It’s a word commonly thrown around in various settings. You hear it mentioned often in the business world and, of course, in the sports universe. While a good culture is highly desirable, it’s difficult to establish a wonderful working model of significant duration and long-lasting impact in practice.
Many have strived to cultivate a utopian-like environment; however, bringing together super competitive individuals and asking them to set aside personal biases and goals completely for the common good of a team is no easy task.
Basketball players, for instance, grow up learning to shoulder loads that lead to both noteworthy individual achievement as well as great team success. When you’re accustomed to sitting on top of the mountain throughout youth, you’re confident in the path that needs to be taken at every level. Thus, asking 15 guys on a roster, from various backgrounds and experiences, to suddenly dispense with ingrained notions that once produced favorable outcomes but can now act as detriments in the NBA is a complicated process. Young, eager minds always believe they have all the answers.
One entity that has circumvented all the obstacles and established a winning recipe well is the Miami Heat. Their run of sustained success stands front and center as a rare shining example of fantastic team culture in professional sports.
“I’ve said to people in the past, I started my NBA career working under Pat Riley in Miami and now they talk about ‘Heat Culture’ all the time,” Stan Van Gundy said last week during his introductory press conference with the New Orleans Pelicans. “But when I was there – and I was there for over ten years – I never remember Pat even using that word ‘culture’. I never remember him talking about culture, and yet every guy on our roster could’ve told you exactly what the culture was of the Miami Heat.”
The characteristics exhibited by Miami teams have long been easily identifiable in the league, but they became even more noticeable this season following the free agent addition of Jimmy Butler.
According to Dwyane Wade, Butler was born to be a member of the Heat. He explained this opinion in depth when reflecting on the time he and Butler were fined while in Chicago for conduct detrimental to the Bulls. (The duo blasted teammates following a bad regular season loss to the Atlanta Hawks.)
“The Heat say culture and we say culture all the time, but let’s talk about what that really means,” Wade said. “That’s what Jimmy was looking for, what he was missing. And that’s what we got fined for to just be honest. Me and Jimmy both got fined in Chicago because of holding guys accountable. It’s not about misses or makes, you know what I mean. It’s about caring about the game the same way we care about it. Not from the standpoint of not laughing or you got to cry after every game, it’s the way you perform. When you have a lead, it’s the way you hold onto a lead and how much you care about that. Stuff of that nature. So, he has that in Miami. He has the organization and it’s passed down to the players because they recruit players and bring in players who fit that same mold.”
In hindsight, we probably should have seen the impressive run in the bubble coming, but no team took advantage of the conditions more from start to finish than Erik Spoelstra’s group of players in the recently concluded playoffs.
The 2019-20 Heat swept through the Pacers in the first round like a tornado and nearly accomplished the same feat against one of the championship favorites in the Bucks. They proceeded to knock off the Celtics in convincing fashion, winning the Eastern Conference crown by a 4-2 series margin, and then largely without Goran Dragic and a clearly hampered Bam Adebayo, the Heat pushed the Lakers to six games in the NBA Finals.
Miami embodies a relentless work ethic, one stronger than any other franchise in the league, but there’s more to it than simply learning to channel and exhibit greater effort against opponents.
“Man, you had to go through something,” Miami lifer Udonis Haslem explained of the connection Heat players share. “You had to go through something in life that put a chip on your shoulder. And that’s built grit inside you that you’re willing to go through extreme circumstances to get where you’re trying to go.”
Heat players proudly wear on their sleeves that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. They will happily run through walls together. For other franchises seeking to mimic this type of mentality, the process to field similar results with their own rosters must begin with dedicating every waking moment towards building the desired culture.
“So you build your culture day by day, interaction by interaction, practice by practice, step by step,” Van Gundy said. “Over time, people will see what our organization is all about, what our leaders are all about in the organization, and then down to the players, and then the players that are around us for a while pass it on to the other players. That’s how you build a culture...there’s no overnight to that. You can only accelerate that process so much. It takes time. It takes day after day stuff.”
