The Godfather's Master Plan
Coming into the 2019-2020 NBA Season, the conversation around the top teams in the Eastern Conference centered on the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Boston Celtics.
But it's the Miami Heat who have shocked the world and made a run to the NBA's biggest stage to face one of their own former champions and all-time greats.
The Heat will face the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James, six years after his departure from the franchise where he won his first two championships.
And when The King left, one member of the Heat in particular turned cold: Pat Riley.
"I was silent," Riley said as detailed in a profile for ESPN The Magazine by Wright Thompson in 2017. "I didn't say anything. My mind began to just go. And it was over. I was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was.
"I had a very good friend who talked me off the ledge and kept me from going out there and saying something like Dan Gilbert. I'm glad I didn't do it."
These comments came two years after he sat down with Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick and made it clear that James turned down the opportunity to build something truly special in Miami:
"What he had here [in Miami], and what he had developed here, and what he could have developed over the next five or six years here, with the same team, could have been historic."
Instead, Riley, Spoelstra, and the Heat franchise were forced to start from scratch – kind of.
The thing is, there was no tank job in Miami, no bottoming out in hopes of getting lucky on a No. 1 pick who might or might not have panned out. Instead, the Heat took a different approach.
As the years have passed, Riley has once again rebuilt the Heat franchise into contenders by trying to put together the best team he could every single season. And he now has a chance to prove not only himself right, but James wrong.
Here is how Riley got the Heat back to this point.
In the first season following James' departure, Miami missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-2008 season.
Dwyane Wade would only play in 62 of 82 possible games, while All-Star forward Chris Bosh would miss the final 30 games of the season due to blood clots.
In addition, the team only returned five guys who were contributors during the Heat's championship runs in 2012 and 2013 in Wade, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, and Udonis Haslem.
As a result, their offensive and defensive ratings both fell to 21st in the NBA, the bottom third of the league.
They would finish the season 37-45, but the seeds of a rebirth were planted. First, the Heat traded for Goran Dragic from the Phoenix Suns during the season.
And with the 10th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Miami Heat would select Justise Winslow from Duke University – a promising young player whose potential would give the Heat a chance to snag a battle-tested veteran down the line.
Despite Bosh missing time once again due to a blood clot in his left leg, the Heat not only returned to the playoffs in the 2015-2016 season, they made a leap from 10th place to third with a 48-34 record, reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals before falling to the Toronto Raptors.
The big breakout star of the season was Hassan Whiteside, who averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks and helped return the Heat to elite status on the defensive end with a 105.3 rating.
Whiteside is no longer in Miami, as his contract played a pivotal role in the Heat bringing on both Meyers Leonard and Jimmy Butler. But we'll get there.
The 2016-2017 season officially marked the end of the "Big 3" era in Miami.
With James gone for two seasons now, and Bosh forced to retire due to the aforementioned blood clots, the Heat were already down two-thirds of the trio. But the final blow was dealt with Dwyane Wade leaving for the Chicago Bulls during the offseason.
With his departure, the Heat would miss the playoffs, missing out on the final spot to Wade and the Bulls, though both had identical 41-41 records.
That stroke of bad fortune would turn out to be a blessing, however. For the second time in three seasons, the Heat found themselves in the lottery – and selected Bam Adebayo with the 14th pick.
As the pieces came together, 2018 showed what the new-look Heat were capable of.
Miami would once again return to the NBA playoffs, finishing 44-38 on the backs of an All-Star campaign from Dragic.
He would average 17.3 points and 4.8 assists to keep an otherwise paltry offense afloat in Miami. The Heat ranked 22nd in offensive rating with a 107.6 rating, but were dominant defensively with a 107.1 rating (good for eighth in the league).
Dwyane Wade also made his return to Miami this season, and even provided some postseason magic in the first round against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Ultimately the Heat would fall to the Sixers in five games, garnering valuable playoff experience along the way.
Last season was a step back for Miami, which made this year's run all the more surprising – at least on the surface. Dig a little deeper, though, and one sees the outline of a championship contender beginning to take shape.
Adebayo would build off of a rough rookie season to average 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds, but with Dragic being limited to only 36 games played, the Heat's pattern of alternating playoff berths with lottery appearances continued. And once again, the ping pong balls would bounce in Miami's favor.
Though this season ended in disappointment, it would lay the foundation for the 2019 offseason which helped shape the current Heat roster, even as Wade said goodbye to Miami and the NBA.
What a difference a summer can make.
During the 2019 offseason the Heat would sign Jimmy Butler to a four-year, $140 million deal after trading Whiteside to Portland, while also drafting Tyler Herro with the 13th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Butler and Adebayo would both go on to make the 2020 All-Star Game, making the Heat one of five teams to have multiple players make the All-Star game.
The team would also trade former lottery pick Justise Winslow to the Memphis Grizzlies at the deadline to acquire current starting forward Jae Crowder and veteran reserve forward Andre Igoudala.
These four players along with undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn, undrafted second year guard Duncan Robinson, and the veteran Dragic helped form the core of a Heat team that finished fifth in the Eatern Conference standings and now find themselves in the NBA Finals.
The Heat are also the first team since the 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers to make the Finals a year after missing the playoffs.
It wasn't a long road back to NBA prominence for the Heat, and Riley was able to return to the top of the NBA's hierarchy without having to tank or completely bottom out.
Just as The Godfather intended.