MIAMI -- The sun is kissing the waves on Biscayne Bay on a Sunday afternoon when Udonis Haslem takes his usual place in the middle of the Miami Heat huddle and begins the ritual.
The Heat veteran is the last voice the starters hear before taking the floor for the opening tip at AmericanAirlines Arena. He dispenses with the pleasantries and speaks in a tone that resonates with these men he spends days on end toiling with for these precious moments.
It’s a tradition that began long before any of them wore Heat jerseys, back when Haslem -- a 17-year veteran, team leader and cover boy of the 2019-20 Heat media guide (along with All-Star Jimmy Butler) -- was just happy to make a space for himself with his hometown team.
“We all we got, we all we need and nobody better than us!” Haslem shouts into the huddle of giants.
“It’s always the last thing I say,” Haslem said later. “Before that it’s a lot of other stuff. But I always end it with that. And I truly believe that. The only thing that matters is the people in this organization overall, and more importantly the people in this locker room who put the hard hat on every day and collaborate for this common goal.”
Don’t let all tropical eye candy and scenery fool you. The Heat have established a blue-collar franchise culture – one personified in the universally respected Haslem -- in what is a veritable paradise.
Miami and South Florida possess all the glitz, glamour and flash of the NBA’s biggest markets. Nestled comfortably into the fabric of daily life here is a Heat franchise with a no-nonsense culture that has spawned decades of success (five NBA Finals and three championships since 2005-06).
Blame it on -- or better yet, credit it to -- Pat Riley, the Heat president and former “Showtime Lakers” leader with the supercool South Beach appearance that has always cloaked his hard-scrabble Schenectady, N.Y. sensibilities.
The Heat do things the way Riley insists, no matter whose name stretches across the back of the jerseys.
We’re just a confident group. Each and every one of us know that the man next to us and next up has put in the work.”
It’s a culture that has flourished, floundered and refurbished itself, as it has this season. While other teams have swung for the free-agent fences and chased the quick-fix in the years since “The Heatles” run of success ended in 2014, Riley and the Heat continue to do things their way.
They’ve mined every avenue for prospects they could develop. They’ve doubled down on players they’ve incubated. And they’ve bet on their way of doing business -- from scouting and drafting to player development and beyond -- as the path back to contender status.
If what we’ve seen from them thus far is any indication, they’re well on their way. The Heat are stocked with homegrown young talent, have their anchor star (Butler) and salary cap flexibility on the horizon for what could be a loaded free-agent summer of 2021.
The Heat’s spot near the top of the Eastern Conference playoff chase is as surprising as anything, especially given the expectations this group packed for training camp.
Unlikely depth, unquestioned success
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has taken the motliest of crews -- Butler, Bam Adebayo, Meyers Leonard, rookie Tyler Herro, undrafted sharpshooter Duncan Robinson and undrafted rookie surprise Kendrick Nunn -- and turned in the finest home start in franchise history. They’ve done so, too, while veterans Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow have dealt with injuries all season.
They are a confident bunch because they’ve laid the groundwork for the 18-6 start few outside Miami saw coming.
“It’s about having great players who are a good fit on the court, but we also get along great off the court. I think that’s the big key with this team … that and we’re just a confident group. Each and every one of us know that the man next to us and next up has put in the work.”
The Heat are 11-0 at home as ex-Heat star LeBron James and the Lakers visit Friday (7 ET, ESPN). Back in 2010-11, that first James-Dwyane Wade-and-Chris Bosh team got off to a rocky 9-8 start, riling up the skeptics and frightening the locals who were still floating from their superstar summer bounty.
Spoelstra has been here since 2008-09 and knows that focusing on the how and why only complicates the already complex team-building equation. Every team, every season is different. Sometimes there’s no easy explanation for why one team comes together when it does.
“I don’t know,” Spoelstra said. “We just have to keep on plugging away and trying to get better. That’s what these last couple of days have been about. We’re not where we want to be. But some of these things … you just get a competitive group that wants to dig into the process. And sometimes, you know, you can create special things.”
The Heat trust each other. It shines through in how they play and how they refuse to point fingers when things get tight. They seem to always make the right play in the most critical moments, whether it works out or not. And most of the time, it has worked.
We’re going to take the hard road and we don’t want anything easy and we’re going to put the work in."
Need proof? The Heat have outscored their opponents by 30.2 points per 100 possessions in 33 clutch minutes, which ranks No. 1 in the NBA.
“I think that’s just team basketball and we believe in each other equally,” Adebayo said. “That’s not anybody forcing anything. That’s how it’s got to be. You can’t have a one-trick pony at the end of games. We’ve got multiple guys that can make shots and are capable of putting the ball in the basket.”
Butler finds he fits in Miami
The trust Butler has in his teammates speaks to his own growth from his younger days. Back then, his competitive fire and refusal to accept anything but the best from himself (and those around him) resulted in nasty breakups in Chicago and Minnesota.
Whatever leadership mantle he desired then was instantly thrust upon him when he bypassed last summer’s free-agent frenzy and landed with the Heat via a sign-and-trade deal with the Sixers.
