The Miami Heat became an established NBA franchise ahead of the 1988-89 season and over this span, they've become one of the league's most successful organizations. They have not one, not two, but three championships and the Heat are just one of two teams to have won a title after joining the league in 1980. The other team is the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks led by soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Dirk Nowitzki.
Across their history, the Heat have found an enormous amount of success. They quickly turned themselves into a contender over their first decade and looking at them today, Miami remains in the championship fold. In honor of some of those teams, we're looking back on the 10 greatest seasons in franchise history, starting with one of the organization's most recent seasons.
Miami has made 10 total Eastern Conference Finals appearances in their 35-year history, so choosing what teams made the list wasn't too hard. However, choosing what order to put them in was a bit more of a challenge. In the end, the 2021-22 squad ranks as the weakest team among this elite group.
That's not to say that this year's group was bad, as this team had a lot of potential. They finished with a record of 53-29, the best in the Eastern Conference and tied for third-best in the NBA. Defeating the Atlanta Hawks in five games and the Philadelphia 76ers in six in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Heat ultimately fell in Game 7 of the conference finals to the Boston Celtics.
This Heat team, as well as a couple others later on, were successful in large part thanks to one man – Jimmy Butler.
Butler had a solid regular season with an average of 21.4 points per game, but he was an absolute animal in the playoffs, averaging 27.8 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting from the floor. Other key players on this roster included All-Defensive Second Team selection Bam Adebayo and 2021-22 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Herro. The Heat finished 10th in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating this during the regular season.
It may seem hard to believe, but it actually took Miami a while to get off the ground when they first joined the NBA. In the Heat's first seven seasons of existence, they made the playoffs just three times and they lost in the first-round as a No. 8 seed each time.
However, that fortune began to turn when 1996 rolled around.
This was the first, truly great team in Heat history and it was Pat Riley's second season as the head coach. Miami finished second in the East and third overall in the league with a 61-21 record. They strung together a pair of gutsy victories in the playoffs, defeating the Orlando Magic in five games (back when the first round was best-of-five series) and the New York Knicks in seven. Ultimately, the Heat were no match for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, losing the in five games with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
When discussing this Heat team, two star players come to mind. First is Tim Hardaway Sr., who averaged 20.3 points per game in the regular season and 18.7 points per game in the playoffs. The second is Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, who averaged a double-double in the playoffs with 17.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Miami also took home some hardware, with Isaac Austin winning Most Improved Player and Riley winning the league's Coach of the Year honors.
Defense was this team's calling card, as they finished the year ranking first in the league in defensive rating.
The 2004-05 Heat had a slightly worse record than their 1996-97 counterparts at 59-23 overall, but they were still the best in the East and tied for having the second-best record in the NBA overall. In the postseason, Miami bulldozed their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs with sweeps over the New Jersey Nets, now the Brooklyn Nets, and the Washington Wizards. They fell just short of reaching the Finals again, this time against the Detroit Pistons in what turned out to be a hard-fought seven-game series.
Dwyane Wade's ascension to superstardom really began during this year, as he averaged 24.1 points per game in the regular season and 27.4 point per game in the playoffs. Shaquille O'Neal was also exceptional in his first season with the Heat, averaging a double-double in the playoffs. Eddie Jones, Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem were key complementary pieces, each averaging double-digit scoring numbers.
Miami finished fifth in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating, the only team to rank inside the Top 6 in both categories during the regular season.
We now come to the teams that made it all the way to the NBA Finals, yet they couldn't quite finish the job. There are four teams in this category and of them, the most recent Heat team is easily the weakest. However, that doesn't take away from what they accomplished in the postseason.
Miami finished this season with a pedestrian 44-38 record, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference standings. The Heat even fell to the 8-seed and nearly missed the playoffs entirely in the Play-In Tournament.
This team did not quit though when facing adversity and they ended up beating the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in five games, followed by the Knicks in six. They then took a 3-0 lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals before dropping three straight to Boston. Jimmy Butler and Co. ultimately won this series, but were unable to handle the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals.
Butler was the driving force for this team once again, averaging 22.9 points per game in the regular season and 26.9 points per game in the playoffs. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro averaged over 20 points per game in the regular season as well, with other unsung heroes like Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent coming up huge in the playoffs.
The Heat finished the year ninth in defensive rating, but they were a bottom-tier offensive team with a an offensive rating that ranked 25th in the league.
Going back a few years, this Heat team has a lot in common with the one we just discussed, as they were not quite as much of an underdog after finishing fifth in the conference with a 44-29 record. Like their future counterparts, though, the 2019-20 Heat rolled their way through the playoffs as a lower seed.
