Time for significant changes: Here’s exactly what Heat must do now | Opinion

The sample size is now large enough, the body of evidence so overwhelming, that the highest levels of the Heat’s brain trust now must privately acknowledge what was painfully evident to many of their fans 10 months ago:

This nucleus — with an aging Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo continuing to be your top two players (as opposed to your second- and third-best players) — isn’t good enough to win a title, certainly not in an era when championship teams have big-time superstar scorers.

Heat president Pat Riley never made that admission Monday; in fact, he pushed back and said that a great team can still have Butler as its best player.

But there’s no evidence to support that. Consider that the Heat lost 12 of its final 13 home games against talent-rich teams. A home win against a Knicks team missing OG Anunoby and Julius Randle was the one victory in that stretch.

What’s more, Miami closed by losing 12 consecutive home games to teams with sure-fire Hall of Famer players in uniform. Eight of those 12 losses were by a margin of 12 or more. That’s not a blip. That’s proof that your roster — healthy or unhealthy — can’t measure up.

Change is needed. There simply cannot be a Year 6 of this core, this root-canal offense, this stale product, this environment when the Heat can’t even go a week without losing a player to an injury or injury management.

But agreeing on that seems to be the easy part.

Here’s where it becomes tricky at this crossroads moment for the franchise:

Let’s start with these four uncomfortable questions:

Should Butler be on the table in trade talks?

By pointing out that Butler was essentially warned a year ago about missing too many games, and by saying Butler should keep his mouth shut when it comes to trolling other teams when he’s injured, it was almost as if Riley was seeing if he could needle Butler into asking for a trade.

Riley also said the Heat doesn’t want to trade him, but then added the qualifier “not right now.”

Here, in our view, is how the offseason should go:

1). Determine if a package not involving Butler or Adebayo can net an All-Star player in return. This could take a few months to play out, with Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell likely to be a target and perhaps a few other All-Stars potentially asking out.

I’m skeptical if a package built around Tyler Herro and Nikola Jovic and/or Jaime Jaquez Jr. and a first-round pick would be enough to land Mitchell. We’ll see. But this is the course that Miami first must exhaust.

2). If it’s clear that the answer to Question 1 is no, determine what Butler could extract in a trade and seriously consider it.

Take the step from “seriously considering it” to “aggressively pursuing it” if he makes clear that he would become a malcontent if not given the contract extension and create the type of chaos he stirred up in Minnesota before the Wolves traded him to Philadelphia in 2019.

If neither option 1 nor 2 leads to any sort of substantive roster change, then consider a significant lateral move — late in the summer — because there’s a corrosive effect to staleness and stagnation. The worst thing the Heat could do is come back with this cast for a sixth season and expect different results.

The view here is that a Butler extension for 2026-27 — but not quite at the max — is prudent only if the Heat can acquire another star to play alongside Butler and Adebayo. Then you can justify it by saying “this is our core for three years, for better or worse.”

But if Herro and the Heat’s other assets cannot snag that type of player, giving Butler $58 million in 2026-27 — when he’s 37 — seems foolhardy when your core won’t be good enough to compete for a title.

What’s clear is that the Heat has extracted everything it can from a roster featuring Butler as its best player.

Now let’s be clear: Butler’s time here has been a rousing success, with two Finals appearances and three deep playoff runs. He deserves everyone’s admiration and respect and a jersey retirement, if not a statue by a Kaseya Center parking garage.

But he shouldn’t be untouchable, not after a clear offensive decline, not after indications that the tire tread has begun to wear thin.

There’s also this element to it: Is there anything Riley or coach Erik Spoelstra can do to make Butler play more games, especially if the organization gives him an extension? Very likely not. Butler has suited up for only 52 to 64 regular-season games in all five of his seasons with the Heat.

Butler, 34, isn’t going to suddenly become more durable or productive as he moves into his mid-30s.

