The question put to Erik Spoelstra on Monday was general enough for him to dodge it with veteran-coach ease. He did not.
Does he think the Miami Heat can contend in the NBA’s Eastern Conference this season?
“We do,” he answered, quickly. “Unequivocally so.”
But how? How does a franchise trying to shed its post-Big 3 era malaise of three missed playoffs in the past five years turn it around so dramatically? How does a team starting a season without Dwyane Wade for the third time since 2002 pull off the big reboot?
Heat mind-set and confidence rely more on intangible qualities than any team I have covered.
Top down, it’s the first-class ownership of Micky Arison, the sensei leadership of the godfather Pat Riley and the expertise of Spoelstra to maneuver his chess pieces. It is Alonzo Mourning in the front office and Udonis Haslem back for his 17th season personifying everything about Heat family and (of course) culture.
It is the notion that, somehow, Heat players work harder and are in better shape than others — all of it backed up by three championship trophies.
There is an almost mystical belief in the power of Heat culture. It turns Spoelstra into Luke Skywalker to Riley’s Obi-Wan Kenobi when the coach says this like this during Monday’s Media Day event: “I take this responsibility very seriously every single day. In 1995, Micky and Pat started this thing, one of the first-class, respected organizations in all of sports. I take very seriously that I’m a caretaker of this culture.”
“Heat Culture” is promoted so tangibly from within that players know they will be asked to describe what it means.
Miami traded for Jimmy Butler this offseason because he fit the culture. Already he has shown how, inviting rookie top draft pick Tyler Herro to work with him for a week. Starting every morning at 4 a.m.
“For him to take me under his wing meant a lot,” Herro said Monday.
Dion Waiters relays meeting Riley for the first time in 2016 when he was an unsigned free agent and Riley rescued his career. Riles was in full-on Impress Mode: Armani suit (“A real O.G., looking like a million bucks”), and one of his nine career championship rings, of course. It was what Riley said, though, not how he looked, that spoke of the culture.
“We are going to get you in world-class shape,” Riley told him. “Not good shape. Not great shape. World class.”
Waiters thought, “I’m in the NBA. In my mind I’m already in good shape. But do I eat a Philly cheesesteak when I’m back home? You know I do.”
Riley, as if reading his mind, smiles and repeats, “World -lass shape.”
OK. So the Heat has championship-caliber culture. But does Miami have a team capable of competing in the East with conference favorite Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo or Philadelphia and Joel Embiid?
Brooklyn, Boston, Toronto and Indiana also are all higher-ranked betting favorites than Miami in the East. There is a disconnect. Public regard is that the Heat will be in the mix for low playoff seed, maybe, while the Heat is thinking contending — a top four seed.
The opening is there. Brooklyn is without Kevin Durant for the season. Underperforming Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Toronto of course lost Kawhi Leonard. Indiana is without star Victor Oladipo indefinitely.
So here are five things that must go right if Miami is to make the leap from being a non-playoff team to one contending for home-court playoff advantage in the East:
1. Jimmy Butler proves he is elite: There is not consensus on that. At 30, some see him as a second-tier star prone to various ailments. “He is top 15 on this planet,” Spoelstra declares. But ESPN’s 2019-20 NBA ranking spots Butler 21st overall, down from 13th a year earlier.
Riley says Butler “can be a 27-7-7 guy [points-rebounds-assists] if we need him to be.” In output, leadership, reliability and everything else, Miami needs Butler to prove he’s in the heart of his prime and prove to have been a great get worth the cost of, primarily, rising star Josh Richardson.
2. Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow continue ascending: The 2015 first-round pick Winslow and 2017 first-round pick Adebayo both made strides last season, Adebayo cracking that ESPN top 100 for the first time at 81st.
Adebayo’s undeniable rise (“and ferocious work ethic,” Spoelstra said) made Hassan Whiteside thoroughly expendable. Winslow’s versatility as a point guard or forward, his all-over-the-court skills and his 38 percent three-point shot make him someone who will demand starter minutes even if it’s off the bench.
3. The full blossoming of Waiters: There are indications Waiters might finally have attained that “world-class shape” that Riley spoke of three years ago. And his health, too. The shooting guard spot (Wade’s old job) is his. At 27, it is time for Waiters to stay healthy and produce. Same with James Johnson, who can be a valuable power forward rotation guy behind Kelly Olynyk if he can stay on the court.
Riley recently mentioned he thinks Miami might have been the unluckiest team in the league starting with Le Bron James leaving and then Chris Bosh’s career-ending illness. Injuries to Waiters, Johnson and Goran Dragic last season would fit Riley’s unlucky narrative.
4. Spoelstra solving point guard issue and finding enough minutes: Miami has a quality returning point guard in Dragic, 33, and in Winslow, 23, a rising star who wants the job. Campaigns for it, which the club wishes he wouldn’t. “Truthfully, I want to play point guard,” Winslow said just Monday, also emphasizing that “me and Goran are super close. We work out together.”
Spoelstra stresses his positionless mind-set on the matter of who starts, saying, “I’m looking forward to all the versatility we have.” But his big decision of training camp this week and the preseason to follow may be whether Dragic or Winslow starts.
Miami looks to have as many as a dozen rotation-quality players to find minutes for. Spo will be earning his recent four-year contract extension doling out court time and figuring out lineup variations.
5. Herro showing fast how good he is: This summer’s No. 1 draft pick is 19, is called “Boy Wonder,” and there isn’t a respectable bar in America that wouldn’t card him. His cocky attitude and catch-and-shoot skills make him a tantalizing prospect. Has Miami just drafted potentially its most exciting star since Wade? That answer playing out by degrees will be one of the season’s small delights.
“Look, we drafted him for a reason, and it wasn’t fake, it was real,” Spoelstra says. “That’s what we’ve seen this summer. His work ethic is not a rumor. I see a very driven and ambitious young man. He’s earned the right for the head coach to watch him a lot more closely.”
The more of the above five factors that show themselves, the higher the Heat will climb in the East. But “culture” is a great starting point. But it isn’t enough.