NBA Decision-Makers Double Down on Their Pick for This Year’s Eastern Conference Sleeper

The Milwaukee Bucks are defending champions and still have Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Brooklyn Nets are the betting favorites to win the NBA title with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and (maybe?) Kyrie Irving. But there’s one team general managers believe everyone is sleeping on: the Miami Heat.

After beating Milwaukee and advancing to the 2020 NBA Finals, Jimmy Butler and Co. took a step back last year, getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Bucks.

But thanks to some shrewd moves by Pat Riley, front-office members around the league believe the Heat are an underrated contender in the Eastern Conference.

Miami went backward last season

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra talks with his players.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat talks with his players during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. | Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In 2019-20, the Heat finished 44-29. They were only the fifth seed in the East, but the team showed positive signs toward the end of the year. Its overall record wasn’t fantastic, but Miami beat Milwaukee, the Boston Celtics, and the Indiana Pacers in the regular season’s final stretch.

The Heat then beat all three of those teams in consecutive playoff series to make the finals before ultimately losing to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Last year, the team’s regular-season record wasn’t significantly worse at 40-32, but Miami didn’t pass the eye test. Jimmy Butler has been the franchise catalyst since he arrived in South Beach, but he had plenty of help the year the Heat reached the finals.

Tyler Herro scored 16.0 points per game as a 19-year-old rookie in the 2019-20 postseason, shooting 37.5% from three. Duncan Robinson scored nearly 12 points per game and shot 39.7% from deep. Their shooting unlocked the rest of Miami’s offense.

But Butler’s supporting cast wasn’t the same last year. He only played 52 games himself, but Herro only played 54, and Jimmy Buckets’ running mate Bam Adebayo missed 18 games. The team never got on track.

GMs around the league believe Miami is primed for a resurgance

Each year, a host of sites publish a preseason GM survey. Decision-makers around the league get their chance to anonymously vote on MVP and Rookie of the Year candidates, title favorites, the best players at each position, etc.

The Heat stood out in two different categories on this year’s survey: Miami was the No. 1 answer to the “Which team made the best overall moves this offseason?” question, garnering nearly half the votes; and No. 1 in the “Which one player acquisition will make the biggest impact?” question with the team’s signing of point guard Kyle Lowry.

Lowry brings another element of toughness to the team and will fit snugly within the Heat Culture. He and Butler, along with Adebayo, are gritty two-way players who are capable of making winning plays in the final minutes of crucial games.

Butler also fell inside either the top five or also-receiving-votes categories in best defensive player, best perimeter defender, and most versatile defender.

Miami’s sleeper status is essentially summed up in one single category, though — the league’s GMs picked the Heat to finish third in the East behind only Milwaukee and Brooklyn.

The Heat have the pieces to make another deep playoff run

Miami’s five-time all-star shooting guard was also named one of the best leaders in the NBA. Lowry carries similar weight in the locker room. Adebayo, when healthy, showed growth for third consecutive season.

Health is a major factor in what head coach Erik Spoelstra’s team can do this year. (He was voted as the league’s best head coach). That’s always the case for any team, but the toll injuries took on the Heat last year was their biggest issue.

Butler showed he can still play at a high level. Lowry is on the downside of his career, but he’s been productive in Toronto and is only three years removed from helping lead the Raptors to a championship. Role players like Herro and Robinson will be important.

Miami has all the ingredients needed to bake another finals run. With the praise the team got in this year’s GM survey, apparently powerful people around the league agree.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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