How The Heat’s Sustained Success Challenges the Idea of NBA Parity
Megan Briggs/Getty Images. Pictured: Miami Heat players huddle prior to Game 4 of the 2023 NBA Finals.
The idea that parity ruled the NBA was a topic that kept building throughout the entire season, and the playoffs ended with a No. 8 seed coming close to winning it all for just the second time in league history.
Does this Miami Heat run suddenly mean that there are other outlier teams that can struggle during the regular season, then turn it on in the playoffs despite being overlooked and bet against at every turn?
Maybe … maybe! But they'll have to prove it.
The case for parity is that the league is as balanced, as flawed, and as unpredictable as it's been since the end of the Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers era of NBA Finals matchups from 2015 to 2018.
The superteam model appears dead for now, and we haven't had back-to-back NBA Champions or even finalists in over a half-decade.
If you look around the league today, contenders generally have two stars supplemented by quality role players — no one has had three stars since the Brooklyn Nets of 2020-21 with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. And sure, maybe they would've won the championship if Durant's foot wasn't on the line, but they didn't, and it somehow feels right when armed with hindsight.
Here's the problem with projecting Heat-like runs from other organizations in the name of parity going forward: Those other organizations aren't the Heat.
The Jimmy Butler jokes are funny today, but no team in the NBA has more playoff wins since he joined the Heat in the summer of 2019, according to Basketball reference, and no other team has made two NBA Finals appearances over that four-season span either.
Most Wins in the NBA Playoffs — Last Four Seasons
Think back to that summer when the Nets allegedly won the off-season by adding Durant, Irving and … DeAndre Jordan. The same summer, the Los Angeles Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George together.
Those two 2019 off-season winners? They have 18 wins (Clippers), and seven wins (Nets) in the playoffs — they've been swept in the first round three times collectively. In fact, the Nets have the same amount of playoff wins over that span as the New YorkKnicks, who added Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris that same summer.
The Heat have been to the finals as a No. 5 seed and a No. 8 seed, neither time as overwhelming favorites, and the 2021-22 team that finished No. 1 in the Eastern Conference was famously one missed shot away from making the Finals. Despite that, they've only been higher than a No. 5 seed one time in the past four seasons. There's probably never been another historical four-year stretch like this.
The No. 5 and No. 8 Heat seeds that went to the NBA Finals are the only teams below a No. 4 seed to get to the championship round in more than 20 years, and are two of only five teams that ever did it. The other three are the 1998-99 New York Knicks, the 1994-95 Houston Rockets and the 1980-81 Rockets. The '95 Rockets are the only title winners in that group.
Of course, another run can happen.
The Atlanta Hawks reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, but even in the moment, it felt like a fluke.
Now, we know it was.
None of the conference finalists from the Bubble made it past the first round of the subsequent 2021 playoffs except for the Denver Nuggets, who were swept in Round 2. They all broke down. There were an uncharacteristic amount of injuries ahead of and during those playoffs, including ones to Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown, Anthony Davis, Leonard, Harden, Irving, Mike Conley, and other key players on contending teams. (Chris Paul also got COVID in the playoffs, because that's just his luck.)
The Hawks also took advantage of the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, an annual tradition in the Eastern Conference for five of the past six seasons, and Atlanta hasn't sniffed anything close to even a Round 1 win since.
To bend parity in your favor, it isn't as simple as getting hot at the right time, though that certainly helps. But the success of the Butler era of Miami basketball is evidence enough that the Heat have certain things that translate to winning basketball that other organizations lack. As dispirited as their team seemed throughout this past regular season, and even in the Play-In Tournament, they proved their mettle when it mattered most.
They have a long-tenured head coach in Erik Spoelstra — all but four current NBA coaches have been with their respective teams for four or fewer seasons, and two of the four, Michael Malone and Steve Kerr, are at the helm of the past two NBA champions.
The Heat have continuity, as most of the other teams have at the top of their respective rosters, organization and or coaching staff.
They have a deep understanding of what it takes to win around the margins, correctly identifying who fits their — fine, I'll say it — culture, and excelling in player development like few of their peers (see: Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin and Max Strus).
They've acquired rejuvenated veterans who were in Miami for a good time but not a long time and helped them do some of this winning along the way, like Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, PJ Tucker and now Kevin Love.
And every team that we consider a contender has two stars. For Miami, the second star is Bam Adebayo. He was their best player in the NBA Finals, has been All-Defense in every season he's been an NBA starter, and is the only player in the NBA to have been top-five in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the last four seasons.
Coincidentally, the league-high playoff wins and multiple NBA Finals trips in the 2020s also coincide not only with Butler's arrival, but Adebayo's emergence from being a talented project to the 2019-20 runner-up for Most Improved Player — and he has evolved every season since.
The Heat's sustainable playoff success is more of a testament to their organization than simply parity, but excelling in these areas does create the foundation for a team to overachieve after the regular season has concluded.
Look around the Eastern Conference in regards to sustainability:
- The Bucks won the title in 2012, but they've otherwise had one conference final appearance since 2001.
- The 76ers haven't reached a conference final or NBA Finals since 2001.
- The Hawks have two conference finals appearances in over 50 years.
- The Knicks have one conference finals this century — the year 2000.
- The Cavaliers just made their first playoff appearance without LeBron James since 1998.
- The Raptors have one NBA title and one other conference finals appearance in their history.
- The Nets haven't been to the conference finals since 2003.
- The Bulls have one conference finals appearance since Michael Jordan left.
- The Pacers haven't been to the conference finals since 2014.
The Celtics are the Heat's only true Eastern Conference peer this century in terms of sustained competitiveness. They have one title, three finals appearances and nine conference finals appearances since the 2001-02 season.
The Heat have nine conference finals appearances and seven NBA Finals appearances and three titles in the last 19 years going back to the 2004-05 season.
The Heat haven't yet won a title in the Butler and Adebayo era, but no one has done more winning in the last four years.
It's not true parity if your organization does it over and over again.