The Heat went from salary cap purgatory to having one of the NBA’s brightest futures

Charles Curtis | USA TODAY SPORTS

Ever since LeBron James took his talents back to Cleveland, the story for the Miami Heat has been the same.

Save for one year (2015-16), either they were just slightly good enough to just make the playoffs or just sightly bad enough to miss the postseason without being terrible. It was NBA purgatory, with the Heat’s cap sheet filled with bloated contracts for players that weren’t earning what they were getting paid.

But now? It’s a whole new world in Miami. This is the team that took down the Bucks in overtime and that just blew out the James Harden and Russell Westbrook duo on Sunday.

Pat Riley pulled off a genius trade this summer, dealing Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson in exchange for sign-and-trading for Jimmy Butler, a move that was previously thought unthinkable with the Heat basically out of cap room.

Then, we’ve seen some draft picks outside the top nine work out splendidly: the Justise Winslow point forward experiment (10th overall in 2015) is in its second season and working well. Bam Adebayo (14th overall in 2017) made Whiteside expendable. And Tyler Herro (13th overall earlier this year) can score from anywhere.

Their leading scorer is one undrafted Kendrick Nunn, who was cut by the Golden State Warriors (how badly are they regretting that one?) and picked up from the G League.

They’re super versatile, throwing scorers inside and out at opponents. They can stretch the floor with Meyers Leonard (also acquired in the Butler trade) and play tough on both ends with James Johnson and Butler. If all of this doesn’t scream top-three seed in the wide-open East, I don’t know what will.

The kicker to all of this is looking down the road. Goran Dragic’s contract comes off the books next summer, as does Leonard’s. In two years, when there might be a better crop of free agents than the 2020 group, the Heat can let Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Dion Waiters walk. And we all know that living in South Beach is an attractive perk to playing for the Heat … plus it always feels like Riley can convince anyone to come play for his squad.

Sure, playing with Butler might come with its own set of questions. But if he’s happy — and it appears he is, and he should be on a team that leads the NBA in point differential — then the Heat are one of the most attractive spots in the not-too-distant future.

In the present, they’re a legitimately threatening team that no one would want to face come next postseason.