Pat Riley tried to warn the masses.
Some looked at the 2019-20 Miami Heat and saw a club positioned to scrap for a back-end playoff berth. If they weren't on the treadmill of mediocrity, skeptics said, they were walking alongside it.
Riley sized up his squad and saw a contender.
"We want to win," he said simply. "We want to win big. That's it."
How could the Heat, fresh off a 43-loss season and three years removed from their last playoff series win, do anything close to that? Well, if you were willing to buy Riley's vision and share a few glasses of optimism with the Godfather, you could uncover a path to the top—or somewhere in that vicinity—if enough things with this roster broke just right.
Step one was the best season of Jimmy Butler's career. The kind of campaign that combines some personal-best production with voter-friendly narratives and winds up with the 30-year-old securing his first ever top-five MVP finish.
It's too early to tell on the statistics, but already his famous (infamous?) competitive edge has established this team's identity.
"Everything from his intensity, his competitiveness, his work ethic, his IQ—he's bringing that every day at a high level," Justise Winslow said. "And that's just contagious for the rest of us."
Step two was Justise Winslow working as human adhesive. The Heat have a slew of moving parts, not just in terms of new faces, but roles that are changing and evolving.
That makes it tough for anyone to get comfortable, let alone a Swiss Army knife seemingly tasked with a different responsibility every night. But in order for this all to work, Winslow must be able to adapt on the fly, serving as a featured player one game and an unheralded hustler the next.
So far, so good. Through four games, Winslow owns the NBA's eighth-best plus/minus at plus-47 in 151 minutes.
"He's smart," Butler said of Winslow. "He's aggressive. He can guard. He can switch with anybody. He damn sure doesn't back down from anybody."
Step three was a complete buy-in to a reserve role from Goran Dragic. While an instant-offense role seemed tailor-suited to his strengths, established veterans don't always take kindly to ceding their spots to newcomers. (Right, Dion Waiters?)
Dragic has dazzled from virtually the first deployment in his new assignment. His 19.5 points are the most he's averaged in three seasons. His 47.9 field-goal and 40.7 three-point percentages are better than any posted during his four full seasons with the Heat. His 63.3 true shooting percentage is the best he's ever posted, and his 19.8 player efficiency rating matches the second-best of his career. Don't forget, he's been an All-Star and an All-NBA honoree before.
He could have sulked about a substitute role; he's chasing Sixth Man of the Year honors instead.
"That's my vision," Dragic said, "and I want to do it."
Step four was getting Summer League star Tyler Herro to carry all the swishes, scoring and swag into the regular season.
That won't happen every night—he'll be a teenager until after the calendar changes—but four games into his career, he has a 29-point performance and a franchise record under his belt.
"It doesn't surprise me, and I don't think it surprises anyone in this building anymore," Butler said. "It damn sure shouldn't surprise anybody in the league. The guy's a real player."
Step five was uncovering a hidden gem and getting an unexpected lift.
Considering the history of this organization, that's basically an annual occurrence. This year, it's undrafted and former G League player Kendrick Nunn skyrocketing past any reasonable expectations. Through four games—the first four of his career—he has compiled a top-30 scoring average (21.0 points per game, tied for 30th) while threatening to crash the famed 50/40/90 party with an absurd 48.6/44.0/100.0 shooting slash.
Who could've seen that coming? Well, the Godfather, for one.
"I think he's going to surprise a lot of people," Riley said of Nunn before training camp.
While there are plenty more steps to come—staying healthy chief among them—it seems the Heat's ceiling has already raised, as much as it can through less than five percent of the season, at least.
The Heat have a star, a costar, a possibly award-winning reserve and maybe two-fifths of the All-Rookie first team. Oh, and let's not forget a soothsaying executive and one of the best coaches in the business.
None of these things is definitely an early-season mirage. If all of them are for real, then so too are the Heat as a legitimate threat to escape the East.