The Miami Heat are in a truly delicious position. They are second in the Eastern Conference with a 31-13 record, a near lock to make the playoffs, and a good bet to have home court in the first-round. The Heat are good, but not great, flawed and exciting because of it. They shoot threes and shoot them well—they’re second in the league in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent and eighth in the league in three-pointers made at 12.8 a game. They play more than enough zone to satisfy curmudgeonly high school coaches; they are always in an overtime game and they keep winning those overtime games and other close games in dramatic, heart-pounding fashion. Most league insiders expected them to make the playoffs, finishing the season somewhere in the 4 to 6 range in the Eastern Conference. They’ve overshot all reasonable expectations during the first half of the season and have arrived as a pesky playoff contender ahead of schedule. For the moment, the Heat are playing with house money.
After finishing Dwyane Wade’s sendoff season with a 39-43 record, good for 10th in the tepid Eastern Conference, the Heat have somersaulted out of the bottom of the East standings, largely on the backs of previously unproven players like Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro. Yes, Jimmy Butler has been fantastic—he’s been sharing the ball (6.5 assists a game) and getting to the free-throw line (9.6 free-throw attempts a game) with unexpected frequency. But just about every other major contribution has come from a player who was a relative question mark before the season began.
Goran Dragic has returned from injury to put himself firmly in the sixth-man of the year conversation and Bam Adebayo should be at the top of every mid-season most improved player ballot. Adebayo is a player many believed could stretch his abilities and increase his impact with more opportunity, but no one expected him to turn into a switch-everything terminator on defense, a point-center, THE hub for the Heat’s motion offense machine.
Like so few Miami sports teams before them, the 2019-20 Heat sit in an Edenic liminal space. They aren’t good enough to command the ire of midwestern sports fans. Nor are they good enough to carry themselves with the unapologetic arrogance that has defined some of Miami’s most storied and hated teams—the Heat in 2010 & UM Football in the 80’s, though there is plenty of brashness in the age-defying odd couple of Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro. But they are good enough to win games, and plenty of them.
This Heat team is pre-critique and niche enough for Miami to exclusively call its own. There are no superstars, none of the glitz and glamour that draws the attention of the casual fan. This is a fun, scrappy team with the league’s best alternate jerseys. They carry a collective boulder on their shoulders everywhere they go. The starting lineup typically includes two undrafted players and a 30th overall pick who worked tirelessly to drag himself into the NBA’s upper echelon.
This team is reminding Miami sports fans how much fun it is to be the loveable underdog. As was the case when a precocious, baby-faced Miguel Cabrera clubbed an opposite-field homerun off Roger Clemens in the 2003 World Series, you get the sense that Tyler Herro doesn’t know he’s not supposed to be swaggering all over the court and canning clutch three-pointers. Someone has failed to tell him this. Someone has failed to tell the Heat a lot this season.
The NBA’s February 6th trade deadline presents the Heat organization with the first of many potential pivot points. Will Pat Riley and front office company decide to cash in some combination of mid-level contracts and young talent for the star player they believe could put them over the top in the playoffs? Or do they ride this wave of ebullient energy as far as it will take them and reassess in the offseason? My suggestion to everyone in Miami, and those watching from afar, enjoy every moment of this while it lasts. Nothing lasts forever, especially with Pat Riley at the controls. Present-day Miami reinforces the power of beauty, even in the face of its own impermanence. The 2019-20 Miami Heat are doing much the same.