The Anatomy of a Spectacular Miami Heat Failure
The Miami Heat’s bid for basketball immortality – four straight NBA Finals appearances and three straight NBA titles, a feat which has only been accomplished once in league history – has fallen spectacularly short. In the wake of this colossal failure, we’re all left wondering how it all went so wrong so quickly – how our team ended up looking so old, so slow, so flawed, so unable to adapt, so unable to defend.
Is it an organizational philosophy that failed us?
“I don’t think you win championships with young, athletic players that don’t have experience. I think we’ve learned over the years that building with young players is very frustrating.”
That was Pat Riley in June 2011, describing his aversion to developing youthful talent.
It is a philosophy that he has expressed many different times in many different ways over the years. It is a philosophy that has permeated his every decision in preparation for and during the Big Three era. It is a philosophy upon which the Stepien-like decisions to surrender a whopping six future first round draft picks in a period of less than five months from February to July 2010 were predicated. It is a philosophy upon which the decision to constantly fill the roster with post-dated bench-warming veterans was predicated.
It was a philosophy which, initially, didn’t bother us. We were all so captivated by the moment. Riley had a plan. He executed upon it with deadly precision. He got the big things so right that it didn’t matter how he handled the little things. In Riley we trusted.
The winning that followed only validated that ideology.
But, quietly, things weren’t as wonderful as they appeared. In the wake of the signings of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the summer of the 2010, the front office lost sight of its need to build for the future. Everything was always only about the moment.
Some of us couldn’t help but wonder. If your mission is to win as many titles as possible while the Big Three are still in their primes, then wouldn’t you like to have some upside around? Some players who will be getting better with time? Some players who can keep the energy level high when the stars need to rest?
Riley has always had a clear affinity for the seasoned veteran versus the inexperienced rookie. He’d rather have the sure thing than the potential next big thing. But as much as these veterans are low risks to make stupid, rookie-type decisions, none will break free off the dribble in crunch time or make that key defensive stop and then sprint up the floor for a breakaway jam – they’re zero risks to become more athletic, to develop new parts of their games, or to be usable as trade bait should the need arise.
The Big-Three-era Heat have always had a great environment in which to extract the best out of impressionable young athletes. By the nature of its composition, with three of the game’s best players, this team has had a real advantage in getting the most out of development. Potential youngsters would have the right kind of role models. They’d all be pushing to be better – fighting to impress their Hall-of-Fame teammates, fighting to reach their maximum potential, fighting for playing time. They wouldn’t have the distractions of constant losing, of deflated and demoralized leaders. When your best players are your hardest workers, good things happen. Players in that environment play much better and develop much faster.
Instead, over the years, the Heat have been left almost entirely without young, developing players, and with a major shortage of bench athleticism and speed. There has rarely been anybody on the roster who could be targeted to have a big jump in productivity from one season to the next, or down the road. There has rarely been anyone or anything which has had the potential to create future trade value should the need arise.
The logical progression of the Riley approach was never difficult to prognosticate. Just four years into the Big Three era, the Heat now finds itself the oldest team in the league. And it’s not even close. The average age? A stunning 31 years.
The Heat brass did this to themselves.
And so, it’s worth noting that Riley and crew had countless alternatives to the decisions they’ve made over the years.
What if things were different?
What if the Heat had made some different decisions along the way?
Some of us felt that Riley’s decision to pick up the option on Cook’s contract was an inexplicable and tragic error. Riley was already several years into his plan to maximize cap space for the summer of 2010, just eight months prior to its realization, and yet he violated his own strategy for a player who could only ever be a backup.
Some of us felt that he compounded that error in the way he chose to undue it. He traded away the Heat’s first round draft pick along with Cook in exchange for a second round pick. It is not hard to see what he was thinking – it was important to remove the cap-eating obligations of both Cook and the first round pick.
But not all of us agreed on the approach. Some of us felt that Cook’s expiring $2.2 million contract could rather easily be shed simply by offering a potential suitor up to the $3.0 million cash limit the CBA allowed, as well as a selection of second round picks if necessary. How many unprofitable smaller-market teams could realistically pass up the opportunity to add backcourt depth in the form of a young and developing Three-Point Shootout champion not only free of charge, but at an $830k profit?
