Embracing Change, Succession Planning, & The Future of Miami Heat Culture

Commentary3 years ago10 min readGreg Sylvander

“I know you desperate for a change, let the pen glide.

But the only real change come from inside

But the only real change come from inside

But the only real change come from….”

Those are J. Cole lyrics from his 2016 song Change.

As a hip-hop head who bumps Cole on the regular, this song hit my headphones mid-flight recently and got me thinking about change in the context of the Miami Heat.

It feels like it’s about that time, y’all. Real change. From the inside.

Listening to The Godfather answer questions with relatively vague, slightly contradictory, and fodder-level responses has left me with a funky taste in my mouth. I can’t front. The total avoidance to shining any light on how the hell the Heat got here and a cloudy sense of where this is all going just doesn’t sit well.

Too many comments have felt either wide left or wide right. Any straight answer given has been either painfully obvious (like, “2020 will be a room year”) or a canned response (“ability to create flexibility” and “we like our team”).

The few comments Riley has made that allude to thinking big, improving the team, or getting back to championship contention have been framed up in an inarticulate, “I have the best words” manner. That’s frustrating when you have been listening to Riley since 1995.

The highly engaged Heat fan, which represents a larger faction of the base than ever before, hasn’t bought it. The season ticket renewal commercials being jammed down our throats confirm that. Frankly, the recent insight provided by Riley has been uncharacteristic, lacking the type of pizzazz that historically has gotten the fan base to rally around him.

These recent words just have not.

Trust me, I don’t take joy in this observation. But, it is what it is.

Riley has expressed his affinity for classic automobiles. Rather fittingly, he has so classically (and successfully) driven this Heat organization across the NBA landscape for two decades. Several round trips, up and down the mountainside, with Riley in the driver’s seat going the Riley way. For all the talk from coaches, players, media, and fans about the “Miami Heat way,” never lose sight of what that really means.

The “Riley way” is the “Miami Heat way.”

This way has been so deeply ingrained in every fiber of the Heat’s being that long after Riley moves on,  it likely will permeate the halls of Championship Alley in perpetuity.

Acknowledging that fact, maybe it’s time for familiar faces to assume fresh roles. Let #HeatCulture be more than a buzzword, a hash tag, or Court Culture tee and put it to the acid test. As everything in life is always moving and changing, we should embrace the inevitable transformation of the primary element of the Miami Heat experience.

For all the “stick around until we win another title” talk, the fact remains that Riley can’t do this forever. We aren’t being honest if we fail to acknowledge that Riley is likely doing this far longer than he had earnestly planned.

He has alluded to the pursuit of a “transformative” player in press conferences over the last year. Yet quietly, another transformative dynamic is in play, and I don’t think it should be looked at as a negative thing by any means.

It does raise additional questions:

• What will the organization’s hierarchy be when Riley finally does decide to shift his focus from free agents to free time with family?

• What will the Heat’s organizational chart look like post-Riley?

Some have suggested Erik Spoelstra is the next man in line to take the reigns as the chief decision maker. He is the ultimate Riley disciple in many ways. It would surprise no one to see Coach Spo follow in the footsteps of Coach Riley in the transition from head coach to team builder extraordinaire.

We already have the campaign poster for a presidential run printed. In fact, Team President Erik Spoelstra has a nice ring to it.

Source // https://miamiheatbeat.store/products/trust-the-spocess

After talking with several people around the league at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, it was nearly unanimous that the dual role of team president and head coach is unlikely for Spoelstra whenever Riley’s departure day arrives.

Sources around the Heat acknowledge this regular season has worn on Spoelstra in tangible ways. He’s accomplished pretty much all there is to accomplish as a head coach. The evolution of his career appears to be at a potential turning point. Spoelstra is said to be intrigued by the challenge of shifting his focus to the front office. I think the time should be now, sooner rather than later.

After Spoelstra came out smelling like roses in Miami’s recent free agent pitches for Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, as well as the Heat’s trade pursuit for Jimmy Butler earlier this season, his vision for how to maximize elite talent appeals to the top players around the league. Allow the energy behind that type of vision to be redirected into acquiring and building around today’s star players.

