The franchise began play in the 1988–89 season as an expansion team. After a period of mediocrity, the Heat gained relevance in the mid-1990s when Pat Riley became team president and head coach. Riley constructed the trades of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, which propelled the team into playoff contention. Mourning and Hardaway led the Heat to four consecutive division titles prior to their departures in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The team also experienced success after drafting Dwyane Wade in 2003.
Led by Wade and, following a trade for former NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Shaquille O'Neal, the Heat won their first NBA title in 2006, after Riley named himself head coach for a second stint. After the departure of O'Neal two years later, the team struggled for the remainder of the 2000s. Riley remained team president, but was replaced as head coach by Erik Spoelstra. In 2010, the Heat signed reigning league MVP LeBron James and NBA All-Star Chris Bosh, creating the "Big Three" along with Wade. During their four years together, Spoelstra, James, Wade, and Bosh led the Heat to the NBA Finals in every season, culminating in back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013. All three departed by 2016, and the team entered a period of rebuilding. After acquiring All-Star Jimmy Butler in 2019, the Heat returned to the NBA Finals in 2020. The Heat acquired six-time NBA All-Star Kyle Lowry in 2021.
The Heat hold the record for the NBA's third-longest winning streak, 27 straight games, set during the 2012–13 season. Six Hall of Famers have played for Miami, and James won two consecutive NBA MVP Awards while playing for the team.
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