Some of us recognized that trading away the first round pick didn’t save as much cap space as one might otherwise suspect – a net $764K in total. These people felt that such an amount would ultimately be inconsequentially small, and could be earned back in full simply by renouncing the free agent rights to always underwhelming center Joel Anthony. These people realized that the first round pick was far more valuable to the Heat than was giving Anthony a contract greater than the minimum salary at which they could have otherwise signed him.
These same people felt that treating the No. 18 overall pick with such apathy was imprudent, that it could be better utilized to draft a potential future starter – guys like Eric Bledsoe, who just about the entire world had the Heat selecting in their mock drafts.
In a 2009-10 season to that point mired in frustration, and seemingly defined by the anticipation of things to come, keeping Wright at the trade deadline was perhaps the single most popular decision the Heat brass made. Riley and crew decided that Wright’s presence was more of a priority than the estimated $7.7 million addition to owner Micky Arison’s already fat wallet. It was tremendous display of loyalty.
But not all of us were so thrilled. A select few among us realized that if the Heat were to be successful in their bid for three maximum contract free agents, the team would need to soak up every possible opportunity to create depth around them.
The Grizzlies were offering a lottery-protected first round pick in return for his services. This select few realized that, despite Wright’s overwhelming popularity and still very much untapped potential, 26 final games from a free-agent-to-be in a season going nowhere was simply not worth $7.7 million in cash and a future first round draft pick.
That pick ended up being No. 20 overall in the 2011 draft.
When Bosh and James made their decisions, there was elation. When they were signed, there was controversy. Surrendering four first round picks and two second round picks seemed a bit excessive to some of us for a couple of players who were otherwise already committed to the Heat. It seemed a bit excessive in return for nothing more than a sixth season tacked on to an already huge five-year contract.
Some of us realized that the Big Three could have all made more money than they are making today over the first five years of their current deals, and the Heat could have retained all six of their draft picks, without the sign-and-trade structures for James and Bosh, at the cost of just Udonis Haslem.
These people were not in favor of the sign-and-trade structure – not because they didn’t absolutely love the universally-loved Haslem, but rather because they imagined the value of those six forgone draft picks was just too great. They imagined what youthful players the Heat might’ve drafted with those picks. More importantly, they imagined the damage that not being able to trade a first round pick for seven years would cause. For these people, it would have been a merciful parting with Haslem, because they knew Haslem had offers than were $13 million higher than the Heat could afford to pay him anyway.
Of course, none of them knew at the time which players might be available in trade in the years to come. But that’s not really the point. They knew that trade scenarios would emerge. They knew that the Heat would need draft picks to facilitate those trades. And they knew the Heat was leaving itself without any.
How many trades have you dreamed of making over the past four years that couldn’t be executed because the Heat didn’t have the necessary assets to make them happen?
This was well before Vucevic became a breakout performer. It was Riley’s vision. Something none of us saw. It was another stroke of pure Riley genius. And so, he tried to get a deal done. But he couldn’t, because he didn’t have the required assets.
How many of those six surrendered draft picks (and/or players) would it have taken to get a Vucevic deal done? The Sixers weren’t asking for very much.
How many of the rest of those six draft picks would be helping this Heat team today?
What if I told you that in the 2011 draft alone, the Heat could have had not only the No. 20 pick from Memphis but also its own No. 28 pick (sent to Toronto in the Bosh trade) and the No. 31 pick (received in the Michael Beasley trade, and ultimately sent to Minnesota to get back the No. 28 pick that never would have been traded)? What might the Heat have done with two first round draft picks and the first overall pick in the second round?
Traded up for a potential star? How high up could a package of pick Nos. 20, 28 and 31 have gotten you? Nikola Vucevic was selected at No. 16. Kawhi Leonard was selected at No. 15. Markieff Morris was selected at No. 13. Klay Thompson was selected at No. 11.
Or maybe they’d have used the picks. As it worked out, the 2011 draft contained some of the best depth that many of us have ever seen. Would-be available options included point guards Reggie Jackson and Isaiah Thomas; shooting guards Jimmy Butler and Bojan Bogdanović; small forwards Chandler Parsons and Kyle Singler; power forwards Kenneth Faried and Nikola Mirotic; and forward/centers Donatas Motiejūnas and Jon Leuer, among several other quality NBA talents.
