Experts anticipated a rebuilding year, maybe a playoff appearance, while team president Pat Riley contemplated his next chess piece to pair with All-Star addition Jimmy Butler.
Oddsmakers went the tested path of the realist, opening the Miami Heat at 60-1 odds to reach the NBA Finals. You couldfind 100-1 if you searched hard enough. Not since the Nets in 2001-02 has a team with odds this long in the preseason wound up in the NBA Finals, playing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Now that Miami is here, the Heat can shrug at again being framed as massive underdogs to LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I just don't think that we're underdogs, I don't," Butler said Tuesday on the eve of Game 1 of his first NBA Finals. "So what that nobody picked us to be here, that's OK. ... Because at the end of the day, we truly don't care."
The smart money, as it were, is again with Riley.
The team president, who unearthed a fistful of gems in Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr., Tyler Herro and envisioned Butler in much more than a Robin role, has the Heat in the Finals against all odds. Miami took out Milwaukee and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, dispatching the Bucks, the No. 1 seed in the East, while also blitzing Boston in the conference finals. In the first round, the Indiana Pacers easily were swept aside.
Spoelstra is in his fifth Finals appearance -- tied with K.C. Jones and Steve Kerr -- just one behind Gregg Popovich. But he, too, seems to be tagged as the underdog.
"As Spo constantly says, we're not for everybody, I'm not for everybody, but here I am," Butler said. "The guys we have, we're for one another. We're going to constantly compete for one another, and this is home for me."
Before the Heat offered $140 million over four years to land Butler in July, he had other chances in the superstar role and another in a supporting spot with the Philadelphia 76ers.
But the Chicago Bulls, who drafted Butler out of Marquette, were hellbent on rebuilding with multiple draft picks and shipped Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Minnesota, with top picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns already in place, failed to find individuals in any capacity to match Butler's intensity. He famously cleaned out Wolves starters in a practice session by running the table in scrimmages with the third string before reminding front office officials the team can't win without him. Eventually he was traded to the 76ers. The Timberwolves won just 19 games this past season without him.
Given the opportunity to keep Butler last summer, first-time GM Elton Brand opted to resist a four- or five-year max offer for Butler. Instead, he gave Al Horford a four-year, $97 million deal and retained Tobias Harris with a five-year, $180 million max. The 76ers were swept in the first round of the 2020 playoffs by the Celtics and fired coach Brett Brown.
Perhaps Brand can be forgiven. He inherited a franchise building around All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Maybe he knew a Robin role could never fit Butler.
He has plenty of time this winter to kick around any lingering buyer's remorse.
Of course, Riley didn't want it this way, either.
His preference six summers ago would have been irrefutably to hitch the Heat wagon to the LeBron-Spoelstra pairing and build a dynastic bully constantly perched in the favorite's role.
Instead, three times in five years the Heat finished ninth or 10th in the East. Riley yearned to return to this stage, where James stands in the path to another golden trophy and perhaps the greatest legacy of winning in league history.
Butler proved his worth this season, and in these playoffs. The stage is still becoming familiar.
"There's a lot of nerves for a lot of people, including myself," Butler said Tuesday.
Yet Butler readily confesses he's abrasive. He challenged Towns in Minnesota because KAT was the most talented player on the roster. And went chest to chest with Wiggins, since traded to the Warriors, because the former No. 1 pick was the most naturally gifted. Yet Butler, he says, was the hardest worker.
The mentality has Miami shrugging off the underdog label in the 2020 Finals.
Relative to James, Butler isn't viewed as the NBA alpha male. Even Riley might agree with that pecking order.
Riley and James have their own history to settle, too. Riley questioned why James didn't have "guts" enough to stay with the Heat in 2014.
"One of the greatest minds this game has ever had. The league is not the same without Riles," James said Tuesday when asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Riley. "He's a great guy. A great motivator. Someone that just knows what it takes to win."
James missed the Finals last season for the first time in eight years. Wednesday's Game 1 marks his 10th Finals. At one time, there were those who doubted whether James could get his team a title, if he had championship DNA.
Riley has reached a Finals as a coach or executive in each of the past four decades. He coached in nine NBA Finals.
James left Miami to return to Cleveland, won a title in 2016, lost in the Finals in 2017 and 2018, then joined the Lakers. As he begins his quest to win three championships with three different teams this week, Butler strides to further embrace the only believers he knows.
They'll be wearing red, white and black.
Bonded and fueled by the underdog label, as James can attest.
"You (media) guys always said, 'You have LeBron, (Dwyane) Wade and (Chris) Bosh. Any coach can do it.' No," James said Wednesday. "If any coach could do it, there would be a lot more champions in this league. Spo likes that. That's what fuels Spo."
--By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media