How close did the Miami Heat just come to winning the NBA championship? Relatively close, by definition. They played in the last game of the season, after all. Once you've reached the Finals, regardless of what happens there, you've come closer to winning it all than 28 other teams.
But how close are the Miami Heat to winning a championship? That's a more complicated question, and an important distinction. Nothing about Miami's profile screams "likely champion" next season. After all, they were outscored in the regular season, and the Chicago Bulls had them dead to rights to in the fourth quarter of the second play-in game. Were it not for the untimely injury of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Miami might not have escaped the first round. Were it not for some historic 3-point shooting variance, they almost certainly wouldn't have made it past the Celtics.
There's no shame in winning with a bit of good luck. Every champion needs a bit of it. But that doesn't make it sustainable. The Heat can't expect Antetokounmpo to get hurt again should they meet the Bucks next season. They can't rely on outlier shooting to save them against Boston, either. The reality facing the Heat right now is that they just saw what a real championship team looks like across five games with Denver and, without the circumstantial help they got against the Celtics and Bucks, they were severely outclassed.
That's already a sobering reality check for the Heat, and it doesn't even capture just how much harder things are about to get. Their best player will turn 34 this offseason. Their longtime culture-setter is retiring. They just made the Finals in part because of the defensive improvement that arose out of the absence of their $120 million shooting guard. Several of the players who helped get them to the Finals are due hefty paydays that might come elsewhere.
While the Heat have spent on winners before, they aren't exactly known for their largesse. This is an organization that has paid the tax just twice since losing LeBron James. Assuming Victor Oladipo picks up his player-option, the Heat are already more than $11 million above next season's projected luxury tax line with only nine players under contract. Not among those players? Postseason starters Gabe Vincent and Max Strus, who are both likely to earn hefty long-term deals over the summer. Maybe Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry raised their stock enough to be credibly cap-dumped this offseason, but there's no obvious scenario in which the Heat can afford to keep this team together, and even this team wasn't good enough to compete with the Nuggets.
That would suit some teams just fine, but the Heat aren't known for resting on their laurels. If they're going to go deep into the tax anyway, they might as well make the most of it. Miami goes big-game hunting just about every offseason. The Heat missed on Donovan Mitchell and Kevin Durant last offseason. Might they do better this time around?
It's hard to say. Their all-in trade package, built around Tyler Herro and three unprotected first-round picks, falls a bit short of the price most true superstars have cost on the trade market in recent years, and neither Lowry nor Robinson hold much appeal as salary filler. Miami's track record of turning undrafted free agents into playable reserves is sterling, but that won't help the Heat on the trade market since almost everyone they've developed over the past few seasons will earn market-value money next year. Including Bam Adebayo changes the equation, but the Heat have never shown any interest in doing so.
The absolute top of the market, for now, is probably unrealistic for Miami. As much interest as Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid might have in a reunion, the 76ers would get half-a-dozen superior offers if they ever chose to put Embiid on the open market. Is the same true of Damian Lillard? Probably not, just given his age and the league-wide point guard surplus, and Lillard might've done the Heat a favor by naming them as if he ever did seek a move. For now, though, Lillard has said that he expects to start next season in Portland. If a trade ever came, Portland would take his wishes into account... but wouldn't turn down an obviously superior deal if one presented itself.
Bradley Beal might be a more attainable consolation prize. Rival executives reportedly expect the Wizards to rebuild, an approach they'd avoided entirely prior to the hiring of new president Michael Winger, yet Beal doesn't hold quite the same value as some of his contemporaries. He's locked into a four-year max deal with a no-trade clause that will allow him to control his destination if he's moved, and even if he didn't have that control, his recent injury history would certainly frighten some teams.
The Heat historically haven't been one of them, as they will comfortably hold players out for regular-season stretches if it means a healthy spring. Beal provides the secondary shot-creation Miami has sorely lacked over the last several seasons, but he hardly fits their defensive culture. The Heat have gotten by with worse defenders in the past. Erik Spoelstra has a way bringing the best defensively out of almost anyone.
Of course, Beal wouldn't come cheap. Even if the Heat could match his salary with, say, Herro and Lowry, they'd still have to face the possibility of losing Strus and/or Vincent to free agency. Their best-case scenario involves compromised depth. Maybe they can overcome such a loss. No team in the NBA is better-equipped to do so based on track record alone. But betting on G-Leaguers and rookies is hardly reliable.
If this postseason proved anything, it's that the Heat can never really be ruled out of making a deep playoff run. They just came three games away from the championship, after all. But there isn't a clear path back to this spot, much less beyond it, for a Heat team that will have to spend an offseason grappling with the limitations of age, health and dollars on a roster that was flawed to begin to with. They have a long way to go if they plan to close the three-game gap between themselves and the Larry O'Brien Trophy.