The Miami Heat are still wiping egg off their face after the Milwaukee Bucks sideswiped them and traded for Damian Lillard on Wednesday. The seemingly preordained union between Lillard and the Heat never came to be, which means Miami now has to turn its attention elsewhere.
Heat state media are already spinning that the team which finished as the No. 7 seed in the East last season at 44-38, one which lost two key contributors (Gabe Vincent and Max Strus) in free agency, is fine running back the same core that made a surprise run to the NBA Finals. With Tyler Herro back healthy—assuming he didn’t take an entire offseason’s worth of trade rumors personally—perhaps the Heat can once again smoke-and-mirrors their way into another impressive postseason showing.
But team president Pat Riley is likely thinking bigger than that. He’s almost certainly pivoted to the next big possible trade target, which could be Sixers star center Joel Embiid.
For those hoping that the Heat would jump into James Harden trade talks, don’t hold your breath. Anthony Chiang and Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported that the Heat are “not expected to pursue” him in the wake of the Bucks’ deal for Lillard. They also have yet to convey interest in Buddy Hield, according to Chiang and Jackson, even though Shams Charania of The Athletic reported earlier in September that he and the Indiana Pacers had “started a dialogue to work on finding a potential trade with another team.”
Ciang and Jackson reported the Heat “did not begin an immediate aggressive pursuit of a trade” for Jrue Holiday, whom the Portland Trail Blazers acquired from the Bucks in the deal for Lillard, although “it has not been ruled out.” However, Jackson believes “deplorable behavior” by Blazers general manager Joe Cronin “would make further Heat-Blazers discussions seemingly unappealing if not unrealistic.”
The Heat may decide to weather the storm this season and load up for a run at another star in 2024. In that case, Embiid might be the top star in their crosshairs.
Embiid seemed to put the Sixers on notice when he hinted at his openness to playing elsewhere during an interview in mid-July. When Antetokounmpo did that, the Bucks made an all-in move for Lillard less than a month later. The Sixers’ response to Embiid’s comments so far? Keeping a disgruntled James Harden on their roster.
Perhaps the Sixers will jump into Holiday talks as a way to resolve Harden’s lingering trade request. Otherwise, this season might go off the rails before it even begins. Miami is likely hoping for that exact outcome.
Next summer, Embiid will have only two guaranteed seasons remaining on his contract. If his patience in Philadelphia has worn thin, the Sixers will have to choose between making an all-in move or trading him away. Their cap-space plan sounds good in theory, but what happens if they strike out on all of their top targets? Would an Embiid trade request be forthcoming?
To be clear: The Heat would have to include Bam Adebayo in trade talks for the Sixers to even entertain sending Embiid to South Beach. A framework around those two—with Miami sending additional compensation—could actually make sense for all parties.
Butler, who turned 34 in September, is firmly in his win-now window. The same is true for Embiid, who turns 30 in March. But Heat center Bam Adebayo (26) and Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey (23) still have yet to reach their respective primes.
That hasn’t stopped the Heat from reaching two NBA Finals with Adebayo anchoring the middle over the past four years. They were one three-pointer in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals away from a third Finals berth, too. But while Adebayo is one of the best defensive big men in the game, he still needs to develop his offensive repertoire to become a well-rounded threat.
That isn’t the case for Embiid, who has led the league in scoring for each of the past two seasons. Embiid and Butler meshed well when they played together on the Sixers in 2018-19, and Embiid has gotten significantly better since then. They’d be right in the conversation for the NBA’s best duo alongside Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Embiid lacks the defensive versatility of Adebayo—he’s far less mobile and switchable—but he’s a fearsome 7-foot rim protector who’s fresh off winning his first Most Valuable Player award. He’d be an upgrade over Adebayo and would give Miami another offensive hub beyond Butler.
If Embiid wants out and the Sixers have to start over, they’d be hard-pressed to acquire a better player than Adebayo in return. They wouldn’t be able to structure their entire offense around him like they have Embiid, but they could turn the scoring burden over to Maxey and have Adebayo stretch his wings gradually.
The Sixers likely wouldn’t be willing to do a one-on-one swap with Embiid and Adebayo, although it’s unclear how much more—if anything—the Heat would be willing to include. That may depend on how the 2023-24 campaign goes for both teams, but that’s the type of haggling that often sinks trade talks.
Butler’s agent, Bernard Lee, insisted that Butler “has more than enough” in Miami as is. If the Heat spiral in the absence of Vincent and Strus this season, that might change his mind. In that scenario, it wouldn’t be surprising if Butler started dropping ambiguous hints about his future next summer.
Much like the Bucks, Miami would likely spring into action at that point. The Heat are likely hoping that Embiid’s frustration boils over by then, giving them a potential solution to their post-Dame dilemma.