The Heat went 39-43 last season. They had won only one playoff game in the last three years. They had missed the postseason altogether in three of the last five years. Their payroll was bloated. James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk had multiple seasons left on their negative-value contracts. Hassan Whiteside and Ryan Anderson had expensive deals, though for only one more season. Miami’s roster, weighted for playing time, was older than league average. The Heat owed a future first-round pick after trading for Goran Dragic years prior.
To many, the situation appeared ripe for tanking. Miami could lose, pick high in the draft, trade its good players for even more draft picks and eventually escape mediocrity.
Instead, the Heat surrendered a first-round pick in order to give 30-year-old Jimmy Butler a max contract.
Now, Miami is in the conference finals.
“Every team’s situation is different, that’s just a fact,” one league general manager said. “But there are probably owners out there who will look at what the Heat have done and think, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ instead of bottoming out, then building back up.”
Said another longtime front-office executive: “There’s a lot of different ways to win. But the Heat did make this turnaround happen faster than normal, and that doesn’t go unnoticed by people who have been sitting through losing.”
The Heat’s rebuild stands in sharp contrast to The Process. The 76ers stunk for four miserable seasons to build up assets. The reward (so far)? Two second-round and one first-round exit.
Miami has already surpassed that.
Led by Pat Riley, the Heat have a great culture. They developed undrafted Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn and mid first-rounders Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro into key contributors (and second-rounder Josh Richardson, whom Miami dealt for Butler). That happens, in part, because the Heat are relentlessly focused on winning.
Tanking teams do better at accumulating assets. But they more often struggle to keep young players focused and committed amid losing.
These are tradeoffs, and successful organizations strike the right balance.
However, an underdiscussed aspect of tanking: It’s a form of job preservation for the executives who implement it. General managers are assessed in the long run by winning and losing. But tanking executives effectively delay starting the clock on judgment, buying extra time in their cushy positions.
Riley had the job security not to resort to those tricks – and is succeeding in his plan.
Maybe more attention should be placed on the Heat missing the playoffs in three of the previous five seasons and isn’t certain to remain at this level as Butler and Dragic age. Maybe it should be more considered that Miami presented stylistic problems for the Bucks and might not have advanced past the second round with a different matchup, even against a lesser team than Milwaukee. Maybe not every team has a market to lure stars like Butler (and preceding stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who helped bolster the Heat’s reputation).
But results draw attention. Context isn’t always fully considered. Miami jumped from the lottery to the conference finals in only one season.
In a copycat league, that increases pressure on executives preaching patience.