What if Riley, who wants to win every year, and an ownership group that loathes rebuilding is offered a package for Butler that would make the team less competitive next season but better positioned for the future?

The Heat fundamentally disagrees with the idea of trading top players for draft picks and rebuilding over multiple seasons. Heat officials have studied this approach and they’re convinced it usually doesn’t work.

So barring a stunning change of heart, that’s not going to be the direction the Heat takes, even if Butler asks for a trade.

But should it be? No, because if the Heat misses the playoffs next season, it would owe unprotected future picks to Oklahoma City in 2026 and Charlotte in 2028, as we explained here.

The view here is that taking a step back to try to take a step forward in 2025-26 should be considered only in one very specific circumstance: If the Heat:

1). Determines in trade talks that its assets, including Herro and other young players, cannot deliver an All-Star player in return and if

2). By far the best trade offer received for Butler is a package of first-round draft picks and a good young player who’s simply not as good as Butler, and if Butler makes clear that he will be a malcontent if not traded. (And Butler has given no such indication of that.)

If the Heat finds that it doesn’t have the non-Butler, non-Adebayo assets to dramatically improve its team, then trading Butler for first-round picks and a pretty good young player should be considered only if Miami isn’t offered a talented veteran player in return, such as the Knicks’ Julius Randle or the Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram.

But such a move would be risky because of the lifting of future first-round protections.

Should the Heat continue to automatically say no whenever a team asks for Adebayo?

Miami lost any chance to acquire Kevin Durant, Mitchell and Damian Lillard when it rejected overtures for Adebayo. In each case, the Heat’s decision seemed justified.

But are there players beyond, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, and Anthony Edwards (who aren’t going anywhere), that should compel the Heat to put Adebayo in play?

If there are, it’s a very short list.

The view here is that Adebayo is a keeper, the player the Heat should most want to build around. (And I believe the Heat feels that way.)

But here’s the reason Miami cannot automatically say no on Adebayo without at least listening: Their two other best players — Butler and Herro — likely won’t extract better players in return. Adebayo might, as the fulcrum of a trade package. Be very reluctant to trade him. But nobody should be untouchable, either.

What if a talented, 50 cents on the dollar asset again becomes available that would take the Heat even deeper into the luxury tax?

Only Micky Arison and Nick Arison can make that call, and it’s easy to spend someone else’s money.

But let’s consider one alternate path that was available last summer:

Acquiring Kristaps Porzingis before Boston could.

That three-team trade sent Marcus Smart to Memphis, and Smart had more value than anyone Miami would have offered.

But this is important: Remember that Washington received only fairly modest returns in that three-team deal: Tyus Jones, Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala, in addition to the draft rights to Boston’s 35th overall pick in last June’s draft.

Miami likely could have made a more appealing offer to Washington. Porzingis is due $29.2 million and $30.7 million the next two seasons.

That trade likely would have sent the Heat’s luxury tax payroll to even higher levels next season, but it would have left the Heat with Butler, Porzingis, Adebayo, and possibly Herro. You would feel much better about that team than the one you have now.

The Heat says it didn’t pursue Bradley Beal because it didn’t want to be hamstrung by his no-trade clause. That ultimately was a smart decision; Beal — who came to Phoenix with four years and $207 million still due him — was limited to 53 games by injury, though he averaged 18.2 points and shot 43 percent on threes.

The Heat is willing to pay a luxury tax; it’s paying $15.6 million in taxes this season and is on track to pay a tax next season.

The question is whether the Heat would be willing to pay tens of millions in annual taxes, considering the punitive competitive elements for teams with particularly high payrolls.

If another Beal or Porzingis type — with big talent but an onerous contract — becomes available this summer at a modest trade price, the Heat must decide just how much money it’s willing to lose on luxury taxes. If it’s a good player without significant injury history, the view here is to jump on it, because counting on a Herro-centric package to land an All-Star seems wishful thinking, even though the attempts must be made.