave everyone something to do at all times. It was a whir of split cuts, off-ball screens, weak-side exchanges, and relocations, with anyone capable of taking advantage if and when the defense broke down due to exhaustion or confusion. Perpetual motion enabled the Heat to play two and sometimes three non-shooters at once without sacrificing much in the way of efficiency. They ranked first in both the regular season and playoffs in frequency of plays finished via cuts. They threw more passes per game and assisted on a higher share of their baskets than any team but the depleted Nets.
In his first season as a starter, Adebayo was empowered to handle the ball in transition and work as the team's playmaking hub in the halfcourt, making on-the-fly reads from the high post and orchestrating two-man actions with Miami's cadre of cutters and shooters.
He developed particularly balletic chemistry with Duncan Robinson, the undrafted revelation Spoelstra set loose as an off-ball marauder and a gunner with the greenest of lights - the sharpshooter who did for the dribble-handoff what Bob Cousy once did for the reverse dribble. Even when he wasn't drilling seven threes to keep the Miami's season alive, Robinson was pumping oxygen into Miami's offense with his gravity and incessant movement.
Tyler Herro's hubris was nurtured rather than tamped down. The rookie guard was given the space to make mistakes and the reps to hone his chops as an off-the-dribble initiator as the bubble progressed. While we saw the downside of his unbridled confidence in The Finals, Miami probably wouldn't have gotten there without his fearless exploits against Boston in the previous round.
The midseason trade with the Grizzlies injected a dose of smarts and nastiness in Iguodala and Crowder. Throughout Miami's playoff run, those two routinely tag-teamed the most pressing defensive assignments, from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Jayson Tatum to Anthony Davis. And while it took a full team effort to slow those guys down, Crowder and Iguodala frequently served as the first patch of mud that slowed their momentum long enough for Miami's help defense to set up.
In the bubble, Adebayo also established himself as one of the three or four most versatile defenders in the NBA. His ability to slide seamlessly from one end of the positional spectrum to the other completely altered the shape of opposing offenses. As the big man defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler, he allowed a microscopic 0.64 points per possession in the postseason, according to Synergy. Opponents shot just 3-of-14 when trying to score on him one-on-one following a switch. In order to try to avoid him, opposing teams had to change their offensive diets, ditching the traditional comfort food of using their centers as screeners.
This Heat team was also defined by resilience. They seemed to be propelled by a resolute self-belief that revealed itself in the tightest moments. They won 11 of their 14 playoff games that included clutch time (less than five minutes left, score within five points), producing a 135.4 offensive rating and outscoring opponents by 47 points across 50 total clutch minutes. That made them, statistically, the most clutch playoff team since the 2011 Mavericks.
Much of that is owed to Butler - who racked up 48 points on 76% true shooting, seven rebounds, nine assists, five steals, and two blocks in those 50 minutes - but it was aided by the peerless team-wide conditioning that allowed Miami to routinely outexecute wearier opponents down the stretch, and by a balanced attack that looked closer to the Heat's standard motion offense than it did to hero ball.
Butler, for his part, had as much to do with empowering Miami's young players as Spoelstra did. He put forth his best season as a playmaker and engineered a self-vindicating run that not only cemented him as one of the game's most dogged competitors but reframed the previous stopovers and messy breakups that had saddled him with the "difficult teammate" label. All year, he looked for every opportunity to talk up his young teammates, and he routinely backed up those words with his deferential play.
He produced like a star but reveled in doing the dirty work that's typically the purview of role players: cutting, setting screens, sealing, boxing out, and playing balls-to-the-wall defense. He averaged over 26 points in The Finals and still led the series in screen assists. He also finished as the postseason leader in loose balls recovered and recorded 17 more deflections than any other player.
Butler might be the only player ever to improve after having his jump shot fall apart. He focused on bull-rushing the rim and drawing contact, and he cut with renewed alertness and force. His ability to toggle between roles allowed his team to shapeshift between styles and helped guys like Adebayo and Herro to spread their wings. He could serve as the off-ball wheel-greaser who played off of his teammates or the ball-dominant star around whom the entire offense revolved. He could take a backseat for 40-plus minutes and then grab the wheel for the home stretch.
The Heat were Butler's fourth team in three years. While some people wondered why a player who claimed to only care about winning would turn his back on a championship contender in Philadelphia for what looked like a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, Miami proved an ideal fit; a place where accountability and empowerment went hand in hand, and where his bare-knuckled approach to the game wasn't the exception but the rule. As much as the Heat allowed him to win on his own terms, he helped them win on theirs.
It's often hard to tell how much stock to put in behind-the-scenes intangibles like the ones the Heat purport to focus on, and that stuff felt especially superfluous when prime LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were plying their trade in Miami. Nobody was going to credit Culture for propelling that team to multiple championships when it had such an overwhelming assembly of talent on hand.
This year was perhaps the most convincing showcase for the franchise's guiding principles - and for Spoelstra's coaching ingenuity. He received the kind of plaudits that were harder to come by when he was coaching a trio of Hall of Famers at their peaks. Six years after the breakup of the team that forced the NBA to grudgingly reckon with a new era of superteams, the Heat became the plucky upstart trying to take down the league's preeminent superstar tandem in The Finals.
Maybe if Dragic and Adebayo hadn't gotten injured, they'd have actually been able to do so. More than likely, having both healthy would've made the series more competitive but wouldn't have changed the outcome. Even in their brief stint at full strength in the series, the Heat didn't have much of an answer for the way Anthony Davis was rerouting their offense and LeBron was bending their defense.
But this team is set up quite well for the future, even with Butler on the wrong side of 30 and Dragic and Crowder set to hit unrestricted free agency. Adebayo is just 23 and should be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation for the next decade. Herro has the makings of a star, and these playoff reps will serve him well. And the Heat project to have max cap space in the ballyhooed 2021 offseason, when the likes of Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, and Victor Oladipo can all be free agents.
With the right move - or the right star with a wandering eye - the Heat could be primed to once again lord over the East for an extended stretch. If they do, they'll have more than one type of player empowerment to thank.