Despite being two wins away. Despite nearly shocking the sports world and winning the NBA championship. Ninety-six minutes of basketball.
Despite winning last season's Eastern Conference championship, the Miami Heat are not the premier destination in the East that they should be. They've missed out on: James Harden, Marcus Morris Sr., Danilo Gallinari, and now a trio of high-profile buyout candidates in Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Drummond.
And despite that, the Heat remain confident in their future.
No one expected the Heat to dismantle the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, but they did. No one expected them to take the Los Angeles Lakers to six games without key players, but they did. After all their heroic efforts, they came up short. So it immediately created the question, what's next?
The Heat knew how close they were to winning a championship. The follow-up act would have to strike a delicate balance between trying to improve and just running it back with the same structure and identity.
Jimmy Butler believed the Heat would have won the Finals if they were healthy. They wanted to run it back. Their first order of action was trying to get a sharp-shooting combo forward.
According to multiple team sources, they tried acquiring both Marcus Morris Sr. and Danilo Gallinari in the offseason but failed to do so. Morris ultimately ended up taking a big-money $64 million deal with the L.A. Clippers, and Gallinari secured an equally impressive $61 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks.
That was the Heat's first attempt at trying to increase their championship odds, but it wouldn't be their last.
When James Harden forced his way out of Houston, Miami was at one point the front-runner. According to sources within the organization, the Heat ultimately fell short in the sweepstakes because they felt like they "shouldn't give up every single asset they had." They believed Houston's asking price was largely unrealistic.
In retrospect, that decision may haunt them tremendously. Not only did the Heat not get Harden, but he created a superteam with the rival Brooklyn Nets—a problem that would bite them multiple times later.
Miami then attempted to fill its stretch-4 void with Blake Griffin, but he ultimately chose to join the same Brooklyn superteam that Harden helped create.
The Heat finally saw some success at the trade deadline when they acquired Victor Oladipo. According to a source in his camp, Oladipo made it very well known to his inner circle how much he wanted to play in Miami. He ultimately wants to play for the Heat long-term, but a source in the Heat organization said that the team wants to use the next three months to determine whether to keep him long-term.
A source in Butler's camp said that his main target was Kyle Lowry during the trade deadline, but Butler is open and excited to see what he and Oladipo can do together. While Lowry was heavily linked to the Heat and preferred to be traded there, sources say that he never explicitly said "Miami or bust," and a deal would have been completed if there was that explicitness. Lowry had no issues staying in Toronto or playing in Philadelphia.
The Raptors reportedly wanted Tyler Herro, or the Heat's young core without Herro, but that was a gamble Miami couldn't take without knowing Lowry's full desire to play there. Lowry reportedly wants a two-year, $50 million contract in free agency, and a source in the Heat organization told Bleacher Report that the Heat believe they can acquire him in free agency. Another source had mentioned Lowry's actual asking price was higher than the reported $50 million contract, and closer to $30 million a year. They did also agree that Miami had a great chance of signing Lowry in the offseason.
Miami's next target was going back to finding that 4 man it looked for in the offseason. According to sources in both the Heat organization and Butler's inner circle, Butler was heavily recruiting LaMarcus Aldridge the moment he separated from the San Antonio Spurs. Butler's and Miami's recruiting efforts were so strong that the team seemingly emerged as front-runners to acquire Aldridge. A source in the Heat organization said the team wanted Aldridge to start alongside Bam Adebayo.
Suddenly without notice, Aldridge chose to sign with the Nets instead. As the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson reported, Aldridge's reason for joining the Nets was simple—they were in a better position to compete for a championship; the Heat's six-game losing streak simultaneously happening didn't help either.
A source in the Heat organization revealed there was a level of shock within the front office when Aldridge decided to sign with the Nets, as for some time they expected him to sign with the Heat. The problem of not trading for James Harden returned full circle.
When a team makes the NBA Finals, it tends to attract veteran players for cheap. Players that would have typically chosen to play for the Heat in a heartbeat are finding themselves playing for the Nets.
So why, all of a sudden, is Miami swinging and missing on available stars? Skeptics around the league already considered the team's title run a fluke, but now there's a shiny new superteam on top of it. Despite having the culture, a young core, a strong leader and being 96 minutes away from winning a championship, the Heat have lost out on plenty of free agents.
Alas, they've won some battles this season, too—namely Victor Oladipo, Nemanja Bjelica and Trevor Ariza. With their assets, they will be in the mix for any potential big trade and can easily make room for another superstar.
No matter what happens during the Jimmy Butler Heat era, one thing is clear: Their future is not bleak. The window for success will be open for as long as cornerstone pieces Adebayo and Butler remain in Heat uniforms. According to a source in the Heat organization, their plan for the future is to re-establish the winning identity they had in the bubble and to make it clear to all those watching that they are true contenders. That the bubble was no fluke, and that the Heat are here to stay.
That being said, if the Heat fail early in the playoffs this season, expect some major changes with most of the team entering free agency this summer, a source in the organization said. Pat Riley said that they will find "The Next Thing," no matter what or who that may be. Bernie Lee, Butler's agent, said on the Five on the Floor podcast in December that the team sold Butler on being in the best position to win a championship during his prime. He noted that whatever Riley and Andy Elisburg promise, they always keep it. They promised Butler a championship window, and they intend to keep that promise.
The one thing the Heat learned this season is that things don't always go according to plan. The Nets have eclipsed the defending Eastern Conference champions as the premier destination in the East. It's rare for a team that was two games away from an NBA championship to have to prove themselves all over again, but that's life for the Heat.
Adam Borai (@AdamNBorai) contributed to this report.