Exactly 20 years separate these two versions of the Miami Heat. There is a new arena, a new coach, a new division and the Heat's oldest current player, Udonis Haslem, was still in high school back then. A lot has changed since the early days of the Pat Riley-era. But, a lot has stayed the same such as the winning culture, the team-first mentality, the focus on strength and conditioning, great coaching and a knack for finding and nurturing talent that has been overlooked by everyone else.
The Heat are a team led by a star center and a star point guard. These two aren't superstars or even the best at their positions. But, there aren't many better than these two at their respective positions and they play well together. The Heat are coached by a man who has coached superstars almost his entire NBA career. This coach has won multiple championships. This year, he's in the running for Coach of the Year. The Heat are playing in a conference with a super-team. That super-team is also the defending champions and they are led by the best player on the planet. The Heat were able to beat that super-team not once, but twice.
The Heat play hard-nosed defense and are anchored by their elite shot-blocking and rebounding big man. He's not the greatest big ever offensively but he'll get the job done. He's got a few go-to post moves and when he catches the ball near the hoop, he's almost unstoppable. He's a double-double machine and puts up big block numbers. The Heat's point guard is an excellent ball handler who can create shots for himself and his teammates. He's dangerous when he puts the ball on the floor and can beat anyone off the dribble. He's just as deadly driving the lane and hitting layups over men that tower over him as he is at nailing dagger threes. He's not as big or as strong as some of the other point guards in the league, but he makes up for it with his high basketball IQ and toughness.
The Heat have a great bench that can do it all from hitting threes to playing lock-down defense just as well as the starters. They have an undrafted forward "Heat lifer" who doesn't put up huge numbers but is a big part of the team. He's a big locker room presence off the court and the ultimate team player on it. They have an excellent back-up center who can come in and dominate on any given night on both ends of the court. They have a few guys who can play multiple positions. They have a guy who has a knack for getting himself open and nailing catch and shoot threes. He’s a sort of three point shooting specialist. They have a great, young second year forward who was their first round pick (10th overall) two years ago. He is known for his great defense but he was unfortunately ruled out for the season due to an injury. There are a bunch of guys on the Heat that most of the other teams didn't even think belonged in the NBA. The Heat are underrated and don't get much national attention.
So, which Heat team was that? That is a decent description of this season's Heat. The star point guard and center leading them is Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. The coach who has coached superstars most of his career and who has multiple championships is Erik Spoelstra. That super-team is obviously the Cleveland Cavaliers led by the best player on the planet named LeBron James. Miami beat them twice this season. The Heat have a great bench with guys who can play multiple positions like James Johnson and Tyler Johnson. That "Heat lifer" is obviously Udonis Haslem. That great three point specialist is Wayne Ellington. That backup center is Willie Reed. That injured second year defensive forward who they got with the 10th overall pick is Justise Winslow. There are a bunch of players on this year's team most other teams wouldn't have given the same opportunity to. For example, Rodney McGruder, the starting forward, is a 25-year undrafted old rookie. Okaro White was in the D-League when the season started. Tyler Johnson was undrafted and Josh Richardson was a late 2nd round pick. Even the star center, Hassan Whiteside, was a 2nd round pick and a castaway after his first NBA team, the Sacramento Kings, gave up on him.
But, that description could also be about the 1996-97 Heat. The star point guard back then was Tim Hardaway. The star center was Alonzo Mourning. The champion coach who was used to coaching superstars was Pat Riley. The Eastern Conference super-team was the Chicago Bulls. The Heat beat them twice that season. That Bulls team was led by the best player on the planet named Michael Jordan. The Heat's bench was very good back then as well. The "Heat lifer" back then was Keith Askins who is still with the Heat today working as a scout. Like UD, he could also play multiple positions and did a lot of the little things that don't show up in a box score but do help the team win. That Heat team had Dan Majerle and Jamal Mashburn who, like the Johnsons, could also play multiple positions, hit threes and even handle the ball if needed. The three point specialist back then was Voshon Lenard. Their backup center was Isaac Austin who could fill in for Zo and battle the best bigs the NBA had to offer.
The young, second year defensive forward who they lost for the season was Kurt Thomas. He was the 10th overall pick in the 1995 draft. But, he was actually traded mid-season in the deal that brought Jamal Mashburn to Miami.
They also had undrafted and underrated players who got chances to prove they belonged in the NBA that season. Austin was a late 2nd round pick in 1991 who was out of the league by 1994. Miami resurrected his career in 1996. Lenard was also a late 2nd rounder who was in the CBA (Continental Basketball Association) - basically the D-League back then. He was the Heat's starting 2-guard that season. Askins, as mentioned, was undrafted. John Crotty, the Heat's backup point guard, was also undrafted.
While that 1996-97 team had a much better record than this season's team, the similarities are there. That 1996-97 team had a very good second half of the season, going on an 11-game winning streak in February and a stretch where they went 14-1 in March and April. Today's Heat won 13 straight and are currently 21-5 in the second half of the season. The 1996-97 team was not fighting just to get into the postseason like this season's Heat team is. They were the number 2 seed and Atlantic Division champs. But, the battle for the franchise's first division title against the New York Knicks went down to the wire and made almost all the games late in the season meaningful.
That Heat team beat some very good competition in that ‘97 season. Besides the Jordan and Scottie Pippen -led Bulls, they beat the Patrick Ewing -led Knicks, the Penny Hardaway -led Magic, and the Hakeem Olajuwon -led Rockets to name a few. This season's Heat have beaten some pretty good teams as well such as the Warriors, Cavs, Rockets, Raptors, Hawks and the Jazz being the most notable - so far.
There are also a few things that might not line up so perfectly. For example, Dion Waiters, Luke Babbitt and PJ Brown don’t have counterparts. Babbitt’s style of play is a great example of how much the game has changed. Compare it to how PJ Brown played the 4 and you’ll see how the game has evolved since then. Dion is an anomaly on any team in any era. There aren’t many like him and I’m glad he’s here.
As a Heat fan, I can only hope that this season's Heat keep adding to the list of similarities of that Heat team from 20 years ago and make the playoffs, win a playoff game and maybe even a series... or two. I’m glad that one thing that Riley did not do similar to that season was trade away the team’s 2nd year defensive forward who they got with a first round, 10th overall pick. Thomas went on to have a great career as a Knick and lasted 18 seasons in the NBA before retiring at the age of 40. Winslow has a bright future and I’m glad the Heat aren’t giving up on him. I am also hoping that Coach Spo gets some recognition for what he's accomplished with this team and at least gets some votes for Coach of the Year, if not win it, just like Riley did in 1997.
[Back in ‘97, TV was a square and the first round was a best of 5]