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How the Jimmy Butler trade reversed the fortunes of the Sixers and Heat

At one point, the Sixers appeared to be ahead of the Miami Heat in rebuilding the franchise. Only one team of those teams is in the NBA Finals. What happened?

Jimmy Butler, left, of the Heat drives by Joel Embiid of the Sixers during a game at the Wells Fargo Center last December.
Jimmy Butler, left, of the Heat drives by Joel Embiid of the Sixers during a game at the Wells Fargo Center last December.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Since LeBron James left the Miami Heat after the 2013-14 season, they have had to rebuild their team. Before the season, the 76ers named Brett Brown as the head coach to start the beginning of a long rebuilding process.

The Heat have done a better job with their rebuild, even with some bumps along the way, as this year’s NBA Finals appearance shows.

The Heat’s decision to attempt to field a competitive team each year didn’t always work, but few teams have done better with their resources than Miami. Since 2014-15, both the Heat and the Sixers have made the playoffs three times. In 2017-18, the Sixers' organization appeared far ahead of the Heat. The Sixers beat the Heat in five games in a first-round Eastern Conference series before losing in the second round to Boston.

During the 2018-19 season, the Sixers lost to eventual NBA champion Toronto in seven games of the Eastern Conference semifinals; the Heat missed the playoffs.

Again, the Sixers appeared well ahead of Miami. Then Miami acquired Jimmy Butler from the Sixers in a four-team sign and trade in July of 2019 and the fortunes of both franchises reversed.

Now Miami is in the NBA Finals, and the Sixers are looking to rebound from a first-round playoff sweep against Boston. The Heat and Lakers meet Wednesday in Game 1.

How did the Sixers get here? Miami has scored better in a few essential categories to build a true NBA contender.

» READ MORE: Sixers may regret losing Jimmy Butler for a long time | Off the Dribble

No collaboration

Miami has a proven NBA lifer making the decisions in team president Pat Riley.

Whatever changes the 76ers make moving forward has to begin with this philosophy. The current front-office setup with too many voices hasn’t worked. Even general manager Elton Brand conceded that fact during an Aug. 25 press conference, the day after the firing of coach Brett Brown.

“To be frank, we feel like the collaboration days didn’t work too well,” Brand said.

There is no doubt who makes the decisions in Miami. Riley has great people working for him and he certainly uses those resources, but any decision rests with him.

Draft and trades

Butler, who showed leadership and late-game clutch ability in his brief time with the Sixers, has been the difference-maker in Miami making the NBA Finals and the Sixers being ousted in the first round.

As for other moves, the Heat drafted Justise Winslow No. 10 overall and Josh Richardson No. 40 in 2015. The Heat, known for developing young players, sent the Sixers Richardson in the Butler sign-and-trade deal in July 2019.

In February, Winslow was used in the trade with Memphis that sent Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to Miami. Crowder has become a key rotation player, and Iguodala has brought a winning mentality as he enters his sixth straight NBA final. He also had 15 points and hit all five shots, including four three-point attempts, during Miami’s 125-113 clinching win over Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Heat had no draft selections in 2016 but picked center Bam Adebayo No. 14 overall in 2017. He was an NBA All-Star this year. In the same NBA draft, the Sixers picked Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall.

» READ MORE: Sixers interviewing Doc Rivers for head-coaching job

Miami had no selection in 2018, but then picked Tyler Herro No. 13 overall in 2019. As a rookie, Herro has blossomed in the playoffs. He averaged 19.2 points in the six-game series with Boston. The Heat had all this drafting success without selecting a player in the top nine.

Contrast that with the Sixers, who have had four top-3 picks since 2014. While hitting on Joel Embiid (No. 3 in 2014) and Ben Simmons (No. 1 in 2016), they missed on Jahlil Okafor (No. 3 in 2015) and Fultz.

Another winning trade was acquiring Goran Dragic in 2015 in a three-team deal. Miami had to give up two first-round picks, among other assets, but Dragic entered the NBA Finals as the Heat’s leading playoff scorer.

The Heat also have done a great job developing undrafted players such as Kendrick Nunn, who was an All-Rookie selection but has seen limited playoff time after contracting COVID-19, and Duncan Robinson, a major three-point threat.

» READ MORE: Sixers have a lot of guards and wings, so now they have to decide which to keep


The Heat hired the right coach in Erik Spoelstra, somebody known for running difficult practices (similar to Riley). Besides providing discipline, he has been a strong tactical coach. This is his 12th season as head coach.

Brown was not known for instilling the discipline that the Sixers need. Now the Sixers hope his successor can enjoy more success as they try to reach Miami’s level in the Eastern Conference.