As he returned from a scouting trip last Jan. 14, one day after another dispiriting loss dropped the Heat to 11-30, Andy Elisburg, the team's senior vice president and general manager, used a layover to phone his boss, Pat Riley, and tell him it was time for a tough conversation.
"Math," Elisburg remembers warning Riley, "is going to catch us."
The Heat don't tank entire seasons. It is not in the ultra-competitive, borderline militaristic DNA Riley has instilled over two decades. But they aren't dumb, either. They know what the NBA's incentive structure recommends when bad chemistry and injuries undo a season.
The full brain trust agreed to meet about how to approach the rest of the season during Miami's upcoming four-game homestand. The Heat won the first game, over Houston. They postponed the meeting. Miami didn't lose again until mid-February. The meeting never happened.
Miami went 30-11 the rest of the way, missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker, and transformed into one of those random teams NBA nerds will always remember -- unwanted misfits who coalesced around an identity of relentless work and rapid-fire drive-and-kick basketball.
Players bonded over their winding journeys to the NBA. Someone -- Hassan Whiteside claims it now -- nicknamed the D-League "The Jungle," and the players bestowed the same moniker upon their practice court.
"That became 'The Jungle,'" James Johnson says. "Every morning before practice, you're gonna see the same thing written on that whiteboard: 'Mouthpiece, knee pads, rib pads.' You wear all of that for practice. The Jungle became our obsession. If you're from The Jungle, no top draft pick should ever get a loose ball over you. If a top pick and Rodney McGruder are going for a loose ball, I'd bet my house on Rodney."
Johnson lost 35 pounds in The Jungle, and found he could play at full throttle for longer stretches. Everyone could. The Heat outran and outworked people. "I saw a lot of similarities with our team in Boston," Kelly Olynyk says. "Tough, hard-nosed, didn't have any All-Star -- just like us before Isaiah [Thomas] came out of nowhere."
When Gordon Hayward spurned Miami, Riley faced a choice: roll cap space forward, or use it to retain his misfits -- and add one major piece in Olynyk. He chose the misfits. The franchise that mastered the cap room game -- the icon who merely needed to plop rings in front of each summer's premier free agent -- locked in luxury-tax-level payrolls through 2020 for a .500 team.
They owe Phoenix two first-round picks stemming from their 2015 Goran Dragic trade. Executives love to say there are three methods of team-building: trades, the draft, and free agency. The Dragic deal chipped away at the first two. Last summer's spending spree complicated any path into star-level free agency.
That's the downside scenario: a team never satisfied with "pretty good" is stuck there in the post-Heatles era -- at least for the next few years. That championship legacy quite literally follows the Heat around; blown-up photos of past title teams line every corridor leading to the Heat locker room.
"Those moments are fleeting," coach Erik Spoelstra says as he glances at LeBron's smiling face. "You want to enjoy them. But I'm able to look at those images with great reflection, and not stay there. It feels like a different chapter in my life. You want to give this group everything you have -- to give them memories."
Maybe this new Heat team can make its own postseason history. The Heat have surged to 23-17 after a sluggish start in which they couldn't quite summon last season's fury. "It has taken us longer to get back to those habits than we anticipated," Spoelstra says. "That's just the group we have. Even our veterans haven't been in big-time winning situations. Each team develops at its own pace. I don't judge them for that."
Miami lacks a star (for now; the Heat hope one particular young guy might pop), but potential playoff rivals respect the collective. Some fear them as a first-round opponent. They are deep in good players. If everything broke right over a full season, it's not outlandish to see this group winning 50-52 games (they are on pace for 47 now, though their minus-50 point differential is alarming) and a playoff round -- hell, maybe two rounds.
But even some around the team consider that scenario optimistic. They know they face major questions about their ceiling. Expect Miami to be active in trying to address them as next month's trade deadline approaches. They are projecting optimism that they could move those pricey new contracts, according to sources around the league. Rivals are skeptical.
A lot of those questions surround Whiteside, who hasn't looked right since returning from a bone bruise in his knee. The Heat play a crisper style with Olynyk at center, and they have left Whiteside on the bench in crunch time of almost every recent game.
"It's tough, but I don't want to get caught up in it," Whiteside says. "We're winning. But of course you want to be out there."
Johnson is Miami's best power forward, and spacing gets cramped when he and Whiteside share the floor; defenders slough away from Johnson to clog Whiteside's rim-runs:
Spoelstra has upped the shooting by starting Olynyk and Whiteside together, and bringing Johnson off the bench. It's awkward. Olynyk has to defend power forwards or wings. The Heat are minus-24 in the 118 minutes Whiteside and Olynyk have shared the floor, per NBA.com.
