Is the Heat culture adapting?

In the wake of Chris Bosh’s 37 point, three pointer game winner, many are starting to take notice that this Heat team is not just a conglomerate of mercenaries but something more.

They are proven winners with a proven system. They have a plan.

It is not easy to win one title in the NBA, let alone two in a row. The Heat are shooting for a three-peat and are doing it with Dwyane Wade sitting out games and Lebron James being given less minutes over the course of the season. The reason? Keep them sharp and healthy for the playoffs – the same notion that got Coach Popovich in hot water last season with his aging veterans.

USA Today published an interesting article with insight into the adaptation. Miami has always had a winning culture – instilled in them when Pat Riley made the move from New York to Miami back in the mid-90’s. He brought in Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, PJ Brown, and others to build a gritty, tough winning franchise. The Heat, for years, had been solid – making runs to the playoffs every few years but never quite getting over the hump despite the best efforts of players like Glen Rice, Steve Smith, and Rony Seikaly. The common denominator? The culture was different.

After Riley took over at the helm, he began instilling a championship vision. In his opening press conference he made mention of his now famous vision of a parade waltzing down Biscayne boulevard. This led to a daring Shaq acquisition which vaulted the Heat back into contention again since the days of the Zo-led Heat of the mid-90’s.

In order for the 2010 offseason of miracles to happen, the foundation had to be laid in place. Wade and Udonis Haslem were the cornerstones of this foundation. In Wade, the Heat had a star that could lead by example – he had been Finals MVP in 2006 while leading the team to its first ever title. In Haslem, the Heat had a gritty player in the lineage of a Grant Long and a PJ Brown. He was a local kid that had tremendous heart, playing overseas after his days as a Gator, losing weight, and turning into a very serviceable, if under-sized, power forward. He had flaws in his game, but he was a tireless worker.

Now, the Heat have appeared in 3 straight NBA Finals – and are shooting for a 4th. They are off to their best ever 23-7 start. The critics have talked about how mental fatigue will set in – human hunger and thirst for greatness has to be eventually quenched at some point. For the Heat, the trick is keeping them sufficiently “greedy” while also making the run at titles their sole purpose. Excellence is the standard, nothing less. For lesser situations and cultures, this would never work. A team might get over the hump once and get lucky (see the Mavericks of 2010) but sustainability is tied to the idea of not being stagnant. Once must not get too comfortable and seek to be defined, but rather must go beyond the familiar in order to keep pushing the boundaries.

Chris Bosh is a pretty good example of that. He has taken to living in south Florida, and has been working on his Spanish to the point that he can speak it a bit publicly in doing interviews. It is this knack for continuing to educate oneself, to never be satisfied with your current state, that leads one to transcend normal boundaries.

Erik Spoelstra has recommended Fred Hassan’s Reinvent: A Leader’s Playbook for Serial Success to his players. Following in the Riley mold, Spoelstra is finding ways to engage his players’ minds – as that will drive their efforts and guide their collective vision for success.

The USA Today article really gives insight into the process that Spoelstra often refers to in post-game interviews. It is more of a mentality than anything, something that simply cannot be bought and paid for but something that has to be a part of someone. This trait also has to be recognized by evaluators and cannot be easily quantified with measurements and data. This is one of the reasons why teams that succeed continue to have success while those that don’t fail despite finding players with good skill sets. The Spurs and Heat, for example, have a culture and find the players to fit those components. As Wade says in the article, “You’ve just got to play, to continue being hungry. I think the biggest thing is that each person has to be self motivated. You’re self motivated to want to continue to be successful, and that’s half the battle.”