Miami Heat

Some NBA stars once again want to play for the Heat. Why NBA people aren’t surprised

Pat Riley, in a glass-half-full pitch on the team website four months ago, said the Heat remains a “destination place” for top players.

Fans essentially had to take the Riley’s word for that in recent years before the Heat, after a few lean years in the star market, finally got affirmation of that last week, when Jimmy Butler chose Miami over teams seemingly better equipped to win now and Russell Westbrook reportedly conveyed that Miami is a team that interests him if the teams can work out a trade.

And that ability to attract stars — even if Butler isn’t a transcendent one — is important.

At the very least, it was a reassuring reminder of the Heat’s attractiveness to neon names after a four-year drought in the star acquisition market, with Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward bypassing the Heat in free agency in 2016 and 2017 and Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis excluded Miami from their list of preferred destinations.

“If you’ve got Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook on your team, AmericanAirlines Arena will be exciting again,” NBA TV analyst and former NBA coach Sam Mitchell said. “And it puts you back in the conversation.”

But even before Butler’s decision, several prominent and former NBA players insisted in recent months that Miami remains among the league’s most attractive destinations.

Warriors guard Steph Curry maintained, this past spring, that the Heat is still an appealing spot and indicated, with a dollop of whimsy, they can get “everybody except anybody on our team.”

Former All-Star Kevin Garnett said even beyond the appeal of living in South Florida, the Heat will always remain attractive under the stewardship of owner Micky Arison, Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra.

“Micky Arison is a winner; Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are winners,” Garnett said by phone. “It’s still a desirable spot. It’s still South Beach. It’s still a GOAT [greatest of all time] city. They can recreate the wheel. Pat Riley has a formula. It works. Players trust their system.

“Every team has to be through a cycle of refurbishment and replenishment,” Garnett said. “When you feed a city like Miami with success like they’ve had, they get greedy like fans in Boston and L.A.”

Former Heat forward Caron Butler added: “As long as Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are there, it’s always going to have that reputation [of being a destination team].

“Think about it: Pat Riley went to Cleveland, him and Erik Spoelstra, and they closed that meeting with LeBron James and they brought him to South Beach. So I think that having [Riley] there and knowing that it’s only a handful of organizations that can win championships [will always help them lure stars]. Especially in this era, you’re talking about Miami, you’re talking about San Antonio, you’re talking about the Celtics, obviously the Golden State Warriors, the Dallas Mavericks.”

But when the Heat pursued James and Chris Bosh, it already had another star in his prime in Dwyane Wade, and a star who had a friendship with James.

The Heat hopes Butler will make it far easier to attract another star, and Westbrook’s interest in the Heat is a good first step if a trade can be consummated.

Curry, asked this past spring about whether a team needs one star to attract another, said: “I don’t know. The [Heat] have a certain style based on their personnel. They try to play a high level every night and do it by committee. You kind of know what you’re going to get when you play against them. The thing they hang their hat on is playing hard and tough.”

The Heat now hopes that Butler, several improving young players, the franchise’s strong reputation, its history of winning under Arison and Riley and Spoelstra and the lure of great winter weather and no state income tax — combined with 2021 cap space — will get Miami back on a winning streak of snagging stars, with Westbrook potentially the biggest one since the Big 3 era.

“The stage is there,” former Spurs All-Star David Robinson said. “It’s just putting together a team that can be compelling. That was a very compelling team back in the day. They’ve got a great platform. Miami is an unbelievable place. If they get some excitement there, it will blow up” again.

And make no mistake: Miami “is a premium destination for free agents, a glamour destination,” said NBA TV analyst and former Portland and Memphis assistant general manager Tom Penn. “Their lifeline can always be free agency.”

Here’s a Wednesday update on the Westbrook trade talks, including one issue that must be navigated.

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