Olynyk's shooting unlocks the Dragic-Whiteside spread pick-and-roll, but the Heat offense -- still just 23rd in points per possession after fattening up on an easy schedule over the past month -- can't subsist on a steady diet of that. Spoelstra prefers more ball and player movement. He has even nudged Whiteside toward some playmaking, with, umm, varied results:
"Hassan likes to say we've totally changed the offense," Spoelstra says. "We haven't. We're just asking him to do more things." Bam Adebayo, a bouncy and smart rookie, has looked more at ease picking out cutters. (Adebayo is going to be goooooood.) Spoelstra is excited to tinker with every frontcourt combination, and any of them can work over short stretches against the right opponent.
Still: the offense comes alive when Spoelstra shifts Olynyk to center alongside Johnson. Those groups feature at least four solid shooters, and sometimes five playmakers. Johnson is the supreme connector, skittering from one side to the other with a delightful, unselfish hyperactivity. He can effectively play center, setting screens and rolling with four shooters around him:
When Miami is humming, they work more stuff into five seconds than almost anyone:
They love running Tyler Johnson off an Olynyk pick around the arc, knowing Olynyk's guy will be afraid to help on Johnson's drive. Even if another defender steps in to block off the paint, Miami has already scrambled the defense:
Speaking to players in the locker room before facing the Heat Sunday, Utah's coaches spotlighted one clip of Miami's offense in full flight, says Quin Snyder, the Jazz head coach. Utah tries to put defenses through a wringer of picks and cuts. The clip was a warning: The Heat are going to put us through the wringer.
To make it all work, James Johnson had to tone down the high-wire nature of his game -- the nutty turnovers that eroded trust with prior coaches. It took a lot of video sessions with Spoelstra. "He's always preaching to me: 'Stay boring,'" Johnson says. "I didn't realize -- sometimes a play that feels boring to me, I look at the film, and it's me doing too much."
The Heat have to play with this sort of five-man connectivity -- to form something greater than the sum of their parts. They don't have killer spacing, or one star who can draw double-teams on demand. Dragic comes closest, but he's not quite big enough for that burden. He's also 31, at the start of a gentle downslope; he's not finishing at the rim with the same ferocity of two or three seasons ago.
Whiteside's post game has atrophied. He has hit just 41.8 percent of post-up attempts, per Synergy, 43rd among 52 players who have attempted at least 50 such shots. Factor in fouls drawn, turnovers, and kickout passes that lead to shots, and Whiteside has been one of the half-dozen least productive post-up players in the league, per data from Second Spectrum. The Heat's scoring margin has generally been about the same with and without Whiteside on the floor -- even during last year's finishing kick.
Miami takes a ton of 3s, but aside from Wayne Ellington, they have decent shooters, not great ones. They need time, space, and set feet. Opponents duck under lots of those whirring screens without reprisal, forming a shell outside the paint. The Heat don't generate offensive rebounds or free throws. They are a so-so shooting team that needs to hit their first shot.
When they shift Olynyk to center, opponents often go small and switch a lot of actions -- daring the Heat to exploit mismatches. They are confident guards can contain Olynyk and Johnson in the post, and that (some) bigger wings can stay in front of Miami's ball handlers.
Miami wins some of those battles. Dragic can blow by brutes. Johnson is a bully who can suck in help, and rifle passes through thickets of arms:
"If that one gets deflected, I'd have gotten one of those 'be boring' looks from Spo," Johnson jokes of that dish.
Olynyk is a legit 7 feet, with a deep bag of wily old-school post moves and good vision. The Heat have scored 1.3 points per play anytime Olynyk shoots from the post, or passes to a teammate who lets fly after one or zero dribbles, per Second Spectrum -- the best mark in the entire stinking league.
Ellington is always ready to let fly. Dude is shooting 42 percent on more than 10 3s per 36 minutes, and Miami's offense sinks to league-worst levels without him.
"I don't think there's a yellow or red on Wayne's traffic light," Olynyk says. "Just three greens."
