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Coolican: Heat provide a model for other teams

| Friday, October 9, 2020

When Lebron James left Miami, Heat president Pat Riley had a plan. James’ departure may have caught him by surprise, but he didn’t show it. Instead of floundering for years, like the Cavaliers did when James departed Cleveland for the first time — and it appears to be happening a second time — the Heat went out and kept competing. They were left with two aging stars, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and limited roster flexibility. It was a situation where many, if not most organizations would consider tanking in order to secure a high draft pick. But the Heat kept trying to win.

For the first few years after James’ departure, the Heat wasn’t a very good team. They didn’t have the talent to make the playoffs, but they weren’t bad enough to draft in the top few picks. In 2015, the Heat traded two first round picks for point guard Goran Dragic, who is now playing a pivotal role on this year’s team. When many teams would have stockpiled draft assets, the Heat traded them away for the opportunity to acquire a proven winner. They signed Hassan Whiteside and drafted Justise Winslow who were eventually used in trades to acquire Jimmy Butler and Andre Igoudala, both pivotal pieces in this year’s finals run. They made countless other smaller moves, each of which contributed to the team that has challenged the Lakers in the finals this year.

They seemed to be in an unenviable situation again last offseason as they didn’t have very much salary cap flexibility, and it didn’t seem possible they could make a major move to put them over the hump. Despite that, Riley figured out a way to engineer a move for Jimmy Butler, one of the best players in the league, proving once again that he will do whatever it takes to win. 

Tanking isn’t a good strategy in the NBA, even though many teams seem to think it is. Whether it is done on purpose, such as Philadelphia’s “Trust the Process” or as a consequence of management ineptitude, like the Knicks, it doesn’t work. Philadelphia is left with two stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who don’t complement each other and one of the worst salary cap situations in the league, while teams like the Knicks, Kings and Cavaliers are left to wallow in misery due to a combination of bad luck and front offices who mismanage the franchises year after year. A big reason why this is the case is that top draft picks are somewhat of a crap shoot in the NBA. The Cavaliers took Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins in back to back years in 2012 and 2013, and Markelle Fultz, the 76ers number one overall pick in 2017, played just 33 games with the team. Additionally, with the draft lottery, designed to discourage tanking, the worst teams don’t always end up with the best picks. On the other hand, some top draft picks have panned out exceptionally well, such as Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving. However, Irving is the first number one pick since Tim Duncan to win a championship with the team he was drafted by, and this was in large part due to Lebron James, showing that it takes more than draft picks to win.

Compare this with the Heat, who, rather than trying to select a transcendent talent, drafted players who fit well with their culture. Neither Bam Adebayo nor Tyler Herro, their two most recent first round picks, were exceptional players at Kentucky where they both played their college ball. The Heat, however, saw them for their work ethic and drive and their potential to be developed into stars, which other teams often overlook. Duncan Robinson, who played at Division III Williams College before transferring to Michigan, didn’t look like an NBA player, but the Heat saw his dedication and desire to improve and took a chance on him. Now, he’s starting in the NBA finals. Almost every player on the Heat fits this mold: overlooked at some point by every other team in the NBA. However, the Heat aren’t opposed to having a proven superstar on their team. It is quite the opposite: They have attracted more stars than perhaps any other team in the NBA. From Shaquille O’Neal to James to Wade and now Jimmy Butler, with many in between, the Heat have signed and retained star talent at a rate few other teams can match. However, the player doesn’t choose the Heat, except in rare cases like James. The Heat chooses players who fit their winning culture. They also value a strong veteran presence from players like Dragic and Igoudala and even guys who don’t get as many minutes, such as Udonis Haslem. They play a key role in developing the younger players, and it’s something that a lot of other organizations lack. 

The culture of the organization is what was so attractive to Butler. He fits in perfectly with the Heat’s mission. He’s a superstar who doesn’t ask for special treatment and who works harder than anybody else. He’s been known to be difficult in locker rooms in the past, famously getting into an altercation with teammates and coaches at practice when he played for Minnesota. Much of this can be attributed to his relentless drive to win and the standards he holds those around him, as well as himself, too, but he fits right in on a Heat team which holds everyone to those same standards. While often assigned the blame for the shortcomings of the Timberwolves and 76ers, it is now evident that the problem wasn’t with him. It was with the organizations. 

No matter what happens in Friday’s game five, the Heat have proven themselves to be one of the top teams in the league, and with young talent such as Adebayo and Herro, they’ll be competitive for years to come. The Heat are providing a model for other teams to follow and the failures of teams who have tanked recently serve as warnings. If you’re a fan of basketball, Pat Riley should be your favorite executive, and you should cheer for, or at least appreciate, the Heat. A league in which all 30 teams are competing for a championship year in and year out would be incredibly exciting, and the Heat are moving us closer to that goal.

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