It should be stated that Riley has never been all that great with the draft, and that while the 2011 draft was rich in depth, there were also many players selected who haven’t worked out so well. But with so many picks and so many quality players left, at what point do the odds say you’d simply luck your way into a quality pick? The Heat were actively looking for a small forward that summer. There were only five possible candidates remaining on the entire draft board at pick No. 20 and below – Butler, Singler, Parsons, Jordan Hamilton and Tyler Honeycutt. Selecting blindfolded from names picked out of a hat, that’s a 60% chance of selecting a current NBA starter.
Jerry Stackhouse. Juwan Howard. Jamaal Magloire.
Veteran savvy is a useful tool. But these are three players who had already been severely marginalized by age. They had all been excellent once. In fact, they had all been All-Stars. But that was years before. Prior to their signings, when was the last time any one of them had a great game, or even a decent season?
With unbelievable quickness and size from its perimeter stars, the Heat had the chance be the fastest team in NBA history – but not with brittle aging athletes like Stackhouse, Howard or Magloire on the floor.
Some of us recognized the true tragedy of the situation – that players who hold the last three roster spots in the Heat rotation will rarely play anyway, that these spots are therefore more appropriately utilized as a breeding ground for potential new talent rather than as a parking place for the elderly.
Some of us felt that the Heat never even bothered to fully tap into its well of available resources. They could have scoured Europe, Asia, Latin America, the D-League and the NBA waiver wire. They could have tapped into their vast scouting infrastructure to uncover a hidden gem. They could have potentially coaxed all kinds of players to play alongside these stars – guys they liked, such as Patrick Beverley, or guys who they ultimately never even considered, such as Danny Green.
The question has been asked. What if things were different?
Let’s try to answer it.
LeBron James could be playing under a near full maximum contract, sacrificing that sixth year guarantee in exchange for an added $3 million over the first five. Mike Miller could still be hitting gargantuan three-pointers for the Heat, some without the benefit of his shoes, while at the same time serving as an apprentice to a younger protege. Who would it have been? Jimmy Butler? Kyle Singler? Chandler Parsons?
Chris Bosh could be playing under a near maximum contract, sacrificing his sixth year guarantee in exchange for an added $3 million over the first five. Andray Blatche could be battling it out with Kenenth Faired or Nikola Mirotic or Arnett Moultrie or Michael Beasley for reserve minutes at the four spot.
Nikola Vucevic could be the team’s starting center and future star. Chris Andersen could be earning reserve minutes. Joel Anthony would be long gone, having played under a much more palatable two-year minimum salary contract before retiring, never having become the burden he remained to the organization until January of this year. Maybe the Heat would still have the void at third string center that it has today. Maybe that’s what the Heat targets with its two first round draft picks – it’s own, and a second from Toronto – in the upcoming 2014 draft. Maybe they target Jusuf Nurkic?
Think about that hypothetical team for a moment. Think about how it could have evolved over time. Think about how great it could have been to have such talented youth implanted at every position.
Think about how great it could have been for the Heat to have had so many quality options at point guard (Chalmers, Bledsoe, Beverley).
Think about how great it could have been to have Danny Green playing for the Heat, rather than against the Heat.
Think about how great a fit the interior presence of Nikola Vucevic could have been when paired alongside the perimeter-oriented Chris Bosh in the frontcourt.
Think about how bright the future would have been. James and Bosh would have had no reason to even consider the possibility of leaving. The Heat would have been set up with an idyllic transition for Wade as he began to fade. The Heat would perhaps have won the 2014 NBA title, it’s third in as many years, perhaps en route to countless more.
It’s not as if an entirely unrealistic scenario is being painted here. Many of us were questioning each one of the above referenced decisions made by Riley and crew as they were happening. Many of us were calling for the type of flexibility that Riley’s dealings never allowed this team to have.
And so, instead, after a second failed NBA Finals series in four years, it certainly feels as if the dominant reign of the Big Three era could be closing. And so, for those of us who constantly live in the past, it only makes us wonder what could have been. If only.