Having missed out on Damian Lillard and other stars, the Miami Heat might have to settle for James Harden, who is a better fit than most think.
When Pat Riley was asked in June about making a big trade, he told reporters he’d be open to it but, “We’re not going to take a wrecking ball to this thing.” Then, in the days ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers’ decision to trade Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks, the word from reporters plugged into the Miami Heat was “they aren’t desperate.”
But now that Lillard is on the Bucks and the Heat enter training camp having made no substantial improvements to last season’s group that took a backdoor into the playoffs before a miraculous run that ended with losing four out of five to the Denver Nuggets in the Finals, it’s fair to wonder if they didn’t act desperate enough. The wrecking ball didn’t come out this summer, but it might have to soon.
The details of why talks about Lillard broke down between the Heat and Blazers are slipping out, but four things are certain and relevant here.
- After the two sides talked briefly in July it was clear they were far apart, and no effort was made to get closer on a deal. Both sides hold some amount of blame for that, and how much each side bears is up to interpretation.
- Portland did not love Miami’s assets and felt like they could get a comparable offer elsewhere.
- Tyler Herro has been dangled in trade talks now for at least two offseasons and there has never been an indication that he was close to being dealt. The market has spoken, and Herro’s trade value is likely not where the Heat hoped it would be. Not only is this applicable to the Portland conversation but, even more importantly, it’s relevant to any future trades the Heat’s front office hopes to negotiate.
- The Heat wanted a star to try to force his way to Miami and Lillard did, but it didn’t work. In the wake of superstars like James Harden forcing their way to specific teams and players taking more control over their careers, the temperature in the league has changed. Front offices are increasingly resolute to stand up to player demands. Call it a market correction. We’ve now seen Lillard get traded to Milwaukee, Donovan Mitchell dealt to Cleveland, Ben Simmons lose money in his holdout and Harden so far trying and failing to force his way out of Philadelphia. Front offices are feeling more empowered now to not give in to star demands and instead seek the best possible return. That’s bad news for the Heat. Time for a new strategy.
This last point is the most important for Miami’s purposes. Jimmy Butler is 34 and, as the best player on the team, the Heat’s championship window shuts when he can no longer carry a team at that level.
Lillard was Miami’s best chance to capitalize on Butler’s remaining prime years. He was a perfect fit with Butler, Bam Adebayo and the Heat in every conceivable way. The most feared floor-spacer outside of the Bay Area, Lillard would have opened the paint for Butler and Adebayo. He could have taken on the role of lead scorer, allowing Butler to pick his spots and Adebayo to lean into all the things he does at an elite level (screen, pass, defend). With his temperament and team-first approach, he would have felt at home in the Heat’s building.
But Lillard got away, to a conference rival no less. Why that is has been explored and debated in other spaces, but now the Heat need to reflect as to what they could have done better, then move on.
Back to Butler. There’s a lot of wear and tear on that body and, even though he’s in immaculate shape and plays the regular season with an idling engine, asking him to morph into Michael Jordan for three months every year like he did last postseason (or in the bubble) is not a sustainable strategy. Adebayo has taken more of that responsibility off Butler’s shoulders each year, and the team still believes Herro can be more of a factor. But a star would have been the ultimate reprieve.
The Heat aren’t done. They have four months before the trade deadline to add reinforcements. They’ve been mentioned as a suitor for Jrue Holiday and even Harden, but the Miami Herald reported that they haven’t shown interest in the immediate aftermath of the Lillard deal. Still, that can always change. It might have to.
Make no mistake, the Heat are on the clock. Butler is up for an extension next summer and, if things don’t look dramatically different by then, the Heat could be forced into some uncomfortable conversations.
According to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Butler will be seeking a contract extension that surpasses the annual number of the five-year, $304 million extension Jaylen Brown signed with the Boston Celtics this summer. Butler will be 36 when a potential extension kicks in, and the Heat should be hesitant to pay a player that age north of $60 million a year.
On one hand, not trading for Lillard frees up future funds that might have been earmarked for the $200 million-plus he’s due over the next four years. On the other hand, it would have been easier to persuade owner Micky Arison to go over the second luxury tax apron for a team with a legitimate chance to win the championship.