“You’ve got to fall in line around here in terms of what we’re about and who we are as a team and an organization,” Haslem said. “And for Jimmy, it’s natural, because we’re like him and he’s like us. A bunch of guys with chips on their shoulders, a little edgy and we want to win, so we all relate.”
Butler’s unsolicited praise for grinders like Adebayo and Robinson and for rookies Herro and Nunn speaks to a buy-in from the team’s best player that can spur on an impressionable locker room.
Butler loves the work, delights in the details that come with every season and relishes similar traits in his teammates.
They are gym rats, just like their leader.
Long after Herro’s late-game heroics against the Bulls (he scored 16 of the Heat’s final 18 points in an overtime win) and after Herro left the locker room looking every bit the 19-year-old rookie, Butler gushed about the sweat equity and bond he’s built with Herro since the day they first met.
“We’ve got a lot in common to tell you the truth,” Butler said of Herro. “But more than anything, I just respect the way that he works and the way that he carries himself. I tell people all the time my two favorite basketball players are Tyler -- because I see the way he works all the time and I love his game and the way that he plays -- and Tre Jones [when he was] at Duke. So when it comes to guys I’d pay to watch, those two are the top ones.”
But Butler said it wasn’t an interaction with Herro that caught his attention.
Whatever the organization and my teammates want me to do, I’m doing it. Whether I have the ball or whatever. As long as we win, man, that’s what I’m locked in on."
“It’s not when I met him, it’s what everybody else had said about him,” Butler said. “When you constantly have people in this organization talking about how he works and he’s gonna be good, [that he’s] a tough son of a gun. You know, I’m like ‘Okay, let’s see it.’
“And then when we meet, he is that. And he’s like, ‘let’s get in the gym, let’s get in the gym, let’s get in the gym.’ And I’m like ‘I’m with it.’ You never hear me complain about working. And ever since then, I’m happy for him, I’m proud of him and I want him to be the best player he can possibly be.
“We’ve got enough to win. That’s all it takes, man. Coach Spo thinks we can win each and every game, which we can. We have to continue to play like that and have that mindset. And not worry about the rest.”
Even though he’s the East’s reigning Player of the Week and has seemingly validated his offseason choice to move to Miami, Butler wants no premature celebrations about 2019-20.
“I don’t care about none of that, I really don’t,” Butler said. “Whatever the organization and my teammates want me to do, I’m doing it. Whether I have the ball or whatever. As long as we win, man, that’s what I’m locked in on … yeah, Player of the Week or whatever, that’s cool. But it really doesn’t mean nothing to me.”
Future full of possibilities
The Heat’s formula, however, isn’t fool-proof. Like any other franchise, they’ve made their share of mistakes over the years, both in player evaluation and selection. Back-to-back playoff seasons haven’t happened since those “Heatles” days.
There’s $26 million worth of veteran firepower not even in the rotation right now in Dion Waiters and James Johnson. Both are trying to get back into the mix after running afoul of the culture. (The Heat recently hit Waiters with a six-game suspension.)
But with every problem they’ve faced, they’ve stuck to their principles in solving them. And they’ve stuck with Spoelstra in an era where coaches come and go at an owner’s whim.
They gave center Hassan Whiteside a $96 million max extension in 2016, betting on him at the expense of taking care of Wade near the end of his storied career .. and Wade walked in free agency to Chicago. But Riley mended fences with the franchise’s most iconic player and traded for him in 2018. Wade finished his career in a Heat uniform while Whiteside was dealt to Portland in the Butler deal.
Coach Spo thinks we can win each and every game, which we can. We have to continue to play like that and have that mindset. And not worry about the rest.”
Miami’s offseason became huge as it tried to close one chapter and begin another with Butler in place as the star. A solid start serves as validation for Butler choosing Miami as much as it does the Heat betting on him and themselves as the right fit for a star with other options.
It might not compare to that summer of 2010, but it brings more long-term sustainability than “The Heatles” union provided.
Butler is in the prime of his career with Adebayo, Herro and Nunn just scratching the surface of theirs.
The possibilities are endless. The future, as Haslem insists, is as bright as the morning Miami sun.
Miami is still a destination city and franchise for folks who believe in doing it their own way, as Butler has witnessed in the Heat grooming youngsters like Herro.
“I think this organization has a way of raising of players and finding those diamonds in the rough. They are absolutely incredible at that,” Butler said. “And they are turning this kid into a real player. Everybody knows he has the talent and he has that mental edge over a lot of young guys. But teaching him how to work every day … this organization is perfect for him.”
Players like Herro, Nunn, Robinson, Adebayo and many more are the ones helping lead this Heat renaissance.
“We are who we are, man.” said Haslem, who has played in just two games this season. “We are who we are. And we don’t shy away from who we are and what we are. And we understand that it might not be for everybody, but we are who we are. And we’re going to take the hard road and we don’t want anything easy and we’re going to put the work in. We’re going to rely on our foundation, our fundamentals and our culture and we’re going to push through.”
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