The Miami Heat opened training camp Tuesday morning at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton as the defending Eastern Conference champions.
But after the departures of starters Max Strus and Gabe Vincent in free agency and the failed pursuit of a trade for seven-time All-Star guard Damian Lillard this offseason, the Heat is not the betting favorite to win the East this season. The Heat doesn’t even hold the second- or third-best odds to win the conference.
According to most sports books, the Heat has the fourth-best odds to win the East behind the Boston Celtics (best odds), Milwaukee Bucks (second) and Cleveland Cavaliers (third). That’s because the Celtics added two-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA defender Jrue Holiday and one-time All-Star and top-five pick Kristaps Porzingis through trades, and the Bucks traded for Lillard to add him to a championship-level core that also includes Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, while the Heat’s only outside additions to its 15-man roster this summer came through the draft (Jaime Jaquez Jr.) and minimum contracts in free agency (Josh Richardson and Thomas Bryant),
“You think I pay attention to the internet?” Heat star Jimmy Butler said when asked what it was like to experience an offseason that saw some of the Heat’s prime East rivals get better.
“It didn’t change anything for me because I don’t pay attention to it. If we get [Lillard], we get him. If we don’t, then we’re having this conversation that we’re having here. But when I tell you that I wasn’t paying attention to it, I legitimately wasn’t paying attention to it.”
But Butler’s Heat co-star Bam Adebayo had no choice but to pay attention. Adebayo is close friends with Lillard after the two developed a strong bond while playing together and winning a gold medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021.
Adebayo is one of the biggest reasons Lillard initially requested the Portland Trail Blazers to trade him to Miami and nowhere else before ultimately softening his stance and accepting a move to Milwaukee.
“After the trade, yeah. We talked about it,” Adebayo said of his conversation with Lillard following the trade to the Bucks. “Obviously, he had a different destination in mind. But he has an opportunity to, one, get what he wanted, which was to leave, and, two, win. So I feel like his boxes still got checked.”
One of the most challenging aspects of the entire Lillard saga for all parties was how long it took for the situation to be resolved. Lillard put in his trade request on July 1, and he was dealt to the Bucks last week just days before the start of training camps around the league.
“I would say the frustrating part was not having time to get acclimated,” Adebayo said when asked what frustrated him about the process that led to Lillard joining Milwaukee’s roster. “I feel like that’s the biggest thing. Everybody was on their toes, you go a whole summer until four days before training camp. Guys have families, guys have kids, nobody wants that unexpected call three, four days before camp that they’re going somewhere else. I feel like the biggest thing about it is just thinking about guys’ families. That’s the frustrating part of it, but it’s a business at the end of the day.”
A business that left Butler answering a question on media day Monday about whether he feels like the Heat has done enough to build a championship contender around him.
“Yeah, we straight,” Butler answered. “Like I always say, I know what I’m capable of. I know what my guys are capable of. So we’ll continue to play basketball as a unit, as a team and somehow, some way end up in the Finals.”
No matter what the odds say, Butler’s confidence is earned after leading the Heat to three Eastern Conference finals appearances and two NBA Finals appearances in his first four seasons with the organization.
“It’s always been about a championship for me,” said Butler, who is still looking for his first NBA championship despite his recent postseason success. “It will always be about that, nothing else. And this is our year, this is the one.”
The Heat surprised the NBA world last season, advancing to the playoffs through the play-in tournament and becoming just the second No. 8 seed in league history to advance to the NBA Finals before falling to the Denver Nuggets in the championship series. Even after making the Finals last season, repeating as East champions this season would again be considered a surprise by some.
But the Heat’s two best players, Adebayo and Butler, enter training camp with confidence that Miami will again exceed outside expectations this season.
“It is what it is,” Adebayo said. “The biggest thing for us is keep proving them wrong. Keep going out there with the core we have and doing the things they think we can’t do.”
“This time we’re going to win it and then y’all going to say we got lucky,” Butler added. “So I’m prepared for it.”