Mission or madness? Inside the Heat's quest to win without a superstar

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Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talks with guard <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5376/" data-ylk="slk:Tyler Johnson">Tyler Johnson</a>, who has a four-year, $50 million contract. (Getty)
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra talks with guard Tyler Johnson, who has a four-year, $50 million contract. (Getty)

BOSTON – The praise comes from the coach’s box, from the locker rooms, from opponents who have to contend with a relentless, disciplined Miami Heat team every night. There are no days off against Miami, just 48 physical minutes against a team that will do anything to win. “They are always prepared, they always play the right way and they are always defensively disciplined,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “They are really tough.”

The questions come from rival front offices, from executives conditioned to believe team-building is binary: Have a superstar and build around him, or tear down the roster until you get one. Yet here is Miami, superstar-less and binge-signing role players who can help the team compete for a playoff spot. “I respect [Heat president] Pat [Riley] and Spo [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra] as much as any guys in the league,” said a rival team executive. “But what is the end game there? How do they make the jump from the middle of the pack to the top again? I just don’t see it.”

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Spoelstra understands outside perception. Inside, though, there is only one thing that matters: winning. LeBron James defects? Win. Chris Bosh goes out with a career-ending health issue? Win. Start the season 11-30, as Miami did last season? Don’t tank — win.

“It starts with every year that’s the expectation,” Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the hardest thing for people to wrap their minds around. Because there are a lot of years you could step back and say, that’s crazy, we have no chance. But that’s the standard that’s always set. From the first day of free agency to the first day of summer training to the first day of training camp, that’s been the expectation for 23 straight years. From there, we are trying to figure out how to make that a reality.”

Winning has a price. In recent years, the Heat have lavished big contracts on solid talent, from Tyler Johnson (four years, $50 million) to James Johnson (four years, $60 million) to Kelly Olynyk (four years, $50 million). The deals have wiped out Miami’s cap space for next summer. Coupled with the Heat’s dearth of draft picks — two of Miami’s next four first-rounders are earmarked for Phoenix from the Goran Dragic deal in 2015 — their ability to improve appears limited.

Power is consolidated in Miami, with Riley, owner Micky Arison — who is often represented in basketball decisions by his son, Heat CEO Nick Arison — general manager Andy Elisburg and Spoelstra charting the course. And if there is one thread that ties them together, it’s that in the NBA, a conventional approach isn’t the only way.

“What I find fascinating about how Mickey and Pat and Andy build teams, they build them with that championship standard without thinking there are absolutes with how to build a championship team,” Spoelstra said. “Pat believes you can build a championship team no matter what the circumstances are. That’s the standard he sets for everybody. Now figure it out. That’s a beautiful place to start from. As you strip away all the restrictions, release your mind from conventional thinking. I find it just a fascinating place to work when that is always the expectation.”

The Heat see the value in winning, to building a culture, which is why they didn’t pack it in after last season’s 11-30 start. Miami missed the playoffs, but the winning habits formed during a 30-11 finish get super-glued to young players, lessons only learned through success.

“People say the last two years the way we have done it is non-traditional or unconventional,” Spoelstra told Yahoo Sports. “I would say it is more by whatever means necessary is the way Coach Riley looks at it. Because for 23 years he has built championship-contending teams in different ways. Through the draft, through free agency through trade and then this summer, bringing a team back that we felt that we could build with and grow, from a group largely overlooked or outcasts.”

Where many see bad contracts, the Heat see flexibility. Yes, Miami has spent its money, but few deals on the Heat’s books are considered untradeable, and the ever-proactive Riley is a bold risk-taker, willing to take chances, willing to bet that a winning culture and a South Beach lifestyle are enough to retain anyone who wears a Miami uniform.

Until then, the focus is on development, on improving, and, yes, on winning. Miami is 16-15, nipping at the playoffs once again. Down three key players, the Heat upended the Celtics on Wednesday, with Olynyk’s 32 points leading the way. There will be no talk of tanking, not now, not ever. In the absence of a traditional star, the Heat will work to mine one from the roster Spoelstra has to work with.

“That’s our belief,” Spoelstra said. “I like living in a world where there are only possibilities, not absolutes. In any fields, there can be a thinking that, ‘This is the only way to get it done.’ There are a lot of ways to get to the top. However unrealistic it may seem to people on the outside, those are the kind of challenges that we like.”

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