Josh Richardson has made a leap, and some within the Heat are optimistic he can be a two-way star -- something that would change their entire long-term picture. (My hottest Heat take: Richardson is already their best all-around player.) Richardson defends the most dangerous opposing scorer, and he's emerging as a long-armed shot-blocking menace. On offense, he's starting to manipulate defenses on the pick-and-roll with a new change-of-pace sophistication:
Richardson has even shown flashes of the single most elusive star trait: the ability to create, and make, tough off-the-bounce shots -- including hand-in-the-face midrangers -- one-on-one in crunch time. Spoelstra of late has moved toward a closing lineup of Richardson, Dragic, Ellington, James Johnson, and Olynyk. Whether the Heat can survive on defense with Olynyk at center is an open question, but that five-man group has blitzed teams so far.
It is notable for whom it does not include: Whiteside, Justise Winslow, and Dion Waiters. Waiters has missed 10 games with an ankle injury, and has already said he considered offseason surgery. The Heat have him on a nonsurgical rehab program. Waiters recently sought a second opinion, and the situation has created some tension. (The two sides hope to have some clarity this week or next, per league sources.)
The Heat have so many ball handlers, including Tyler Johnson on an untradable deal that balloons to $19 million next season, that Waiters almost feels redundant.
Richardson jumped Winslow as Miami's small forward of the future, and James Johnson leapt him as their go-to small-ball power forward -- Winslow's best role. Lineups with all three of Winslow, James Johnson, and Whiteside might be fatally short on shooting. Multiple rival executives labeled Winslow as Miami's version of Jahlil Okafor. (That is a little much.)
Together, Winslow and Whiteside form Miami's best realistic trade package -- their only means of a huge talent upgrade. (The Heat have shown zero interest in moving Dragic, per league sources.) The Heat could dangle them for a star center on an expiring contract -- DeAndre Jordan or DeMarcus Cousins. Miami has an appetite for that kind of gamble; they feel they can sell any willing rental on Heat culture -- plus tax benefits and weather. The word "willing" is key there. Miami's ultra-physical, workaholic culture isn't for everyone; there at a least a few players in the league who would hesitate to sign there if they had an equal offer elsewhere, per league sources.
Even so, before the season, Whiteside for Cousins was my favorite potential fake trade in the league, though it required New Orleans falling out of the playoff race. The Pelicans have hung in. Meanwhile, the trade values of Whiteside and Winslow are cratering at exactly the wrong moment. Very few teams need centers.
Exchanging salaries in any form -- like flipping Whiteside and Winslow for, say, Marc Gasol -- would do nothing to relieve Miami's coming tax issues, anyway. The looming 2019 tax may cost them Ellington now. He will be a free agent after this season, and if he keeps shooting like this, someone will offer him the full midlevel exception -- or something close. Miami can't pay that without rocketing into tax territory for a team that isn't good enough to justify it. If it faces losing Ellington for nothing, Miami has to at least consider dealing him, as much as that would hurt.
Even offloading close to $30 million in annual salary for zero long-term money at the deadline -- a pure rental -- wouldn't open any meaningful cap space until after 2020 unless Dragic opts out of his deal in in the summer of 2019.
Selling low on Whiteside and Winslow isn't risk-free, either. A healthy, engaged Whiteside raises Miami's ceiling. He is their only source of offensive rebounds, precious extra chances for an unsteady offense, and their best rim protector. Whiteside can't switch or hound ace shooters 30 feet from the rim, but when he's on, he can defend two players at once on pick-and-rolls that encroach upon the paint:
The Heat have always fouled less with Whiteside on the floor; perimeter defenders don't grab and reach when they know help waits behind them. They can also stick closer to enemy shooters -- important for Spoelstra, who is maniacal about limiting corner 3s.
"If we are going to get where we want to go, Hassan has to be a major factor," Spoelstra says.
Winslow is still 21 -- nine years younger than James Johnson. He's 16-of-41 from deep so far this season, and he can defend all five positions. He could play power forward alongside Richardson. He can handle and pass just well enough to make you think there is something more coming.
Miami may not be able to find a workable mega-deal now. They could be stuck in cap hell through 2020. Variables will flip between now and then, of course. Maybe Richardson really pops. Maybe Winslow does, too. Adebayo looks like a very nice future starter.
Those guys will rise as both players and trade assets, opening up more options on the trade market. Miami will have more leeway trading picks after forking over their 2018 selection to Phoenix. There will always be another disgruntled star on an expiring contract with a trade market tepid enough for Miami to leap in. Superstar free agents can force their way anywhere, including to teams without cap space.
The Heat aren't thinking about any of that. The players believe they are close to Jungle form -- that they can go 30-11 again, and push anyone in the East.
"We are trending the right way," Johnson says. "Everyone is bought in. We are bringing the Jungle thing to every game, feeding whoever has it going that night. I love my brothers, man."