Heat enter offseason facing daunting task of keeping their championship hopes alive

After a disappointing season and first-round playoff exit, the Miami Heat have some work to do to keep their championship window open.
Toronto Raptors v Miami Heat
Toronto Raptors v Miami Heat / Megan Briggs/GettyImages

In a way, it feels like this Miami Heat season is over before it started.

The story of Miami's season was injuries. Only four teams had players lose more games to injuries than Miami: The Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks. 

Every time it seemed like the Heat were getting healthy, someone else would go down, including when Jimmy Butler sprained his MCL in the play-in tournament. The Heat lost to the Boston Celtics in the first round shortly after, exiting the playoffs after just five games.

That the Heat finished with at least 10 more wins than their bruised contemporaries and made the playoffs could be worn as a badge of honor. But the Heat won’t look at it that way. Not Erik Spoelstra and his We have enough mantra. The Heat – the organization of Pat Riley, of three banners since 2006 and one of the association’s winningest franchises – expect excellence. This season was far from that. This offseason, which starts now, will be about correcting it.

It would be easy for the Heat to blame injuries for the disappointing season, lick their wounds and try to make a run at it again next year. But Butler will be 35 by the start of next season and the competition in the East is only getting better. Running it back again is not an option. Especially not with an expensive team bumping up against the second tax apron.

That leaves two realistic options: Go all-in for a star who can help maximize Butler’s window, or take a calculated step back and reconfigure that window around Bam Adebayo’s timeline.

The Heat have the sixth-highest payroll in the league going into next season with five players owed eight-figure salaries next season (Butler, Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Terry Rozier and Duncan Robinson).

The Heat could look to salary dump one and create some cap flexibility. But, before we get to that, there’s the matter of two potential free agents: Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith.

Martin is expected to decline his $7.1 million player option and sign a more lucrative contract as a free agent. Martin’s side surely took note of the contracts Miami’s previous developmental success stories, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, signed last summer. Somewhere in the range of $11 million-$15 million per year feels like an appropriate landing spot for his next contract.

It will be hard for the Heat to match such an offer. They enter next season less than $5 million away from the punitive second luxury tax apron – something the Heat are unwilling to do because of the roster-building limitations that come with it. 

Highsmith will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and will command less than Martin even after his impressive season (40% on 3s, good perimeter defense). If the Heat are forced to choose between Martin and Highsmith, they could go with Highsmith as the cheaper option since doubling Martin's salary would push the Heat into the second apron unless they trim payroll.

Which brings us back to the big salaries.

Between Herro, Rozier and Robinson, the Heat are spending more than $73 million on a guard room that falls short of elite and has some redundancies. If the Heat look to cut costs, they’ll probably start here.

While some Heat fans have dreamed of turning Herro into Donovan Mitchell or Damian Lillard in the past, that might not be the outcome.

The Heat are expected to go down the road, as they are every offseason. But, as the last few summers have shown, trading for a superstar is far from guaranteed. If they can’t pull off a big deal for a third straight summer, tough questions will be asked.

Miami could be forced into dumping Herro, Rozier or Robinson’s salary onto a team with cap space. Not quite the Hawks trading John Collins to the Jazz for next to nothing last summer, but the potential return could still be underwhelming, especially considering the deals these three had been connected to in the past.

This isn’t the ideal or even the preferred path this summer. The Heat will chase a star. If that doesn’t happen, they could still let Thomas Bryant, Martin and Highsmith walk in free agency, retain the remaining core and fill out the roster with a 2024 first-round pick and veteran-minimum contracts – a scenario that is definitely on the table.

But that would be a bit surprising given the standards of this organization. 

The Heat want to win, and the league has only gotten better since they made the Finals in 2023.

They have also during this run faced the sobering realities of the salary cap. The Heat have more than made do with a couple of stars and a best-in-class development program, but less controllable variables – rising salaries, free agency and tougher competition – will come to roost.

If Plan A, adding a third star to Butler and Adebayo, doesn’t bear fruit, the Heat may have to consider Butler’s future in Miami. 

Butler will be eligible to sign an extension this summer and is expected to ask for the maximum two-year contract extension worth about $113 million. That would pay Butler his current $48.8 million salary for next season, then $54.3 million for the 2025-26 season and $58.6 million for 2026-27. That’s a lot of cash for a guy who will be 37 by the end of that contract and averaged only 20.8 points in just 60 regular-season games before missing the playoffs with a sprained MCL.

Would he be willing to take a slight pay cut for more years? Read here for more on that sticky option.

But contract negotiations can get complicated and, as the Heat have seen with Dwyane Wade in the past, drive sides apart. It’s too early to predict such an outcome with Butler, but it would also be irresponsible to at least not consider the possibility.

Trading Butler, the captain of arguably the second-greatest era in franchise history, would be an obvious setback for a team with immediate championship aspirations. It’s fair to wonder how realistic those aspirations still are.

The Heat have fought like hell to keep this championship window open, but sometimes a step back is needed to spring forward.