Culture: Rehabilitating the Heat

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Culture – the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society.

Culture is something the Miami Heat organisation has prided itself on for the better part of 20 years. Starting as an expansion club back in 1988, the Heat took a while to find their footing in the NBA. Lottery bound season after lottery bound season, the Heat were struggling for relevance until Pat Riley infamously left his Head Coaching job in New York via fax to take his talents to South Beach.

Riley is the patriarch of the Miami Heat way. Yes, Micky Arison is the owner, and Erik Spoelstra is a highly regarded coach in his own right. But make no mistake – this franchise starts and stops with Pat Riley; whose fingerprints are all over what the Miami Heat represents. This is a man that hates to lose, who famously quotes “there’s winning…and there’s misery”. His practices were infamous – more like boot camp than a training camp – and James Worthy even joked that he may have been responsible for ending players careers early, such was the demand on his players. There was a fascinating piece written on Pat Riley recently by Wright Thompson of ESPN/TrueHoop that articulated Riley, in all his conflicting and confounding glory, perfectly. While today’s NBA is arguably more player friendly than Pat’s heyday, Spoelstra is a disciple of Riley – and mimics his mantra.

I need to stress that different doesn’t always mean better – the Heat’s grueling practice regime and player control and standards has turned off more than a few NBA megastars (Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James just to name a couple). Plus, I’m sure James Posey and Antoine Walker didn’t appreciate being suspended midseason in 2007 for not meeting Miami’s high conditioning standards. One-time Miami Heat Center, Zydrunas Ilgauskus, puts it this way:

“Most places you have your body fat checked twice a year, at the beginning of the season and at the end,” llgauskas said. “In Miami, it’s every week or two. Sometimes when guys know it’s coming they’ll go sit in the steam room to try to sweat off a few pounds. Because if they don’t like what they see they will let you know about it.”

“Cleveland is part of the mainstream of the NBA. In Miami, there is one man in charge and that is Pat Riley and everyone falls into line from there. It’s very simplified for you. There is one way to do things, his way.”

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Zydrunas Ilgauskus, on the Heat way (via TrueHoop)

The Heat way is not for everybody. Riley’s controlling grip over the franchise was one of the reasons LeBron James swallowed his pride, met with Dan “Comic Sans” Gilbert and returned to Ohio. Not long after, Chris Bosh – the highest paid player on the Miami Heat – went through two bouts of blood clots, and a bitter feud with the Heat around his inability to play. While sentiment has apparently mended, this issue is still without a resolution – although it is expected Bosh will be waived and his salary cleared from Miami’s salary cap in the coming months.

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The highly public split with franchise icon Dwyane Wade was extremely hurtful to the Heat’s brand, as “family” and “Heat Lifer” were phrases coined in the myth that the Heat wasn’t just your average NBA team. They took care of their own. If they can’t take care of the greatest player in Heat history, do those phrases carry any weight? It is fair to say that the Heat were at a crossroads at the start of season 2016/17 – on and off the court.

The first half of the 16/17 season went as perhaps many anticipated. On the eve of training camp, Chris Bosh was once again ruled out for the season – Riley effectively ending Bosh’s Heat (and perhaps NBA) career on the spot. 19 games into his sophomore season, promising youngster Justise Winslow was lost for the year with a torn labrum. The Heat limped to an 11-30 record at the half point of the season, sitting 2nd last to the Brooklyn Nets and looking set for a Top 5 pick in the NBA Draft, with a long rebuild and uncertain future ahead of them.

However, something changed in the Heat’s 109-103 win over the Houston Rockets on the 17th January 2017. It ignited belief. The struggling Heat somehow reeled off 13 wins in a row, a record for a team below .500, rallying their season to within an inch of returning to the playoffs – eventually missing out due to the tiebreaker with Chicago. By season’s end, the Heat had completely reversed their 11-30 record, going 30-11 from the seasons midway point to finish at a .500 record.

The rally was sparked by a number of player’s that bought into the Heat philosophy, and personify what can occur when a player engages with a team’s culture. This Heat team has grown so close that they are still hanging out together in the off-season, despite the uncertain futures many hold with the franchise itself. This shows that “Family” is still very much a term in the Heat vocabulary.

