MIAMI — The Heat have plenty of things to sell free agents on.
It’s an organization that has won three titles over the past 12 seasons. It’s an organization that has made the playoffs in 17 of the past 22 seasons. It’s an organization that’s led by respected basketball names like president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra.
Oh, and it’s Miami. An attractive city that has always helped the Heat in free agency.
But the Heat’s most recent accomplishment could be one of their biggest selling points when free agency begins at 12 a.m. Saturday. After an 11-30 start, Miami created a buzz around the NBA with a 30-11 finish to pull off a historic turnaround and finish last season with a 41-41 record — one game short of making the playoffs.
With a roster that didn’t include an All-Star and featured nine former D-League players, Miami became the first team in league history to go from 19 under to finish the season at .500. As the season went on, the Heat’s players and coaches used the term “culture” to explain the turnaround.
Miami will take its $35 million in cap space and try to sell that “culture” this summer during free agency, which includes a Saturday meeting with forward Gordon Hayward.
“I think it’s such a great selling point for the front office, whether it’s Pat Riley, whether it’s Micky Arison, whether it’s the coaching staff when they come in and interview free agents,” said NBA TV analyst Mike Fratello, who previously spent time as the head coach of the Hawks, Cavaliers and Grizzlies. “I think there’s a lot to sell there with what’s taken place this year. They’ve got championship banners and trophies that they can talk about. This is something completely different that they can talk about. How they came from about as low as you can go with guys that weren’t big-name guys and came back off the mat and fought their way back into the playoff situation.”
Just entering free agency with this type of momentum is an accomplishment for the Heat after going through a messy 2016 offseason that included the departure of Dwyane Wade and the continuation of the Chris Bosh saga. All of this came just two summers after Miami lost LeBron James in free agency without getting anything in return in 2014.
Last season’s historic turnaround helped shine a positive light on the organization after a rough offseason. And if the turnaround didn’t do it, the glowing reviews from first-year Heat players like James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington and Willie Reed helped.
“Miami in general is a beautiful place to be,” said center Willie Reed, who will test free agency this summer after having a career season with the Heat. “But then second, the Heat do a great job of developing players and bringing the best out of you. They’re obviously going to get your body in the best condition, the best shape whether it’s getting your body fat down or sculpting your body as you can see what they did with James Johnson, which is just amazing. The development of both older guys and younger guys, you see it in Tyler Johnson and Okaro White. You see those guys that are just developing, so you understand that when you come here they’re going to bring the best out of you.”
And that could result in a bigger contract down the road. In just one season with the Heat, Johnson ($4 million 2016-17 salary), Waiters ($2.9 million) and Reed ($1 million) are each expected to at least triple their 2016-17 salary in free agency this summer.
All of this has left some of the Heat’s free agents wondering if chasing the money in free agency is even wise.
“That it’s not always greener on the other side,” Johnson said of his mindset entering free agency during his exit interview in April. “That’s the only thing that’s going on in the back of my head right now. I might not have the same opportunities that I had this year — to get out of the box and play the way that I can to contribute to winning. Who knows if I can get that on another team. Money has nothing to do with that. Basketball, I love the game and I love it here.”
How do the Heat find a way to get the most out of journeyman free agents? Miami tries to find players who can fit its structured style.
“You don’t know until you actually coach somebody,” Spoelstra said when asked how the Heat find good fits in free agency. “That’s why we try to be open minded to everybody because of where they’ve been or what their reputations are. We just want to get to know players and be open to them, but also hopefully encourage them to be open to us. We’re not for everybody, we understand that. It’s not for better or worse. There’s just good fits for players with some organizations that aren’t good fits in other organizations. So we try to find guys that fit our DNA.”
But as Spoelstra mentioned, the Heat are “not for everybody.”
“Everybody knows what the Heat organization is about,” Ellington said. “It’s not really a secret. But it’s not for everybody, though. Everybody doesn’t want to have that type of discipline and that type of structure or that type of mentality. It’s not for everybody, for sure. Just what’s demanded of everybody, of the players. It’s not the same as everywhere else. That’s for sure.”
Reed confirmed that.
“It’s definitely different,” Reed said of the Heat’s way of doing things. “It’s different than any other team I’ve been on. They’re strict about making sure you get in for your weights, strict about making sure what you eat and then they are really diligent about your work. A lot of people can’t deal with having to work extremely hard every single day. It’s the mental part that really takes a toll on you. It’s not for everybody because everyone doesn’t have the mental toughness to be able to go through it.”
But once a player buys into the Heat’s “culture,” they usually grow attached to the organization. Just ask Johnson, who will have a free-agent decision to make this summer.
“I’m home,” Johnson said of the Heat in April. “That’s what it feels like. I love it here. I had a great season. I love the culture here and I’m very passionate about this place.”