“15 strong” wasn’t just a catchy team motto for the Miami Heat all those years ago, it’s an embodiment of the culture that permeates the franchise since Pat Riley’s arrival and is yielding bigger and bigger dividends on and off the basketball court with each passing season.
NBA stars have taken notice. Though Gordon Hayward ultimately chose to sign with the Boston Celtics, the fact that he even wanted to meet with a lottery team devoid of an All-Star -- or at least one healthy enough to play — along with his now former team, the Utah Jazz, and the top seeded team in the East speaks volumes about wanting to play for a franchise that is recognized for its front office stability and is led by the legendary Pat Riley and championship coach Erik Spoelstra.
That respect has earned them the right to meet with star free agents such as Kevin Durant, to say nothing of the 2010 offseason haul when they reeled in LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Riley has spoken of holding on to assets in order to pounce when the time is right to reel in a star. Free agency can be a crapshoot, but Riley has always been known to strike -- or at the very least attempt to -- when a player that intrigues him suddenly becomes available. As soon as Goran Dragic expressed a desire to be traded from the Phoenix Suns, Riley pounced and landed a quality starter that less than a year before had been named to the All-NBA third team and was the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
In Alex Kennedy’s excellent HoopsHype article about the Heat’s “intense culture”, he recounts how some veterans apparently don’t have it in them to want to push themselves beyond what they think they’re capable of.
While researching this piece, agents named a handful of veteran players who specifically said they wouldn’t consider Miami in free agency because they heard the Heat practice more than other teams and expect guys to work extremely hard. Most of the players mentioned were in the twilight of their career, so they didn’t want to change their entire approach now.
I’m sure the reaction from Riley, Spoelstra, strength and conditioning coach Bill Foran and the rest of the coaching staff would be a collective shrug. “Good! We wouldn’t want them anyway,” is probably what they’d say. While the Heat cultivate and mold once-unheralded players such as Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, and Rodney McGruder into true NBA talent, there are veterans like James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, and Dion Waiters who have enjoyed career years in their first season in Miami and reaped the benefits by having the exact opposite mentality of veterans content to coast along with teams that prefer to take things a little easier. (Wouldn’t you give anything to find out who these players too fearful to play for the Heat are?)
From Kennedy’s article, here’s how one agent described the Heat’s reputation for cultivating a winning mentality among their players.
“Miami is a world-class organization. I’ve dealt with a lot of teams, but they’re one of the best. They know what they’re doing, they’re organized, and it translates to the court. When it comes to the guys they’ve discovered and developed, you have to credit everyone from the front office to the coaches to the scouts to the strength-and-conditioning staff to the player-development staff (which has a lot of former players) to their D-League affiliate (which they utilize really well). Their success is due to a combination of things. They’re very structured and organized, and they expect the best from their guys. The ones who really put in the time and work can see the difference.”
A funny thing happened when this roster collectively pushed themselves harder and harder. They grew together as players and become brothers. I asked Ellington earlier this week about why this Heat team was so special to play for last season above all the other NBA teams he had played for.
“I feel like we grew a bond together that you don’t really see much in the NBA,” he responded. “A lot of guys that truly care about each other, not just on the court but off the court. Our families hang out, our wives and girlfriends, and our kids play. We’re all around the same age and we’re going through the same things as men in life so we built a bond. It’s not just about basketball, so it makes us even better on the floor.”
The Heat saw something special in Bam Adebayo beyond just his talent and happily took him in the first round. Kelly Olynyk didn’t immediately consider signing with the Heat when he became a free agent, but he grew to like the idea of playing in Miami the more he thought about it. Incremental steps, yes, but building towards something bigger on the road to further success.
Kyrie Irving has clearly taken notice of the Heat culture as well, listing Miami out of nowhere as one of four teams out of 29 that he’d like to be traded to. Is he a true superstar or just a flashy offensive player? Can he truly lead a team in his prime like Russell Westbrook and James Harden have proved they can? We’ve heard good arguments on both sides (for example, here and here) as to whether or not he would significantly improve the Heat.
Beyond that however, the very fact that he wants to play here, unlike some unnamed veterans, alone proves that he’s willing to raise his game and to push himself to become a leader and a better player at just 25 years old and with the best years of his career arguably ahead of him. Perhaps he noticed, or was told, how much LeBron James (who coincidentally was rather “nostalgic” about his time here while recently passing by the AmericanAirlines Arena) grew as a player and as a man to ultimately become a champion during his four years in Miami under the watchful eye of a legend and the tutelage of an elite coach and training staff.
Riley will do his due diligence to piece together an attractive trade package to acquire Irving in their search for a bona fide All-Star. If it’s not enough to land Irving, and Miami’s rather complicated history with the Cleveland Cavaliers and their owner won’t help, so be it. The NBA and its stars are well aware of their culture and Riley will catch his whale soon enough.