MIAMI — The Heat’s recent string of wins hasn’t just altered outside expectations. It has even changed expectations inside the organization.
“To be honest, in December and January, it looked like we were going to have a top-seven pick,” said Chet Kammerer, who is the Heat’s Vice President of Player Personnel. “So we met as a staff and said let’s focus in on the top seven guys. Then after the winning streak, we said, ‘Wait a minute guys, I think we need to broaden it and we need to go somewhere like the top 20 now.’ So it’s fluid, that’s for sure.”
It looked like the Heat would have a top-five pick about a month ago, as they owned the NBA’s second-worst record at 11-30 on Jan. 14. But just a few weeks later, Miami is close to playing its way completely out of the draft lottery.
After winning 14 of their past 16 games, the Heat (25-32) will return from the All-Star break Friday just two games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended now, Miami’s first-round pick would likely fall outside of the top 10 as it currently owns the 13th-worst record.
“It looked like for a while we were going to have a top-five pick,” Kammerer said. “I have a lot of confidence in coach [Erik] Spoelstra and our staff and I know we’re not going to cash it in. I know it’s proof what’s happening right now. That’s the kind of organization we are. We’re not going to mail it in. I think our guys are going to compete.”
And Kammerer and his scouting staff of Adam Simon, Eric Amsler, Keith Askins and Bob McAdoo are going to keep working to prepare for every scenario. With each scout responsible for different college conferences, the group convenes in Miami each month to discuss their latest findings.
It’s an ever-changing discussion, as they reassess their list of the top-50 draft prospects in each meeting. The Heat’s scouting system calls for the five scouts to watch each player on that top-50 list in person at least once before the draft, with another five part-time scouts helping the organization with extra eyes around the country.
“You always prepare for anything because you don’t know if there’s a trade or something and you end up moving the pick that you have,” said Kammerer, who is based in California and is responsible for conferences on the West Coast like the Pac-12 and the Mountain West. “There’s always different scenarios. So no matter where you are, you’re constantly putting players in pools – here’s our top seven, here’s our next seven.”
Those conversations include Heat president Pat Riley and general manager Andy Elisburg.
“Pat is very involved. Pat oversees everything,” Kammerer said. “But he also trusts us to do what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years and how we’ve gone about doing it and being prepared. And Andy, obviously is involved. Not as much on a daily basis, but when we get close to the draft, he gets very involved. But Pat, I think, has a lot of trust in us, and our staff is a hard-working staff.”
As for Spoelstra, he doesn’t get involved in the draft evaluation process until the offseason.
“When we get closer to the draft, we’ll bring players in for everyone to talk with personally,” Kammerer said. “And Erik will be a part of that process, as well, especially when we have them do a little individual workout or bring in four guys for a workout.”
With a first-round pick in a loaded 2017 draft, Kammerer said the Heat are “gearing a little bit more to first-round guys.” The Heat didn’t have a first-round pick in last year’s draft as it belonged to Philadelphia as Miami’s final remaining debt from the 2010 sign-and-trade agreement with the Cavaliers for LeBron James.
The Heat have to keep their first-round pick this year, as teams can’t trade out of the first round in consecutive years under NBA rule.
This year’s draft is expected to be headlined by a list of talented college freshmen. According to NBAdraft.net, 13 of the top 15 draft prospects are freshmen, with projected one-and-done players like Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith, Josh Jackson and Lonzo Ball at the top of the list.
“It’s a big challenge,” Kammerer said of evaluating freshmen. “Everybody has an opinion. But believe me, it is harder than it’s ever been. You think about it, Tim Duncan when he came out. You had four years to really watch him and see him develop and see whether he was improving over those four years. Even a few years ago, sometimes they were their best their freshman year and then they kind of tailed off from there. Now, we’re watching freshmen in college and we’re trying to predict what he’s going to be like as an NBA player.”
Even if the Heat continue winning and get out of the draft lottery, the bottom half of the first round is projected to be littered with highly regarded freshmen and sophomores.
“I’m not critical of people that make mistakes because it’s so difficult to really know,” Kammerer said. “There are so many variables – the maturity, the whole skill development, how committed they are to improve, whether their personalities and their heart and their passion for the game are there. There are so many things that you really don’t know and you have to project and hope. It’s difficult. It really is.”
Miami learned that the hard way in the 2008 draft when it selected Michael Beasley with the No. 2 overall pick after just one season of college basketball. Beasley has had off-court issues involving drugs and has never been able to live up to expectations as he’s bounced around the league over his professional career.
“Believe me, we try to use every angle to try to find out about players,” Kammerer said. “From youth coaches to his high school guidance counselors to assistant coaches to his AAU program to his experience in one year of college. Everybody is doing that. But it’s not a slam dunk usually to try to project.”
That gamble is one of the reasons Riley has built a reputation as a team president who doesn’t value draft picks as much as others.
It’s hard to dispel that reputation when the Heat don’t own both of their picks in a draft until 2022. But Kammerer tried.
“I don’t think that’s true. Pat is interested in good players,” Kammerer said. “He looks at the big picture. He’s interested in securing good players. He’s interested in putting the best product out there. He’s going to do it through free agency, trade, draft. Let’s face it, the year we (drafted) Dwyane Wade, that sure did make a major difference in our franchise. That’s how I look at it. You’re always trying to find that player that fits your system and is going to succeed and is going to fit into the Miami Heat culture and Heat DNA.”
When asked to describe what the Heat look for when evaluating players, Kammerer read down a list of qualities. He singled out these traits: mental and physical toughness, strong work ethic, guys who really like to compete and work on their own, length, high basketball IQ, shooting and defense.
Those are the qualities that make up a prospect who fits the “Miami Heat culture.”
“Every time I see Chet, I ask what’s in the making,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “We always speak, and I always ask him what’s new, what’s going on, what’s in the making. They do their due diligence as far bringing in guys that are Miami Heat guys, guys that have the ability to get better and guys that want to get better. Since I’ve been a part of the organization, they’ve always done a great job at that.”