Did Heat’s decision not to pursue rival star cost them a championship?

The Miami Heat have swung and missed on multiple stars during the Jimmy Butler era, but one potential pickup they didn't swing at could have made all the difference.
Miami Heat v New York Knicks
Miami Heat v New York Knicks / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

In the summer of 2022, former Dallas Mavericks rising star Jalen Brunson inked a four-year, $104 million deal with the New York Knicks. Brunson was coming off a deep playoff run with the Mavs at the time, who reached the Western Conference finals. Dallas lost to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors in five games.

Although the Mavericks came up short, the future looked bright with a formidable duo of Luka Doncic and Brunson. There were several standout performances during that postseason that showed Brunson was on his way to becoming a special player in this league. Brunson averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 18 playoff games during that 2022 playoff run.

He was a homegrown Mavericks player in line for a new contract. Unfortunately for Dallas, they didn't meet his contract expectations and let him test the free-agent market. Eventually, Brunson signed with the New York Knicks, where he has emerged as more than a No. 2. With Brunson at the helm as the team's top scorer and leader, the Knicks have established themselves as playoff staples.

However, the Miami Heat had a golden opportunity to sway Brunson that same summer. Had the Heat made a move on Brunson, it's fair to wonder what could have been.

There were conflicting reports regarding Miami's interest in Brunson. Yahoo's Chris Haynes initially reported that the Heat were scheduled to meet with Brunson during his free agency. Then multiple reports indicated the Heat never planned on having that meeting.

So the Heat ended up keeping Kyle Lowry at point guard for another season before trading Lowry and a future first-round pick for Terry Rozier earlier this year.

Considering Lowry's decline and the player Brunson turned into, the Heat’s decision to back out of a reported Brunson meeting cost them an NBA championship. 

Miami made the NBA Finals in 2023 and took down Brunson in his first Knicks season in the second round. Despite the Heat winning the series, Brunson may have been the best player on the floor in those six games. If it wasn't already clear, it was very apparent then that Brunson was a star.

This season, Brunson is averaging 27.4 points and 6.5 assists on 47.5% shooting and 40.2% from three-point range. He also made his first All-Star game and will likely appear on some MVP ballots.

Jimmy Butler’s dominance in the 2023 playoffs was enough to lead Miami to the Finals but it was clear the Heat needed another playmaker and shot-creator against the Denver Nuggets. Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo both suffered season-ending injuries early at the start of the postseason. It was a huge hit on the guard rotation for the team, forcing players like Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson to step up with increased workloads. 

Butler was a machine in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, totaling 98 points across the final two games of the series. He eventually slowed down from that scoring pace after suffering an ankle injury in New York at the beginning of the second round. After his absence in a Game 2 loss of that series, the Heat got the job done in six games.

Miami's supporting cast was spectacular during last season’s run. Despite Butler's bum ankle, the Heat advanced to the Eastern Conference finals and the Finals thanks to big moments from Caleb Martin, Robinson, Vincent, Strus and others.

But in the Finals, the Nuggets had too much talent and cohesion and handled the Heat in five games. Maybe it could have been more competitive with a healthy Herro. Having a guy with his offensive abilities could have helped Miami match up with a stacked Denver core.

Or if Pat Riley and the Heat front office made a move on Brunson when he was available the previous summer, then they might have had the true All-Star scorer they have been seeking to pair with Butler ever since Butler arrived in 2019.

(Of course, we don't know if Brunson was truly interested in Miami or just using a report to create leverage in negotiations over the Knicks, but the Heat will never know because they never arranged a meeting.)

To acquire Brunson, the Heat would have had to arrange a sign-and-trade that included Lowry or Herro. Ultimately, Herro wasn't available when it mattered most and Lowry was demoted to a bench role. Trading one of them to make room for Brunson might have been justified with an NBA championship.