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Probably the biggest endorsements for reinvigorating the Heat brand are two player’s that no-one expected anything from. Dion Waiters was desperate to find his niche in the NBA. With the Free Agent market soft for his services, Dion agreed to a $2.9 million, 1 year deal and bet on himself, and the franchise, to turn his career around. He got in the best shape of his life, committed to the Heat’s training regime and embraced what it meant to be part of an organisation that has been to the NBA mountain top. Given more responsibility than in any previous stop in his NBA journey, Dion responded with buzzer beating threes, improved defence and some of the most consistent performances of his career. Finally, his walk started to match his talk. And talk he can, with Waiters writing perhaps the article of the season via The Player Tribune as the Heat’s season ended – reinforcing the Riley/Godfather shtick and validation over the Heat’s culture, something that will hopefully resonate with fellow NBA players.

James Johnson went from NBA journeyman and bench warmer, to a Poor Man’s LeBron and one of the most improved players in the Association by any statistical measure. In a world where playmaking and “stretch 4’s” are all the rage, it seems crazy that Johnson wasn’t able to fill this role until now. Could Johnson shoot like this in Toronto? We don’t know for sure, but man, this version of Johnson would have been handy for the Raptors in their most recent playoff failure.

Johnson arrived in Miami weighing in at 275lbs, with 14.5% body fat. Near the end of season 16/17, he was down to 238lbs and 6.8% body fat. It’s no coincidence that he looked more explosive than ever, and played the best ball of his life. Johnson bought into the Heat way, got in “world class shape”, and by all reports was a locker room leader that his teammates looked up to. Check out some of these athletic finishes by JJ!

Like Waiters, Johnson was never able to earn the trust of his coaches – being pulled after making a bonehead play or two in the past. Erik Spoelstra’s willingness to combat these player’s flaws, challenge them to get in the best shape of their lives and be better than they had shown to date, and provide them with the platform to succeed helped them to achieve career best seasons – and they’ll be rewarded handsomely (by the Heat, or another employer) in Free Agency 2017. Like Waiters hitting the go ahead game winner’s, Johnson too got his chance to shine in key moments:

Given Miami’s lack of draft picks, and Riley’s preference for veterans over youth, the franchise has often had to scrounge the undrafted player pool to find diamonds in the rough. This is something the Heat have arguably done better than any other NBA franchise – finding Hassan Whiteside among the scrap heap and turning him into an NBA Star. Finding Tyler Johnson in their summer league team and using their D-League affiliate, Sioux Falls, to foster his talent. He’s now one of the best bench scorers in the NBA. Even this season saw the emergence of Rodney McGruder, another summer league and Sioux Falls alumni that played a key role, starting 65 games and often defending the oppositions best player.

The Heat’s ability to transfer their culture and standards to their D-League affiliate is one of the major ways they have been able to build their team following the end of the Big 3 era. It’s a model many other NBA franchises are starting to follow, with most now owning their own D-League franchises and hoping to implement a similar farming strategy.

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While it was fair to wonder how the loss of Wade and Bosh would impact the Heat on the basketball court, perhaps not enough credit was given to the longest serving player in Heat history – and his impact off the court. Udonis Haslem may no longer be a viable rotation player in the NBA, but his impact in the locker room as a veteran presence – and the embodiment of Heat Culture and “the Riley way” speaks volumes. Born and bred in Miami, “Mr 305” himself (Pitbull, hand over the nickname….) will always have a role somewhere in Miami – along with fellow Heat disciples like Alonzo Mourning (Vice President, Player Program), Juwan Howard (Assistant Coach) and Shane Battier (Director of Basketball Development).

As the NBA season begins to draw to a close, and the NBA off-season starts to heat up (pardon the pun), it will be interesting to see if the Heat’s image rehab resonates with any of the potential big free agent “whales” out in the Free Agent landscape. If not, the Heat will be looking for the next NBA journeyman that they can sign cheap and turn into a key contributor, or an asset. As Riley says, there’s winning or there’s misery, and you can rest assured that the culture rehab won’t feel complete for Riley until there’s another parade down Biscayne Boulevard.

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