In a similar manner to last season, the Miami Heat are gathering steam as many of their rivals are either stagnating or self-combusting.
“I saw a lot of similarities with our team in Boston. Tough, hard-nosed, didn’t have any All-Star — just like us before Isaiah [Thomas] came out of nowhere.”
As has been a Heat tradition since the arrival of now team president Pat Riley in 1995, two factors have stood out to this point of the season — coaching and conditioning.
The coaching job through 44 games from Erik Spoelstra thus far has been exemplary. Despite dealing with a consistent amount of injuries, and starting the season with an 11-13 record, the Heat have responded emphatically, currently sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference standings with a 26-18 record.
Aside from Dion Waiters, now ruled out for the season with an ankle injury, the Heat have also been without Hassan Whiteside (18 games missed), Justise Winslow (14 games) and James Johnson (eight games) for significant portions. Furthermore, swingman Rodney McGruder has not appeared at all this season.
But this hasn’t deterred Spoelstra, who, after finishing second in Coach of the Year last season, has again demonstrated his standing as one of the elite at patrolling the sidelines. Via a multitude of different lineups, continued emphasis on the defensive end of the floor and the famed “Heat culture,” Spoelstra and the Heat find themselves just half a game behind the much more fancied Cleveland Cavaliers for third place in the East.
Ever since his days as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, where he led the Lakers to four titles in the ’80s, Riley has ensured that physical conditioning was always going to be a top priority. As a result, this has become a trademark of the Heat as a franchise as they look to set themselves apart from the opposition.
As Riley himself stated during the midst of last season to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel:
“I don’t think any player is worth his salt unless he attempts to get in world-class condition. And that’s the least that we should ask of a player, to be in great shape.
“I think, personally, it’s the number-one obligation — obligation — of an organization and a coaching staff and a training staff, is, ‘We can get you there, and we really believe this will help you in your game.’ So why wouldn’t you want to do it?”
Last season, Johnson, Waiters and Wayne Ellington all benefited immensely from the Heat’s training regime by getting into the best shape off their careers. While Riley is calling the shots, it’s the father-and-son combined action of Bill and Eric Foran who handle the day-to-day, hands-on work as the head of the strength and conditioning department. As Johnson stated towards the end of last season:
“I don’t think I’m going to leave Eric Foran or Bill Foran’s side during the summer. I don’t think this is it for me. I still feel I have a long way to go and I want to get there body wise. I think the game will follow.”
This season, it’s been OIynyk, who just a fortnight into the season was reported as having lost 16 pounds since signing with the Heat last July. As Olynyk explained at the time:
“I’ve lost a lot of weight and it’s hard to like bang in there. So sometimes other people just [knock] you over, and you go with it.”
Furthermore, head coach Erik Spoelstra was full of praise for Olynyk’s approach:
“He’s lost a lot of weight, really dropped body fat. We just think it makes him more efficient with his movement. The game has gotten quicker, faster even for centers. So, you have to be able to cover ground on both ends. But particularly defensively, you have to be quicker.”
With such a large overhaul of the roster in the summer of 2016, the Heat stumbled out of the blocks to start with an 11-30 record. But after this multitude of new players got accustomed to playing with each other, and hence started benefiting from the systems in place with the franchise, their results took off. Finishing last season with a 30-11 record certainly raised eyebrows around the league, and it appears after a slow start, the Heat are looking more and more like the team that steamrolled through the league last year.
Just how has Miami’s famed fitness culture affected its performance?
Over the past 14 games, the Heat are 11-3, the third-best record during this span behind only the Golden State Wariors and Los Angeles Clippers. So to get a better idea of just how much physical conditioning can a team’s win-loss record, here’s an overview of the major statistical categories from Dec. 20 to Jan. 17 during which time the Heat have complied their 11-3 record.
Dec. 20 – Jan. 17: Overall
- Points per game: 103.4 (24th)
- Turnovers: 13.4 (11th)
- Field goal percentage: 46.3 (12th)
- 3-point percentage: 36.2 (14th)
- Plus/minus: +34 (11th)
- Offensive Rating: 107.1 (14th)
- Defensive Rating: 105.6 (12th)
Now, compare these overall numbers to strictly the fourth quarters of this time period and where the Heat rank in each category:
Dec. 20 – Jan. 17: 4th Quarters
- Points per game: 28.8 (2nd)
- Turnovers: 2.3 (1st)
- Field goal percentage: 50.7 (1st)
- 3-point percentage: 41.4 (3rd)
- Plus-Minus: +57 (1st)
- Offensive Rating: 125.2 (1st)
- Defensive Rating: 109.7 (20th)
It’s simply no accident that the Heat have excelled in their fourth quarter performances.
As Zach Lowe of ESPN noted during a recent column:
“Miami’s ultra-physical, workaholic culture isn’t for everyone; there at a least a few players in the league who would hesitate to sign there if they had an equal offer elsewhere, per league sources.”
Furthermore, an excerpt from a piece at the end of last season from Alex Kennedy of Hoops Hype titled “A behind-the-scenes look at the Miami Heat’s intense culture” quoted an agent, stating:
“Their conditioning played a big role in their success over that stretch [last season].This is why they run so much in the offseason, in training camp and during the season. They run like gazelles and work extremely hard to prepare for stretches like that.”
Also, another source emphasised what Lowe stated above:
“Miami is an organization that isn’t for everybody. Either you buy in and you’re part of the Heat culture, or you’re not….Their strength-and-conditioning program is an emphasis….Some other teams will let guys go work out on their own and do whatever they want, but Miami isn’t like other teams. It’s very organized in Miami; guys have a strict schedule, they’re working with the strength-and-conditioning team and they go hard. They will push you to the limit. After they’re done, the players exhausted because of how hard they go.”
If the above numbers from Dec. 20-Jan. 17 are any indication, it looks like this stretch of dominance has started earlier than last season. Their total command in the final period over this 14-game stretch has been mesmerizing.
So while the Heat may not feature the absolute premier talent in the league, they are using every means possible within their grasp to ensure the franchise stays as competitive and formidable as possible. Simply put, their combination of elite coaching and world class conditioning should ensure the Heat stay in the race for a high playoff seeding come April.