The Heat's Secret Sauce

For most teams, "player development" is a press-conference cliche. For Miami, it's a culture—and one that has turned a group of undervalued players into a contender in the East.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2020

In the summer of 2018, Duncan Robinson was looking for a new home. He'd recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and in three seasons in Ann Arbor he'd proved himself to be one of college basketball's premier shooters. The problem was that he wasn't exactly explosive, nor was he fleet of foot. So much so that he was forced to spend his freshman season playing for Division III Williams College because no bigger institution would give him a chance.

But Robinson, who at 6'7" was taller than most marksmen, still dreamed of playing in the NBA. So he and his agent, Jason Glushon, drew up a plan. They knew it was unlikely Robinson would be drafted. But this, they realized, could provide an opportunity. Robinson could choose where to play.

A few weeks before the draft, Glushon organized a workout for Robinson at an L.A. gym. Chet Kammerer, a renowned Miami Heat scout, was one of the NBA executives in attendance. Robinson's shooting prowess amazed him. He called Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on his drive out. Word made it back to Glushon that the Heat were interested in his client.

Glushon was ecstatic.

The Heat, he told Robinson, were the ideal landing spot. It didn't matter to Glushon that he'd never before had a client suit up for them. He knew, as almost everyone else in and around the NBA does, that the organization's track record of developing players was unparalleled. There were countless examples for Glushon to point to: Josh Richardson, a second-round pick who at that time was their starting 2-guard; and Tyler Johnson, who had gone from undrafted to averaging double-digit points off the bench; and Hassan Whiteside, a onetime basketball vagabond who had recently signed a max contract.

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The night before the draft, Spoelstra called Robinson. "He was the only head coach that reached out to me," Robinson says. "Just to hear him talk about the particulars of what they do with shooters, especially shooters my size, it just felt like a good situation, like a place where I'd be pushed."

The conversation sold Robinson on everything Glushon had pitched. He signed a summer-league deal with them in July, which turned into a two-way contract, and he spent the majority of his rookie season bouncing between the Heat and their G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. He posted impressive numbers in 33 G League games (21.4 points per game, 48.3 percent from deep). Spoelstra would often text him when he was in Sioux Falls, and during his days with the Heat he'd train with three or four coaches. They’d work on building strength and on-ball defense, but the focus, counterintuitive as it might seem, was not on rounding out his game. It was Robinson's shooting that had lured the Heat in, and shooting was what they sorely lacked. So they devoted most of their time to helping Robinson grow from a very good shooter into one of the game's very best, a player who would never hesitate and who could be a threat from all angles and spots.

"Their reputation precedes itself, but then once you step inside these walls, it just all jumps out at you," Robinson says. "There were no wasted days. Every day, you show up and never just go through the motions, and they're always going to push you—and you stack the pretty good days on top of each other, and before long you see results."

The Heat signed Robinson to a standard NBA contract last summer. Before the league shut down March 11, he was averaging 13.3 points in 30.0 minutes and drilling 44.8 percent of his 8.4 triples per game. His shooting and presence along the perimeter has helped elevate the Heat's offense from the league's fifth-worst (their ranking last season) to seventh-best. According to Cleaning The Glass, they have performed like a 33-win team when Robinson sits and a 62-win juggernaut when he plays.

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Duncan Robinson #55 of the Miami Heat celebrates during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on November 20, 2019 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

In other words: The Heat took a former Division III player and transformed him into an essential NBA cog. The way they did so was simple: They scouted a workout, identified a prospect with a skill set they thought they could both use and grow and then spent a year doing exactly that. Thanks to this blueprint, they have a rotation player who, at a salary of just $1.4 million, is occupying a meager 1.3 percent of their cap space.


The summer of 2017 was a fork-in-the-road moment for the Heat.

Three years removed from LeBron James' departure, they had yet to settle on a new path forward. Dwyane Wade was gone. Chris Bosh's career was over. After stringing together six straight playoff berths, the Heat, following a disappointing 41-41 campaign, had missed the postseason for the second time in three years. But they had also finished the season by winning 30 of their final 41 games, and the way the roster had coalesced down the stretch left an impression with the team president Pat Riley.

Still: The group was clearly not a championship contender, and a number of its rotation players were up for new contracts. Lots of teams facing a similar choice would have pulled the cord. But tanking is the antithesis of everything Riley believes; he instead signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson to lucrative extensions—and then lured Kelly Olynyk from the Celtics with an eight-figure deal. The contracts, combined with Whiteside's max deal, left the Heat capped out and with no true superstar to show for it. That they had dealt away a bundle of draft picks over the previous years so they could fortify their playoff squads made their position even more perilous. They weren't good enough to compete for a title, they weren't bad enough to secure a lottery pick and, even worse, there didn't seem to be a way for them to escape.

Yet here we are, just three years later, and the Heat—after finishing with a below-.500 record last season—are 41-21 and back in the top half of the Eastern Conference standings. They've done this without tanking and without clearing space to hunt free agents, and despite having just three draft picks over the previous four years, and despite only two of those falling in the first round, and despite neither being higher than No. 13.

Phrase this another way and it would seem like an unsolvable riddle:

How does a mediocre NBA team with no high draft picks and no significant cap space suddenly become a borderline contender?


You can picture the scene. A new general manager is hired. Or maybe it's a head coach. They're sitting atop a podium. Maybe behind a lectern. People are excited. The coach or executive lays out their plans for their team. There's lots of talk about culture and foundations and patience. Maybe this is all coming at the end of a lost season, with a team acknowledging that changes must be made. Either way, at some point, the following pledge is delivered: Player development will be integral to what we do.

