Why Erik Spoelstra and the Heat don't believe in tanking

‘It's not an overnight thing,’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says of the team’s success. (AP)
‘It's not an overnight thing,’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says of the team’s success. (AP)

BOSTON – Erik Spoelstra knows what you want. A narrative. An anecdote. A lightbulb-clicking moment that transformed Miami from a sputtering 11-30 team to one surging toward .500 and a playoff spot.

Here’s the problem: He doesn’t have one.

“Everybody wants an ‘ah-ha’ moment; there hasn’t been [one],” Spoelstra said. “What it is, is boring, methodical, incremental and not even straight-line improvement. It’s what nobody wants to hear nowadays in this millennial generation. It’s not an overnight thing. It was two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, three steps back.”

Miami took a step back on Sunday, losing to Boston 112-108, seeing its lead over Chicago for the final playoff spot erode to a half-game. Still, that the Heat are in this position is astonishing. Flash back to mid-January, the end of a 1-6 road trip and Miami’s low point of the season. The Heat have All-Star-level talent (Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside), but lack the kind of prolific scoring wing a high draft pick could offer. Allowing the season to slip away, through trades or resting players, was an option.

Other teams have done that. There has been widespread outrage recently over title contenders cherry-picking games to rest tired stars. Yet there is little fervor over the handful of teams that have shown no interest in winning since the All-Star break. The Lakers – operated by Jeanie Buss, who once called tanking “unforgivable” – have won twice since the break and have yanked Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and Nick Young from the rotation. Desperate to hold on to that top-three protected draft pick, L.A. has decided it is willing to accept devolving into a national embarrassment.

And how about Phoenix? Devin Booker dropped 70 on the Celtics on Friday. The Suns lost by 10. Soaking in the performance was Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler, three starters the 22-52 Suns have elected to sit the rest of the season. Coach Earl Watson has sidestepped criticism by declaring the benchings management decisions, brazenly pointing the finger at general manager Ryan McDonough. The Suns aren’t just bad, they are bad and dysfunctional.

Tyler Johnson is averaging 13.9 points for the Heat. (AP)
Tyler Johnson is averaging 13.9 points for the Heat. (AP)

Amazingly, no one cares. Warriors coach Steve Kerr gives Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson a night off, it’s a three-day headline. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue sits his Big Three for one night in L.A., it prompts a strongly worded league memo. The Lakers and Suns have become the NBA’s Washington Generals, and that gets chalked up to sound long-term strategy. Good thing ESPN doesn’t have Phoenix booked for national TV.

Miami? Even at its lowest point, the Heat never considered scuttling the season. “That’s just not our style,” Spoelstra told The Vertical. “Look, I’m not naïve. I know that if it didn’t get better, [team president] Pat [Riley] might have had to do his job in a different way. I’m very aware of that. But there was never a discussion about not playing this guy, or games are not meaningful. That’s just not us.”

Miami’s focus: Player development. Few coaches are better at it than Spoelstra, and few organizations are as committed to it as the Heat. Three years ago, Hassan Whiteside was on the NBA scrap heap. Today, he’s a 16.9-points-per-game scorer and the NBA’s leading rebounder. Tyler Johnson was an undrafted free agent. Two-plus years with Miami and Johnson is a 13.9-points-per-game scorer.

Then there is Dion Waiters, a radioactive two-guard who signed a short-money deal with Miami last summer. Notoriously stubborn, Waiters had a reputation as a chucker. This season he has evolved as a playmaker (4.3 assists per game) and 3-point shooter (career-high 39.4 percent) while being entrusted as a late-game scorer.

The Heat’s philosophy is simple: Earn everything. Starts are not promised. Minutes are not guaranteed. Play poorly, don’t hustle and you will get used to wearing warmups. “With injuries, even with our bad record, guys had to learn quickly that, no, you are not getting your same spot back,” Spoelstra said. “You have to fight for it. The first time that happened with some of our young guys, we got quizzical, almost entitled looks. Then that look changed to, ‘Oh, [expletive], this is real.’ Then it was, ‘OK, I have to fight for this. Let me get to work.’ That is a very powerful thing to go through for a young player.”

They don’t take victory laps in Miami. They don’t seek praise, though others are quick to offer it. “It’s not easy to start 11-30 and run off what they have run off,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They all have a tremendous resiliency to be able to do that. I couldn’t be more of a fan when watching an NBA team than I am of watching Miami this year.”

What the Heat will say is that they believed this kind of late-season surge was possible, that they were never as bad as the record suggested. “I wasn’t selling coach-speak,” Spoelstra told The Vertical. “We were in the most clutch games of any team in the league and we lost more games by a close deficit than any team. We were doing a lot of good things and building a lot of good habits. We went through tremendous adversity with guys in and out of the lineup every night. We still found a way to build a reliable defense, and the group was able to stay connected through it all without making excuses or feeling sorry for itself or thinking, ‘Let’s start tanking.’ That never came up.”

Miami’s realistic – there is a ceiling here. At best the Heat claws their way into the playoffs, where they will be a heavy underdog against any first-round opponent. But they are the team no one wants to play. Ask Boston. The Celtics completed their second straight series sweep of Miami – and want nothing to do with them in the playoffs. The Heat have a sturdy defense, attack the basket relentlessly and rarely get rattled in big moments. You beat them – but it takes everything out of you to do it.

And that’s fine. The Heat don’t criticize tanking teams. They just refuse to be one. While the Lakers are mailing in the season, Miami is fighting to extend it. While Phoenix is daring the NBA to show a flicker of interest in its obvious attempts to lose, the Heat are battling for every win. The mere possibility of an extra week of games means that much. Rebuilding through high lottery picks is a well-worn path. And Miami refuses to follow it.

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