Monday, September 28, 2020
How Important is “Heat Culture?”
If postseason surprises are something you love, the NBA playoffs haven't traditionally been your cup of tea. In the 74-year history of the league, only one team has won the championship with a record outside the top four in their conference: the 1995 Rockets, who were reigning champions themselves.
In this most unique of all seasons, the Miami Heat still have a great chance to add to that list, finishing the bubble-resumed regular season at fifth in the East.
And if you've been watching the playoffs, you probably don't consider the Heat some plucky, overachieving underdog — because they're not. It's a versatile team that plays a great brand of team basketball on both ends of the floor. By the time you read this, the Heat will either be in the NBA Finals to take on the Lakers or in Game 7 against the Celtics on Wednesday night.
Miami won't be favored in Vegas if the Finals matchup is Heat/Lakers, but I'd argue it should be a toss-up. That's not what this column is about, though.
During the bubble, there's been a fair amount of talk about "Heat culture," which has been defined as a team mentality unique to Miami that values hard work, accountability, and winning above all else. Heat culture is so powerful that it helped Dwyane Wade recruit Jimmy Butler to South Beach a couple years prior to his free agency while both were in Chicago.
Now, to answer the main question posed by this article, the culture of a team, just like the culture at any workplace, is very, very important. But we've heard culture/stability arguments like this before in the NBA with teams like San Antonio, Dallas and Golden State.
I know it feels like this was ages ago, but Miami wasn't a playoff team in 2018-19. We didn't hear a whole lot about Heat culture then, even though Miami's coaching staff was still seen as one of the league's best.
To me, Miami is in such a great position because of superior talent evaluation, player development and some outstanding front office moves that got them out of ostensible salary cap hell.
In the NBA, very high draft picks are meant to be the building blocks for the future. As you go deeper into the lottery and the rest of the first round, the chances of finding franchise-changing players diminish. Finding an All-NBA player like Draymond Green in the second round is almost unheard of. Finding a championship building-block as an undrafted player is even rarer.
The Heat took Bam Adebayo with the very last pick of the lottery in the 2017 draft, ironically a position obtained after narrowly missing out on the final playoff spot in the East that season to Butler and Wade's Bulls. Barring injury, Adebayo will be a perennial lock for All-Defense honors for the next 10 years. I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that his peak could be something even more impressive than the late 2000s/early 2010s run Dwight Howard put together as a dominant big man.
Tyler Herro hasn't even begun his second season in the NBA, was picked 13th in the draft and is already putting up 35-point playoff games and showing a confidence level most five-year veterans don't have.
Duncan Robinson started his college career at a Division III school, went undrafted out of Michigan and was in the G-League as recently as February 2019. He's had some absurd heat check (no pun intended) games in the bubble and is already an elite three-point shooter.
Kendrick Nunn has fallen out of the playoff rotation from Miami, but was a first team All-Rookie selection after, like Robinson, being an undrafted G-League player before this season.
Then, there's the front office moves and successes, which allowed Miami to get out of some of the most infamous contracts of the cap explosion era (Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson) and bring in a star like Butler and playoff-hardened veterans like Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder.
If you look back to the Heat's roster just two years ago, the only big-minute constants in this year's playoffs are then-rookie Adebayo and Goran Dragic (whose offensive resurgence this season — and especially in the playoffs — can't be undersold).
Another important part of the Heat's success this season — whether they make the Finals or not — is that a run like this is at least a year ahead of schedule and comes in advance of a possible 2021 offseason run at Giannis Antetokounmpo. And while good players and not Heat culture alone have gotten Miami to this position, stability and cohesiveness could be huge factors in a season next year that doesn't have a start date and will likely have changes to the salary cap.