Always confident and with a proven championship pedigree to back it up, the Miami Heat continued to stay the course after the Big 3 era by striving to remain competitive and to never tank in the following six years.
There were certainly highs and lows during those seasons, but this not-so-sudden turnaround proved it’s possible for Pat Riley and the front office to construct a deep team without having high lottery picks or superstar power (like the Los Angeles teams or Boston Celtics do). The Heat’s highest-drafted player on their roster is 36-year-old Andre Iguodala at No. 9, and though the team’s two All-Stars Jimmy Butler (chosen 30th in the second round) and Bam Adebayo (14th in the first round) are certainly key players on the team, all the rotation players must play effectively in order for them to win.
It’s been that way since the very beginning of the regular season, when the Heat started racking up wins back in October even while Butler was away from the team for the birth of his daughter. Undrafted players like Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson immediately were paying dividends with big minutes played, and Tyler Herro quickly assimilated to the NBA game to become a fan favorite at 19 years of age.
Should the Heat beat the Celtics and reach the NBA Finals, it will be one of the more unlikely teams in recent memory to have done so — bearing more resemblance to the 2006 title team than the Big-3 era teams. Instead of a top-heavy roster, there’s the Marquette star guard capable of taking over the game and a dominant All-Star big man but also a steady veteran point guard (Gary Payton/Goran Dragic), the wildly entertaining guard with a flair for the dramatic (Jason Williams/Tyler Herro), the swingman who can provide tough defense and timely buckets (James Posey/Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder), the sharpshooter (Jason Kapono/Duncan Robinson), the high-flying athletic freak (Dorell Wright/Derrick Jones Jr.) and well, Udonis Haslem. (And no, there is no equal to Antoine Walker).
Both the 2005-06 team and the current team “overachieved” beyond what many critics thought they were collectively capable of. The organization as a whole almost appears to thrive and blossom more dramatically when they are being doubted or ignored, instead of the monumental pressure, lofty expectations, and the national spotlight that became a burden that the 2010-14 teams had to carry with them.
This is precisely why Butler was such a good fit right away with the team and he put his stamp on the team and their work ethic early in the preseason with his well-publicized early morning practice sessions. But lest we forget that even though this season has stretched on months longer than anticipated, it could have easily gone south and their season derailed had the team fractured almost a year ago.
That’s when Dion Waiters got himself suspended for the first time of the season after complaining on the bench about playing time during the preseason finale and failing to show up for a mandatory weigh-in. There was also the bizarre incident on the team plane. James Johnson, who struggled with a consistent role amid conditioning issues, and Justise Winslow, skilled but injury-prone, were also jettisoned during the season with Riley always eager to tinker with the roster, even trying at the last minute before the trade deadline to pry away Danilo Gallinari from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As well-constructed and balanced the roster now appears to be, let’s not forget it could have been Goran Dragic and Derrick Jones Jr, not Hassan Whiteside, moved in the Butler trade, or that Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook were heavily linked to the Heat in the offseason.
Any of these proposed moves would have dramatically altered the roster in a myriad of ways, but through a series of fortunate events the Heat are now officially among the elite East teams and they did it with old fashioned teamwork and a genuine culture that is well-tested and proven — not one constructed with hopes and theories.
Take another look at the Heat’s roster and you’ll see journeymen, G-League players, cast-offs from the Celtics, undrafted or second round players, and more. On paper and by any advanced metrics before the season started there is little chance anyone would foresee this team accomplishing what they have already done this season, and that’s because their depth and preparedness (thanks to their coaching staff) can wear teams down while still maintaining a high level of play throughout 48 minutes. While players and coaches from other teams may win individual season accolades, the Heat are more interested in the other hardware that can be collectively won.
If the star player is willing to do whatever it takes to win, whether it’s scoring 40 points one night or simply being a facilitator another night and isn’t worried about his individual numbers, then it has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. Because the Heat as a team are built so uniquely and with their superior chemistry, they have become a fearsome playoff foe and one that will never, ever quit.
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