Are the Miami Heat Contenders or Pretenders?

Jan 8, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; After Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) is called for an offensive foul then Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren (1) reacts by clapping back which resulted in a second technical foul and ejected from the game during the third quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are one of the surprise stories in the NBA this season. Most experts pegged the Heat to be a playoff team but in the lower half of the East bracket. Many saw Miami’s ceiling as the No. 5 or No. 6 seed, and some even thought they’d struggle to make the playoffs.

At 27-11, the fact that the Heat sit near the top of the league has shocked many across the league. Miami currently holds the No. 2 seed in the East and the third-best record in all of the NBA.

Miami has made its way to the top of the standings thanks to dominant performances at home. At 17-1, the team sports the league’s best home record. They’ve been average on the road (10-10) but nearly unbeatable in American Airlines Arena. Miami’s only home loss came at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, and that three-point game ended with several mistakes by the officials. Calls that should have been made in the Heat’s favor were not, and the NBA admitted this in their two-minute report following the contest.

The Heat have some big-time wins this season, including being one of two teams to defeat the Bucks in Milwaukee. They also have road victories over the other Eastern Conference powers in Philadelphia, Toronto, and Indiana. Miami defeated the Mavericks in Dallas and dominated James Harden and the Rockets in Miami, winning that game by a whopping 29 points.

At 7-3 in their last 10 games, the Heat have positioned themselves above the teams most thought would be better than them, specifically Philadelphia, Boston, and Toronto.

Miami has yet to lose back-to-back games this season, posting a 10-0 record in those contests. The only other team in the league that can say they’re undefeated following a loss is Milwaukee, who sit at 6-0.

But the question of whether or not the Miami Heat are a contender or pretender is still a legitimate one.

The Heat’s vaunted defense has slipped since the beginning of the season. Currently, their 107.7 defensive rating is 11th-best in the league. Miami’s offensive rating (110.5) is 10th-best. Their Net Rating (3.5) is also 10th-best. But they have the league’s third-best record. This may lead some to expect a regression in terms of record.

The Heat are among the best this season at shooting the ball. They have the top True Shooting percentage in the league (58.4 percent), are second in three-point shooting percentage (37.6) and third in Effective Field Goal percentage (54.5). They also share the ball well, posting a 63.6 assist percentage (fifth-best).

In the clutch, Miami sports the NBA’s fourth-highest win percentage (.733) and are 11-4. “Clutch” is defined by the league as games in which the point differential is five points or less in the final five minutes. The Heat also boast the league’s best record in overtime at 6-0.

All of these numbers come together to clearly show the Miami Heat are far better than what most prognosticators thought they would be. Las Vegas pinned the Heat’s over/under win total at 43, but they are currently on a 56-win pace.

Bam Adebayo is likely an All-Star and will be seriously considered for the Most Improved Player award. Head coach Erik Spoelstra should be in the Coach of the Year conversation. Jimmy Butler is a dark-horse MVP candidate.

While these numbers are great, it’s hard to fathom the Heat making a run at the NBA Finals. They could be an Eastern Conference Finals team if the bracket breaks in their favor, but it’s hard to see Miami defeating the Bucks in a seven-game series.

To be vaulted into that true contender space, the Heat may need to make a trade. They have a number of assets, but they might not want to part with them considering their prime 2021 offseason cap situation. Miami has expiring contracts in Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard and Derrick Jones, Jr., but each one of those players are significant rotation pieces.

The team could dangle Justise Winslow in a trade, but recent injury concerns might limit his value.

That said, the Heat are a force in the East, but they probably don’t have the personnel to challenge Milwaukee. Yet.

And, who knows? One injury to the Bucks (or Celtics, or more injuries for the 76ers) could clear the path for Miami’s return to the NBA Finals.

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