It’s Time to Move On From #HEATCulture

Commentary3 years ago7 min readJack Alfonso

The year is 2019, and the Miami Heat are bad. There’s no way around this. They’re at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with a mess of a roster and no hope for any real improvement.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone.

Outside a few short stretches, Miami has been mediocre since LeBron James left nearly five years ago. There’s no point in explaining how they got here. If you’ve been following the team at all, you know exactly how. Some bad luck coupled with a series of very poor decisions landed the once feared Miami Heat in one of the more pitiable positions in the NBA. Despite this, the team has continued to market themselves as an organization worthy of awe and envy. #HEATCulture is as strong as ever.

I’m not here to debate the existence of “Heat Culture.” I’m not here to call for anyone’s job or demand large scale organizational turnover. I’m here to argue against #HEATCulture as a marketing campaign and as the center of the Miami Heat brand.

What’s wrong with #HeatCulture?

For one, it creates unrealistic expectations for fans, leading to inevitable disappointment. The Heat have no cap space, limited assets, and one of the most unappealing rosters in the NBA. They are still expected to acquire every available superstar and magically transform into a championship contender overnight. Gordon Hayward, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kyrie Irving. Surely, all of these players are attainable.

Disregard the fact that other teams have more money, more assets, and better players.

Disregard the fact that acquiring even one of these superstars would do little for a team devoid of any flexibility.

Disregard reality.

As long as Miami has #HEATCulture, they are one move away from a championship.

This leads us to the next problem with the hashtag. Maintaining this reputation necessitates a rejection of reality. Miami is not a contending team. They haven’t been close to contention in years. They could make the prudent decision and rely on their youth, build long term, and patiently prepare a competitive team.

But this isn’t the “Heat way.”

We hear this from fans, coaches, executives, and media members. Miami is never going to give up on contention. It’s kind of like one of those Chinese finger traps and Miami is trying to break free by tugging and yanking as hard as they possibly can. When someone suggests to them that they simply need to relax and push in so that they can free their finger, Miami tugs even harder insisting that they never give up. Instead of understanding their present situation and making short-term concessions for the sake of long-term success, they stubbornly continue this mindless and prideful struggle.

There is pretty decent evidence of how this obsession with maintaining the #HEATCulture brand has lead to poor decisions. It seems to common knowledge that Dwyane Wade’s unpleasant departure compelled the Heat to sign guys like Dion Waiters and James Johnson to big long-term contracts in order to perpetuate the image that Miami is loyal to their guys. One of the most poorly managed offseasons in recent NBA history can be chalked up to Pat Riley wanting to save face and preserve #HEATCulture.

This branding doesn’t simply lead the front office to make bad decisions, it leads fans to rationalize those bad decisions. We can argue about it endlessly, but there were very few informed NBA media members who thought the Dion Waiters and James Johnson contracts made any sense. Even the Hassan Whiteside deal was thought of as questionable at best. None of these players had the track records to warrant the contracts they received. They’d failed to find consistent roles on any other NBA team.

When Miami signed these players, fans and local media rushed to defend the decisions. It doesn’t matter that these players have lackluster track records, concerning holes in their games, and limited upsides. Miami will fix them! All they need is a little bit of #HEATCulture, and they’ll be superstars!

I’m certainly not innocent of this. I defended the Whiteside contract and, while I disliked the Waiters deal at the time, I hoped that #HEATCulture could magically turn him into a different player than the one he’d always been. And I will admit that there is something to this mindset. Erik Spoelstra is a very good coach and certain players do seem to find more success with Miami than with other teams, but that doesn’t warrant tying the fate of your team to a handful of journeymen.

The problems go beyond rationalizing bad contracts. Miami has decided to define the team by its culture. #HEATCulture and the Miami Heat are synonymous. When “culture” becomes an inextricable part of your identity, when it becomes an assumed aspect of your existence, it loses all meaning. Miami is defined by #HEATCulture so any failure has to be about something else.

OTHER teams have instability. Not Miami. Never Miami.

Disgruntled player? Must be on the player.

Bad roster construction and lineup management that seems to hinder youth development and prioritizes high-paid players over those who matter more to the long-term success of the team? Well, that couldn’t possibly be an indictment of the organization. Miami has culture simply by being Miami, so it’d be impossible for there ever to be a significant flaw in the way the team operates.

#HEATCulture as a concept is based in reality. The “culture” was built by guys like Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning. The idea of culture was that you filled your organization with people who’d keep everyone accountable, who’d work every day to create a culture that breeds success. When you turn that into a brand, when you adopt that as part of your identity, when it becomes assumed, you lose any possibility of real accountability.

It’s like what people say about leaders. If they have to tell you they’re the leader, they’re not the leader. “Any king who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.” Any organization that has to insist they have a strong culture…

I have one final gripe with #HEATCulture, and it’s more personal than the others. I think it is impossibly lame as a marketing campaign. It turns sports into something serious. There is nothing less serious in the universe than sports. #HEATCulture focuses the attention on the strong organizational culture. It sells the Miami Heat as a well-run business worthy of respect instead of as a fun sports team that exists only to produce entertainment and joy. Lighten up.

I do think there is something cool about the way the Heat market themselves. They’ve gotten many people to buy into what they do, and there is something nice about the pride Heat fans feel. If you like #HEATCulture, I don’t want to rain on your parade. However, I do think they’re missing out on the opportunity to brand themselves in a way that is significantly less serious and way more exciting.

Miami is an incredible city full of diversity, culture, weirdness, beauty, etc. Capitalize on that. Have fun with it. We saw this with the Heat Vice jerseys. Everyone in the world adores those jerseys because they successfully capture part of the unique, playful, stylish Miami aesthetic. Do more stuff like that. #MiamiVice is already a better hashtag than #HEATCulture.