The Miami Heat are a game away from the NBA Finals, as an eighth seed, after losing their first play-in game and struggling to win their second play-in game. It’s a great story, especially if you don’t like Boston — and really, who does?
It’s also a rare story. The last time a No. 8 seed made the NBA Finals?
The 1999 New York Knicks, in a strike-shortened season. In fact, that’s the only time an eight seed has ever made the Finals.
Upsets like that happen frequently in the NHL. Heck, the Boston Bruins set the record for points during the regular season and lost their first-round series against the Florida Panthers, who are now playing in the Eastern Conference finals.
And in the NFL?
Tampa Bay and Tom Brady won the Super Bowl after starting out as wild cards in the playoffs two years ago. Just like the Washington Nationals won the World Series as a wild card in 2019.
The NBA playoffs — at their best — can be thrilling, just not that unpredictable. So, when a team like the Heat make a deep run, or when a team like the 2004 Pistons win a title — they weren’t an eighth seed, but they were a three-seed without a superstar, and no one’s title favorite — the question must be asked:
Are the Heat showing us a new path to winning? A new way to build a roster? A new way to win in a league where the template hasn’t changed much since its inception?
ANY PLANS? Summer moves will reveal Pistons tolerance for rebuild, after falling in NBA draft
Just because Miami has nine undrafted players on its roster, just because three of its important pieces to this playoff run — Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin — have roots in either Division II basketball or the G-League, doesn’t mean every team could win with half of its roster being undrafted players.
For one, Strus, Vincent and Martin are playing alongside two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and Butler plays like a superstar in the playoffs. For another, the role guys are playing for the best coach in the game — Erik Spoelstra.
Wait, I thought you argued that coaching doesn’t matter in the NBA if a team doesn’t have good players?
This is true, I have. Allow me to explain: Gregg Popovich won 22 games with the Spurs this season; he’ll likely win more when Victor Wembanyama arrives in San Antonio. And that’s five-time NBA champion Gregg Popovich!!
But Popovich’s Spurs would’ve been a little better next year even without Wembanyama. That’s because he’s one of the best developers of talent in the league and he’s got a couple of young players — Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell — who show promise.
Obviously, the would-be generational Frenchman should help, perhaps immediately, and perhaps by a lot. And in the end, talent is what matters most. Even Spoelstra will tell you his Heat are nowhere without their two stars.
It’s just that the undrafted players on the roster make for a good story. And Miami deserves credit for identifying them and developing them. Because this isn’t new with Miami. The Heat have a history of it, just ask former Michigan sharpshooter Duncan Robinson.
All of which means Spoelstra gets credit for player development and culture building, no matter how sick you might be of hearing about the Heat’s culture. For while Miami doesn’t get this close to the Finals without Butler and Adebayo, it doesn’t get here without developing role players, either.
And that’s coaching.
A little luck, too: it should be noted that Miami probably doesn’t beat Milwaukee if Giannis Antetokounmpo is healthy and plays the whole series and Mike Budenholzer would still have a job.
Spoelstra is coy about the influence he’s had as the coach of the Heat. Yet he admits that organizational vibes can be a thing, and said as much when he recently told the New York Times this regarding the Heat’s luck with undrafted players:
“It’s all about timing and fit, and what a player’s fortitude is. If you have a big dream and want to be challenged, we feel like this can be the place for a lot of those kinds of guys.”
Big dreams. Those kinds of guys. Want to be challenged.
These are the phrases of a coach who has a specific idea about what sort of player he wants and who best might thrive within his world. He’s mastered it, whether the Heat win this year’s title or not.
This makes mimicking what the Heat do difficult. Other teams can better mine undrafted players, certainly. Yet no one else has Spoelstra. Or Butler, who turns into a stunning playoff performer no matter how well he played in the regular season.
It was the same way back in 2004, when the Pistons were the first team in forever to win a title without a true, superstar talent. That team also had a unique and inimitable force: Ben Wallace. Along with three other All-Star-level players.
No team has won like the 2004 Pistons since. Just as the Heat’s run this year isn’t likely to set off a string of eight-seeds pushing toward the Finals moving forward.
There is a lesson to be taken from what Miami is doing, though, and that’s matching a young(ish) coach to the style and tone of a team’s general manager, and then together building a program to unearth and develop talent.
Because while the game may still require a star or two, postseason runs require several more players making shots and plays around them. And the coach is an integral part of that.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.