So roll with Spoelstra, Andy Elisburg, Nick Arison, Adam Simon, Shane Battier, Alonzo Mourning, and perhaps an additional former player (cough Udonis Haslem cough). That would make for a formidable, smart, and well-rounded group.

Riley is always a phone call away in an advisory role. Micky Arison is always available in a pinch to help build consensus in decision making. Do it before one of them gets poached.

The common thread expressed regarding Spoelstra as a head coach has always been an opportunity to become a better day-to-day communicator. Luckily, the Heat can provide an upgrade in that department from day one with an internal head coaching candidate.

Enter Juwan Howard. Howard is known as the ultimate player’s coach, who has unique trust from the Heat locker room. Many of the key selling points that have followed former Heat assistant coach David Fizdale to head coaching gigs in Memphis and New York, such as the ability to relate to today’s players and acting as a liaison between players and coaches apply to Howard. Some even more so, considering Howard’s place in the game as a former player.

Flank Howard with X’s & O’s savvy assistants like Dan Craig, Octavio De La Grana, and Eric Glass. Sprinkle in former players like Anthony Carter, Chris Quinn, and, dare I dream, Chris Bosh. That would be an impressive coaching staff. And a credible one at that.

The Big 3 era Heat are known for being one of the smartest basketball IQ teams the league has seen in recent history. The Heat front office must recognize this and add to Shane Battier with other members of those championship teams.

Bosh, Haslem, and even Dwyane Wade should all be discussed at varying levels as potential additions to the executive or coaching staff in Miami. Who knows if any will come to fruition, however, it sure as hell should be considered.

The NBA is as much a player’s league as ever. The Heat should recognize the sensibility of layering in as many relatable faces and minds to supplement the traditional suits typically found in NBA front offices.

They should especially lean on faces and minds that resonate with the rising star players who idolized those Big 3 Heat teams.

Those young players could soon become the ones the Heat attempt to “get in a room” with during free agency or have Miami listed as a desired trade destination – similar to how Kristaps Porzingis had the Heat on his wish list before being traded to Dallas on Jan. 31.

“Most definitely, I was a fan,” Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton told Miami Heat Beat at All-Star Weekend. “I was a little [bit of a] bandwagon [fan], though.”

“I grew up in South Florida, so I always watched those Miami Heat games, those Big 3 games,” Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins said.

“They were obviously the second super team, I guess, after the [Boston] Celtics,” Los Angeles Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They were exciting. They got up and down the floor. It was fun to watch.”

The younger generation admires, and even more importantly, respects these elder statesmen from the Big 3 era.

I’m not suggesting Miami turns the entire front office and coaching staff into former players in some fairy tale way that makes us attempt to relive the warm and fuzzies of 2010-14 in vain. It’s all a delicate balance, but a necessary one in my opinion.

This balance is the focus of many teams around the league, beyond Miami.

Hall of Famer Grant Hill has experience navigating this balance first hand in his ownership role as Vice Chair of the Board with the Atlanta Hawks.

“I think in any organization, you want diversity of perspective, diversity of experience,” Hill told Miami Heat Beat after the Hall of Fame press conference at All-Star Weekend.

You want to have former players who can offer their own experience, as you ultimately are trying to make the best decision for your franchise,” Hill added. “I don’t think it should just be all former players. I don’t think it should be excluding former players, but you want to have the right balance. There’s so many great players and great basketball minds that have played in this league. It’s only a value add when you can bring them into your organization.”

Adding that value to the current mix in Miami may be the most direct path back to relevance. Getting that balance right is going to be the key to the Heat seamlessly ushering in a new era as Riley eventually rides off into the sunset.

That same J. Cole song I mentioned earlier goes on to harmonize:

“Life is all about the evolution”

“(I give up, I give in, I move back a little)”

“(I live up, I look up, now I’m back for more)”

“You can dream but don’t neglect the execution”

“Pat Riley always has a plan,” Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype told Miami Heat Beat at All-Star Media Day. “Always.”

Let’s hope Riley doesn’t neglect the execution of proper succession planning.