In the fever dream that was the NBA Bubble, Miami swept the Indiana Pacers, they beat the Bucks in five games and then took down the Celtics in six games to make a surprise trip to the NBA Finals. There, the Heat ultimately met their match against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
In his first season with Miami, Butler asserted himself as a playoff star by averaging 22.2 points per game in the postseason, stringing together some monster performances. His supporting cast included the usual suspects in Adebayo and Herro, as well as former All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, veteram forward Jae Crowder and sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, all of which averaged double-digit points in the playoffs.
Unlike other Butler-led Heat teams, this one relied on offense more than defense, finishing seventh in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating.
The Heat's “Big 3” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, may be the best trio the NBA has ever seen. It's not surprising that these teams make up four of the top five on this list. The final year of this era was probably the weakest, but the team was still great regardless.
During this season, the Heat finished the regular season with a 54-28 record, second in the East and tied for fifth overall. In the playoffs, they swept the Charlotte Bobcats, beat the Brooklyn Nets and then took down the Indiana Pacers in six games. However, they lost in a decisive five-game series to the San Antonio Spurs after defeating them the previous year in the NBA Finals.
As usual, James was the clear headliner of the team with an average of 27.4 points per game in the playoffs. Wade and Bosh were still rolling at full strength and Ray Allen, while not the player he once was, still ended up being a solid complementary piece in the final year of his career. Miami finished this season ranking fifth in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating.
While still a great team overall, this Heat team was just the weakest in what turned out to be a legendary stretch.
Now it's time to talk about the first year of the “Big 3,” the year after LeBron and Bosh signed in 2010. The new-look Heat got off to a blazing start in this era, finishing second in the East with a 58-24 record. They then bulldozed their way through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, beating the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls in five games each.
However, they fell in the NBA Finals at the hands of Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in six games. James really struggled to get anything going in this series.
LeBron still had a fantastic first season in Miami, though, averaging 26.7 points per game in the regular season. Wade wasn't far behind at 25.5 points per game, while Bosh recorded 18.7 points per game. Pat Riley also won the NBA's Executive of the Year award after assembling this legendary, All-Star trio. Miami ranked third in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating during the season.
The final three teams on this list are all the teams who won Miami's championships. We're really splitting hairs here, but ultimately, the 2011-12 team comes in at No. 3 overall.
The Heat's second season in the “Big 3” era resulted in a 46-20 record during a lockout-shortened season. The playoffs weren't quite as easy as the year before, as Miami had to overcome a 3-2 deficit against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Even though they struggled, the Heat came back to win Game 7 before they went on to beat Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in a five-game NBA Finals series.
James was superb this year, winning his first of two straight MVPs and he averaged over 30 points per game in the playoffs. Wade averaged over 22 points per game in both the regular season and playoffs. Bosh missed time in the playoffs, but this was another very good year for him overall.
The 2005-06 Heat are the lone team outside the “Big 3” era to make the Top 5, and they certainly earned that distinction. Miami actually took a step back in the regular season from the year before, finishing second in the East with a 52-30 record. When playoff time rolled around, though, the Heat didn't mess around.
They defeated the Bulls in six games, the Nets in five and Pistons in six en route to the NBA Finals. There, they squared off against the Mavericks and won in six games, claiming their first title in franchise history. Notably, this is the only Heat team to never face elimination in the playoffs.
Wade was the undisputed leader of this team, averaging 27.2 points per game in the regular season and 28.4 points per game in the playoffs. Shaq was right beside him with 20.0 points per game in the regular season and 18.8 in the playoffs. Others like Jason Williams and Antonie Walker made for good secondary options as well during the Heat's first championship run.
While all of Miami's championship teams are undoubtedly legendary, the 2012-13 squad stands as undoubtedly the best in franchise history. This team finished with an outstanding record of 66-16, by far the best in the league that year. In fact, their 66 wins are tied for the sixth-most by a team in NBA history.
The Heat got off to a very fast start in the playoffs, sweeping the Bucks and dispatching the Bulls in five games. Things got a bit dicey in the conference finals, but they prevailed in seven games against the Pacers. Finally, they outlasted the Spurs in a seven-game slugfest in the NBA Finals thanks to Ray Allen's iconic game-tying three to force overtime in Game 6, a three-point shot that will forever live on in the minds of Heat fans everywhere.
LeBron was his usual self this season, averaging 26.8 points per game in the regular season and then 25.9 points per game in the playoffs. He ended up winning his second consecutive MVP award this season. Wade, Bosh and Allen were right there with them, each scoring double digits in the regular season and playoffs.
This is the best Heat team ever, as they finished second in the league in offensive rating and ninth in defensive rating during the regular season.