Miami Heat: One acquisition away from true contender status?

Are the Miami Heat really one acquisition away from being a true NBA title contender in the Eastern Conference?

Miami Heat team president Pat Riley told reporters that he believed the team was close to title contention. In the Eastern Conference this season, with the way the Heat performed before the hiatus, perhaps he was on to something. With that said, there’s still a huge gap between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Heat.

Paul Pierce, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly agree. Question is, who is right? Well, that’s not exactly a simple question to ask. Before we attempt to, there are a few controls that we have to set.

For the sake of this experiment, we have to assume that Giannis Antetokounmpo will re-sign long-term with the Bucks. After that, we also must assume that the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers are staples as title contenders.

In the East, we also must assume that the Boston Celtics are only going to get better with the continued development of Jayston Tatum and Jaylen Brown. I’m not exactly sure what to make of the Toronto Raptors, but at the very least they’ll be a stellar team in the top 5. The same could be said about the Indiana Pacers.

The Philadelphia 76ers also have too much talent not to be in the mix when it comes to long-term contention in the East. To what level, who knows? But the raw talent of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and the myriad of supporting talent that they have on the roster is too much to count out.

Then, there’s the Heat.

Miami is in good hands. Led by Jimmy Butler, who was acquired last summer, the Heat now has an alpha leader at the helm, something they had been greatly missed since Dwyane Wade originally left the Heat back in 2016.

But it’s not just the addition of Butler that has Riley and the rest of the Heat organization excited about their immediate future. The Heat has done an exceptional job in finding hidden gems in the NBA Draft and in their development via the G League.

In the 2017 NBA Draft, the Heat selected Bam Adebayo with the 14th pick. At the time, it was not a popular move. In fact, many pre-draft rankings didn’t even have Bam measured as a first-round pick. Less than three years later, though, Bam has quickly become one of the best players from that draft class.

He’s quickly emerging as a leader for the Heat and will, likely sooner rather than later, unseat Jimmy as the most important player in Miami. Tyler Herro, drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft, was the 13th pick and proved to be one of the team’s key cog off the bench this season.

Kendrick Nunn, who started 62 games for the Heat before the hiatus, was another gem the Heat found in the G League. Perhaps the player that has been the biggest shot in the arm for the Heat this season was Goran Dragic, who made the move as a starter to super sixth man – a role that he excelled in, becoming the team’s third-leading scorer behind Jimmy and Bam.

There’s no question that the Heat is already a very good team. However, I don’t think anyone would mistake them for contenders. Even though Miami is quickly becoming one of the best teams in the East, they’re still not on the same level as some of the other contenders in the East (Bucks, Celtics) and have a ways to go to catch the two Los Angeles teams in the West.

The argument that backs up the belief that the Heat is one move away from title contention is pretty simple. In short, plenty of that is built on the thought that Bam will continue to improve and will quickly become a top 3 big man in the game. It’s also relying on Herro and Nunn taking another jump in their developments and Dragic continuing to anchor the bench.

Adding one more “star-level” player to this core, and it’s easy to believe that Miami could emerge as a real threat to the Bucks in the East, and perhaps to the West too. Depending on the star, I don’t think Riley is too off base with his belief.

Assuming Jimmy continues at an all-star level, adding another all-star would elevate this team’s ceiling to perhaps an NBA Finals contender. As it is, there were many that believed Miami, if they could avoid Milwaukee in the second round, could make a deep playoff run in the East.

Acquiring the right player in free agency or via trade and there’s an argument to be made for the Heat as contenders.

Alternatively, you can also make the argument that short of the Heat adding a superstar on par with Giannis or Anthony Davis they might not be close. Let’s just look at the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are only going to get better with Tatum and Brown. Kemba Walker is still in his prime and the Celtics will have the flexibility to continue to add to their roster.

As long as Masai Ujiri is leading the Raptors, they’re never a team that should be counted out. Especially considering that they already have a budding superstar in Pascal Siakam – who is a few years ahead of the development of Bam.

Assuming that Giannis re-signs in Milwaukee, the Bucks are going to be contenders for the foreseeable future. Again, the Sixers might’ve been disappointing this season but they’ll eventually figure out the right formula. They have too much talent on that roster.

Miami has a huge mountain to climb in the East, and I’m not sure if Bam, Herro, or Nunn will develop into the star that will supersede the likes of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Giannis, Siakam, or the trajectory that Tatum is on.

Out West, it becomes even tougher. Though, they’d only have to deal with one of those teams in the NBA Finals. Either way, a LeBron James and Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George duo is significantly superior than anything Miami could feasibly draw up over the next year or two.

Miami should be encouraged by its development as a franchise over the last couple of years. They’re certainly a team that is sitting pretty heading into the summer of 2021, a free agency period that could reshape the league.

But the Heat is still a superstar away from contention at this point. Then again, isn’t every team in the NBA? If anything, the one big distinction between the Heat and perhaps some of the other teams is that they’ve now developed an asset collection to dangle in their attempt at landing their next superstar.