If culture has become the NBA's most popular front-office cliche, then consider player development is its not-so-distant cousin. "It's something every owner wants to hear now," says one Western Conference executive. Yet, even though teams are devoting more resources to the endeavor than ever, how many first-round picks have failed to grow as players? How many front offices and coaches have been ousted thanks to a stalled young core?

The Heat in recent years have been one of the few steady exceptions. Over the past decade or so, they've made a habit of not only unearthing hidden gems—but also of then transforming them into contributors. And still: What they've pulled off this season, even when compared to their own resume, is noteworthy, and as much at the root of their turnaround as the summer sign-and-trade that brought in Jimmy Butler (a trade that involved the Heat cashing in two players they'd developed into assets, Whiteside and Richardson).

Two of their starters—Robinson and shooting guard Kendrick Nunn (15.6 points per game)—went undrafted. So did key reserve Derrick Jones Jr., a wing averaging 8.9 points in 24.5 minutes per game. Tyler Herro, who they plucked with the 13th pick in last summer's draft, entered the league more NBA-ready than nearly all of his peers (12.9 points while drilling 39.1 percent of his 5.4 deep looks per game).

And then there's Bam Adebayo. The 14th pick in 2017, the 6'9" Adebayo entered the NBA as a defensive dynamo. He had every physical tool: long arms, quick feet, Popeye-like muscles and the ability to explode off the floor. But there were questions about his skill set on the other end of the floor.

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 11: Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat passes the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on March 11, 2020 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using th
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Now, not even three seasons later, he's a fulcrum of Miami's offensive attack. His numbers are up across the board (the 16.2 points and 5.1 assists he's averaging per game are both basically double his output from last season), but most telling is how much responsibility the Heat have bestowed upon him: Much of the their offense is orchestrated from the elbows, often via handoffs and screens. Many of those actions are conducted through Adebayo, the same player who fell in the draft because his offensive skills were so unrefined. He has improved as a finisher, perfected the art of deploying screens (the 5.2 screen assists he averages per game is the league's fourth-best mark, according to NBA.com) and reads the floor as well as any center not named Nikola Jokic. It'd be unfair to solely credit the Heat for this transformation—Adebayo, after all, is the one who put in the work—but he's quick to point out how much he's benefited from the culture surrounding him.

"The thing about being here is everyone cares; they'll do anything to help you improve," he says. As an example, he brings up the Heat's player development coaches. "They're willing to sacrifice sleep, give up days off and time with their families—all to come and help you. That really stands out."

But what separates the Heat from many of their peers is that the player development coaches aren't the only ones committed to developing the team's players. Even now, you can often find Spoelstra—a two-time champion in his 12th year as a head coach—jumping into drills. "He's really hands-on and lets you know he cares about what you're doing," Adebayo says. "That makes a difference." With that as the foundation, the Heat then have more freedom to push their players in ways other teams can't, be it through a devotion to conditioning or refining a specific skill.

"They're on top of every minute that you're working," says Bill Duffy, one of the league's most prominent agents. "They just really push the guys. It's a mentality, and it permeates throughout every level of the organization."

That might be the sort of thing that sounds simple and obvious, but in a high-pressured ecosystem like the NBA, one full of competing egos and agendas, achieving this level of cohesion is neither. Front offices don't always support coaches. Coaches don't always trust their front office. Players don't always know who among their employers and bosses truly have their best interests at heart. Anyone can proclaim unity during a preseason press conference. Doing so amid the pressures of a season—when, say, an owner wants to know why his team is struggling—takes resolve.

"That's where that toxicity can leak into an organization," one Western Conference executive says. "And that can derail an entire player development program."

"If a pick sucks, blaming the coaching staff for not developing him is a great way to pass the buck," says a longtime player development coach. This can work the other way too. Maybe the owner is close with the coach. Maybe he goes to him for an explanation. Maybe the coach blames the front office for saddling him with young players not capable of competing in the NBA.

"Everyone needs to be on the same page," one NBA head coach says. "You need to know who you are as a team, what you stand for on both sides of the ball, have a clear philosophy as an organization and vision for your organization—a clear plan in place for each of your players. And from there you can go and execute. Players can tell when there's no alignment."

"In Miami," the coach adds, "it's clear that's not a problem."


MIAMI, FL - MARCH 12: Head Coach Erik Spoelstra of Miami Heat talks with the team during all-access practice on March 12, 2019 at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

About seven months ago, the Heat lost to the Wizards in Washington by 18 points. This wouldn't be particularly noteworthy—the NBA's regular season is long, and blowouts happen—except that the team's effort, even though the loss had come on the heels of a five-game winning streak, had angered Spoelstra.

Two days later, in Miami on New Year's Day, Spoelstra put the Heat through a grueling practice. It lasted nearly three hours. The end was designated for individual skill work, with players split into different groups. Robinson spent the time taking turns with Nunn launching three-pointers on the move.

Spoelstra walked over to a folding table at center court where Riley, team owner Micky Arison and senior vice president of basketball operations Andy Elisburg—still in attendance three hours into a New Year's Day practice—sat. The group, responsible for so much success, talked and laughed and took in all the work taking place around them.

After a few minutes, Spoelstra strolled over to Robinson and Nunn.

For 10 minutes he stood there, watching in quiet, his eyes glued to their feet. Then he moved on to another group.

"We don't do anything super creative," Robinson would say after. "It's just about being fundamental and doing things that correlate to what I would do in a game to help us win."

         

Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter: @YaronWeitzman.

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