In asking Stan Van Gundy on how specifically the Pelicans can groom their own enviable culture, he referenced it starts with having all decision-makers on the same page. Fortunately, it sounds like a solid connection has already been established.
“I think this is one of the areas that Griff and I and the entire front office sort of connected on. Culture, what it really is, it’s a body of shared values of how you want to work and how you want to do things. I think that we’re very aligned on that. The two real beliefs I have on culture are: it has very little to do with what you say, and it has everything to do with what you do on an everyday basis.”
Having ownership, the front office and the coaching staff aligned is a requirement, but it’s not enough. Ultimately, the players must grab a hold of the reins and personify the characteristics and virtues of a team’s desired culture in everything they do.
“The second thing that I believe about culture is – as much as Griff and Trajan and Swin and Bryson, and even above us to Mrs. Benson and to Dennis Lauscha, to myself and the coaching staff – as much as any of us try to set the example on a culture for our basketball team, what our culture actually ends up becoming will be what our best players decide that it’s going to be. So those are the guys that have to take the responsibility for creating the kind of culture that we all want here with the Pelicans.”
Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the guys have to do their part in working on their games religiously, staying atop of their conditioning levels, and forming important bonds on the court, but it’s also absolutely vital that they heed the coaching staff and remain cognizant of the big picture. This means not just abiding by Van Gundy’s wishes but really absorbing his teachings. They must learn to hold each other accountable for executing every play ideally, incorporating all the nuances of a given strategy, and above all else, striving to put forth their best effort on each possession.
In other words, display the type of behavior opposite of the one fans witnessed the vast majority of time during bubble play.
Many have asked why the Pelicans failed to show greater urgency in the eight seeding games. After all, they were extremely meaningful contests; each minute of every game could determine New Orleans 2020 postseason fate.
The youthfulness of the roster and Williamson needing to leave the bubble to tend to a family matter were hurdles — but they shouldn’t have been so readily accepted. Do you think that these distractions would have derailed the Heat to the point of reducing their motivation within games? Of course not.
While having Dragic and Adebayo fully healthy would have improved Miami’s odds of knocking off the Lakers, those two key personnel losses never disrupted the Heat’s emotional wavelength. They brought the same intensity, fire and cohesiveness on every singly play throughout the Finals.
That’s a lofty line that these Pelicans need to want to reach.
New Orleans shouldn’t have surrendered a 16-point advantage against the Utah Jazz in the bubble opener. They shouldn’t have gotten slaughtered by the Clippers or Kings. They shouldn’t have trailed the Wizards for as long as they did in those 48 minutes.
The hiccup in Orlando wasn’t a talent thing; it was clear as day an effort thing.
Before the Pelicans were officially eliminated, they had a chance to keep faint hopes alive by beating the Spurs. They trailed a mediocre San Antonio squad — one without LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills — by 17 points at halftime. In the eyes of most onlookers, only JJ Redick seemed to really give a damn and he nearly willed New Orleans to a victory all by himself.
The elder statesman tallied 31 points on 16 shots, but what everyone should also remember is the two charges JJ took in the third quarter. No other Pelican exhibited a similar ferocity to win, sacrificing one’s body so willingly and doing all the small things to notch that W.
Stan Van Gundy hopes to inspire future New Orleans’ rosters to new heights. But he knows a level of excellence can best be achieved first by the Pelicans attaining a level of professionalism. That’s what he’s tried to accomplish in each of his previous stops.
“I think just in terms of intangibles and characteristics I think any NBA player should have, I think he taught me those things, and he reinforced those things in me – professionalism, accountability, playing hard and the same way every game, not taking any nights off, all that stuff,” Redick said back in 2016 when reflecting on his time with the Magic under Van Gundy.
The Pelicans do not need to be a carbon copy of the Heat. There are few players in the league who can endure Miami’s strict training program, for instance. However, New Orleans must adopt and adhere to other necessary standards, similar to the ones Redick outlined above while with the Clippers.
“I can’t wait to get back on the court and to try to build a tough, disciplined team that truly won’t bow down,” Van Gundy said last week.
We can’t wait to watch, Coach.