From the outset of this most uneven of rides, the Miami Heat made clear they were playing for something more than the regular season, with the playoffs the minimum expectation.
While limits never have been openly accepted during the Pat Riley regime, the likely ultimate upside was a spot in the second round, a bridge to playing into May and at least the satisfaction of the NBA's version of the elite eight.
And then reality hit home at Thursday's trading deadline.
Unless the Indiana Pacers make the unlikely claim to one of the conference's top four seeds in the wake of the season-ending quadriceps injury of All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, one-and-done appears to be as good as it gets for any East playoff team beyond the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.
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The buzz was palpable as the Heat gathered for practice Thursday night in the hours after the deadline, after ...
The Bucks added Nikola Mirotic.
The Raptors added Marc Gasol.
The 76ers added Tobias Harris.
And the Celtics held on to a core that still might be the most talented in the East.
A year ago, the Heat's playoff highlight was a single victory in the first round against the 76ers. That was before the 76ers added Jimmy Butler, before they added Harris, before they added Jonathon Simmons. Before Joel Embiid moved into MVP discussion. Before Ben Simmons moved into the All-Star Game.
Now a single playoff victory for anyone at the bottom of the East playoff pack could be the ultimate achievement.
With the Pacers adding Wes Matthews in the buyout market, Indiana assuredly will remain in playoff position. And with the Brooklyn Nets getting Caris LeVert back three months after what initially was feared to be a season-ending foot injury, they, too, appear to be part of the East playoff field.
So what are the Heat, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets competing for beyond the final two seeds in the East?
On one hand you could say pride. But how much pride is there in going into the postseason with a losing record? As a matter of perspective, the FiveThirtyEight statistical site with one of its models had the Heat, going into the weekend, projected for a 36-46 finish and 46 percent chance of a playoff berth, and with its other model for a 37-45 finish and 47 percent chance. ESPN's playoff predictor had the Heat forecast for 38-44 and a 62.3 percent chance of playoffs. At Basketball Reference the calculation was 38.1-43.9 with a 46.5 percent chance.
But should a losing record attached to a playoff berth count as any degree of success?
It is, of course, also too late to reverse course. The race to the bottom between the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks leaves the top five lottery seeds essentially accounted for, even with the Heat contributing a few of those victories.
Yet with the tax-saving sell off of Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington, the Heat clearly took into account more than remaining in the moment.
It could, in fact, be argued that if the Heat win a first-round series this season it would be the biggest such upset in the franchise's 31 seasons, with all due respect to that suspension-filled conquering of the Knicks at the start or the Riley era or even Ray Allen's series-saving effort against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals.
The biggest losers at the trading deadline were the teams in the East not located in Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia or Boston (which now stands as the favorite to land Anthony Davis in the offseason).
After Thursday's trading deadline, basically what the Heat are playing for is the highly unlikely hope of hosting more than two playoff games.
The East no longer stands as the NBA's lesser half – but the East's elite is as exclusive a club as the conference has featured in years.