If the Heat aren’t willing to extend Butler then it likely means they aren’t confident in their championship viability. That perhaps the window has closed. If and when the Heat come to that conclusion, they could explore the possibility of trading Butler.
Technically, they could just ride out the rest of his deal. Butler is under contract for $45.1 million this season and $48.8 million in 2024-25. He has a player option for $52.4 million in 2025-26.
That’s at minimum two years with Butler under contract, and three if the Heat are confident that he will opt into the final year. He’ll be 36 then, and that any team would shell out more than $53 million to sign Butler at that stage is doubtful. But what if Butler decides to give up the $52.4 million and sign one more, multi-year contract with a contender in hopes of winning a ring?
Up-and-coming teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets (in Butler’s hometown) could be ready to compete by then and have the space to sign Butler as the missing piece. Even the 76ers are projected to have space that offseason, and Butler could reprise his role as supporting actor next to Joel Embiid if he thinks he can win there.
If by this time next year, the Heat haven’t added a star and improved their championship odds, they should at least explore trading Butler. Trading him would hurt, but it would also reset Miami’s timeline and provide assets to build around Adebayo. Not doing so would risk losing Butler for nothing in 2025.
Like the Bucks were under pressure with Giannis, the Heat are under pressure to make the most of Butler’s best remaining years. They could have 12 months – maybe less – to show him something.
Which brings us back to Harden. By opting into his contract, Harden’s contract becomes an expiring one. Whatever long-term financial flexibility the Heat were worried about in a trade for Bradley Beal or Lillard doesn’t exist with Harden.
Now, there are other concerns. Harden is perenially unhappy, has a history of postseason shortcomings, and might not buy into the Heat Culture thing. (If there’s an opposite of Heat Culture, it might be Harden Culture.)
BUT! If it doesn’t work, the Heat can walk away after a year, no harm done.
Despite the off-the-court worries, Harden is actually a perfect solve for the Heat’s problems on offense. The pick-and-rolls Heat fans dreamed of between Lillard and Adebayo? Harden can do that, too. He has an argument as the best pick-and-roll ball-handler in the league, forming an elite two-man attack with Joel Embiid seemingly overnight.
He’s not the isolation scorer he was during his MVP years, but he still ranked in the 84th percentile in isolation scoring last season. Only Luka Doncic scored more points per isolation possession (1.11) than Harden (1.10) on as much volume last season. For reference, Miami’s best isolation scorer last season was Butler, who scored 1.05 points per isolation possession on about half the volume.
Could the Heat entice Daryl Morey with Philadelphia native Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson and a first-round pick?
Lowry’s deal is expiring, preserving Philadelphia’s potential max cap space for next summer, when Pascal Siakam, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Buddy Hield are free agents. Duncan Robinson gives them the floor spacing always needed around Embiid, and the picks can be used to replenish their outgoing picks to Oklahoma City and Brooklyn.
It’s worth exploring for the Heat. After holding onto their assets for two summers in hopes of using them on a top-10 player, it’s clear they don’t have what it takes to get that kind of deal done. (They might not even have what it takes to get a Jrue Holiday deal done if reports of his trade value prove true.)
They can’t afford to kick the can down the road for another year. Butler is that dude, but for how much longer we don’t know. Adebayo might be the best defensive player in the NBA, but they need a show-runner on offense who can efficiently eat up regular-season possessions and potentially solve the half-court offense problems that plagued them the last two postseasons.
Best-case scenario: It works, the Heat win a title, Harden’s reputation is refurbished, Butler gets his ring and cements his spot as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Pat Riley gets one last ring before retiring to Malibu.
Worst-case: It doesn’t work, the Heat lose very little in the process and Harden walks after eight months. This scenario also keeps open the opportunity to launch into a full-scale rebuild by trading Butler (and allows them to sign-and-trade Harden).
The Heat and Harden are not an ideal partnership. Miami would rather have hitched its wagon to Lillard. But that didn’t happen, nor did Donovan Mitchell, or Kevin Durant. Like it or not, Harden might be the best the Heat can do. They don’t need to be desperate, but they do need to be realistic.