The $2.6 million salary would be difficult for anyone to turn down. And the camaraderie of being on a team is awfully difficult to replace.
But for Udonis Haslem — a man who has always put team and principle first — the decision to return for a 17th season, at age 39, was also about unfinished business.
Considered one of the best leaders and teammates in the NBA, Haslem admitted this week that he didn’t meet his own expectations last season in a role that has morphed more into more of a player-coach than actual player.
“I have a responsibility to these guys, and that’s why I’m back because I didn’t do my job the way I was supposed to last year,” he said Monday. “We have the potential to make the playoffs, and we didn’t.
“That didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t feel like I did the best job I could possibly do. So that’s why I’m back, to drive these guys to be the best they can be, get the most out of these guys, put these guys in a situation where I can walk away and say, ‘OK, they’re on the rise. They’re on the right direction.’ Just like the guys that came before me did to me.”
Heat president Pat Riley said in April that there was slippage in the Heat culture, with lapses in conditioning (with a couple of players) one of the areas that lagged and tardiness reportedly another.
“I agree,” Haslem said of Riley’s comment. “If you see something, say something. That’s what the kids at school say. I’m going to bring ‘if you see something, say something’ T-shirts to practice.
“I am going to be a lot involved with everything that’s going on. Not turn the other cheek. Understand that everything matters. You try to focus on certain guys and certain situations and other things slip through the cracks. And as our coaching staff sits in the locker room and implements plays and process, it’s my job to focus on the little things that might slip through the cracks, and I’ve got to do a better job at that and I will do a better job at that.”
The biggest slippage, Haslem said, manifested itself in lack of “consistency. We had our good days and bad days. We want to be more consistent across the board.”
Another slippage was in conditioning, and James Johnson was ordered to miss the start of training camp while he gets in better shape. Haslem said Tuesday morning he spoke to Johnson for an hour about his lack of conditioning.
Because Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were soft-spoken, Haslem is playing with the Heat’s strongest personality (Jimmy Butler) since LeBron James left for Cleveland in the summer of 2014. But he expects their relationship to thrive, in a dual leadership role.
Butler’s strong personality “doesn’t matter to me as long as he competes and works hard and is about the right thing. Everything I know about Jimmy, he competes, he works hard and he’s about the right thing.
“I sit back from afar and look at the teams he’s played on,the things people said about him, but it’s all been because he’s one of the guys that competes at his level. I’ve been that guy who didn’t understand why guys don’t compete at my level and why guys don’t take things as personally and why guys don’t play as hard as me. So I can relate to him on a lot of levels. So I’m glad to have him.”
And here’s where Haslem believes their leadership role will differ: “The biggest thing for me is a guy who can do certain things from the locker room, a guy who can do certain things from practice but a guy who can’t do those things to help those guys [on the court because of his limited minutes]. So we need that personality [Butler] on the floor as well.”
Has Haslem gone down the roster with Butler and given him input on which players respond well to tough love and which respond to more gentle encouragement?
“We’ve already had that conversation, and we’ll have more conversations but we talked about things I think he should do and look at and how he could be better,” Haslem said. “We’ll sit down and talk more.
“I’m ready to pass the [leadership] torch, [am ready for] somebody grab it. The next person to me will be Bam [Adebayo], but as far as having that competitive leader on the floor right now, that guy is Jimmy. And yes he does need to understand that everybody doesn’t respond to certain things — something I had to learn as a captain and as a leader. He’s got to understand how to motivate guys differently and that’s something I’ll help him understand.”
Haslem played just 74 minutes last season after logging 72 the year before, but said that doesn’t bother him.
“I ain’t probably going to play but that don’t matter,” he said. “I ain’t here to play. I will be on the bench, I’m going to be ready to play if Spo needs me, puts me in. That’s my job to be ready. But I also understand my biggest influence on this team is probably not to be playing.”
Riley asked Haslem after the season if he wants to play or coach, but Haslem has said he’s not interested in coaching, even though Riley predicts he will be a coach someday.
Coaching is not the right path for him now, Haslem said, “because my kids are young still and I devoted so much of my life to my career and I blink and my oldest son was in college and I don’t want to blink again and my two youngest ones be in college. To sign up to be a coach is to sign up to spend more hours here at the gym. That wouldn’t be fair to my kids at this stage. I was lucky enough to get my wife to let me play one more year, but I don’t know if she will let me coach.”
So is this season assuredly his final one? Haslem won’t say.
“Dwyane [Wade] said do me one favor: Don’t answer the question about how many years you’re going to play. I said, ‘Why? ‘ Because he said, ‘You don’t even know.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’
“The decision is mine but it’s not mine. If these guys respond, and we get the most out of this team then that means I’ve done my job. But I won’t walk away, I can’t walk away if we don’t reach our potential as a team.
“I’ve got to live with that. I’ve got to go to sleep every night knowing I had a great 17-year career, but my last year, we didn’t make the playoffs; my last year, we didn’t reach out goals; my last year, we didn’t reach our potential; my last year Dion [Waiters] wasn’t the best he could be; my last year, Justise [Winslow] wasn’t the best he could be. And that’s something I don’t want to live with [in Year 17 for him]. I don’t want to live with these guys not reaching their potential.”