Miami: A Unique Winning Culture

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Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, center left, hands the Eastern Conference trophy to Bam Adebayo (13) as they celebrate their NBA conference final playoff basketball game win over the Boston Celtics with the Eastern Final trophy Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Pat Riley, Derek Jeter, Brian Flores and Manny Diaz. 

A combination of incredible figures that have come to form a new era in successful Miami sports, or so it seems. Things can always go off the rails, but things look promising in Dade-County. Moreover, their respective influences have permeated to all professional sports teams in South Beach, building different cultures with the same underlying grittiness that has led to newfound success in each distinct sport.  

The Genesis of this movement can be traced back to the departure of LeBron James. That was bound to decimate the team, right? Just look at Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who self-imploded and have reclaimed their role as one of the few laughingstocks in the National Basketball Association. Reputations are usually gained, and incompetence in leadership began to show itself when the Cavs tanked their way to multiple lottery picks when James left in 2010 and again in 2018. 

A different route would be taken by Miami Heat owner Micky Arison’s entourage, who instead set their sights on encouraging the growth of backbone and grit, bringing in players that met these requirements. The 2014-15 roster after James’ departure was made up of players like point guard Mario Chalmers, veteran shooting guard Dwyane Wade, long-time center Chris Bosh, long-serving Heat player Udonis Haslem and center Hassan Whiteside.  

Sure, it is easy to say that creating a tenacious squad is simple when you have two future Hall of Famers in Bosh and Wade, along with a first-rate center in Whiteside and solid role players such as Haslem, backup point guard Shabazz Napier and Chalmers.  

But despite this solid roster, things would quickly begin to crumble. Bosh was found to have a blood clot in one of his lungs in early 2015. Although ultimately returning in October for the 2015-16 season opener, further blood clots in his legs in February of 2016 would force him out for the rest of the season. The final nail in the coffin would be Bosh failing his physical exam before the 2016-17 season, forcing him to retire.  

Transitioning over to Dwayne Wade, Father Time was beginning to catch up with him, with the three-time NBA champion set to turn 33 in 2015. Although the numbers of games played and games started increased from 54 and 53 in the 2013-14 season, to 62 and 62 respectively in the 2014-15 season, he was clearly not going to be able to carry this organization like LeBron did throughout his four years. Moreover, the departure of such a crucial player like LeBron was inevitably going to give the aging veteran more play time, as someone needed to attempt and fill that gap. 

Udonis Haslem’s impact was felt more in the locker room than on the actual court, and it was beginning to be clear that Napier and Chalmers were not going to fit the new Heat era.  

As a result, the players that would ultimately shape the beginnings of what is now widely renowned as “Heat culture” would be small forward Justise Winslow, power forward Josh McRoberts, shooting guards Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson and Goran Dragić, the only remaining one out of the bunch. This culture consisted of fast, explosive, hard-nosed basketball that would keep the opposition on their toes. They were not the best players, but they set the standard that they were worthy enough to compete with anybody. 

Clearly, these players were not better than Napier or Chalmers, but the reason they were more beneficial to the organization was because of their hunger. These were role players at best who were starting and looking to prove themselves every night, contributing to the culture. Although the likes of Dwayne Wade would remain on the squad, he would depart in 2016, as Miami Heat president Pat Riley knew his time was up. No matter the credentials, his game did not fit this new identity.  

Other “martyrs” include center Hassan Whiteside and shooting guard Dion Waiters. They had the skill and the talent but they didn’t have the grit, which ultimately led to their departure. Whiteside was unwilling to improve his game, even though there were clear holes that needed fixing, and Waiters demonstrated that he put himself before the team, something that is not done under Riley’s rule.  

Miami Heat’s Tyler Herro, left, passes the ball away during the second half of an NBA conference final playoff basketball game. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Fast forward to the 2019-20 season, and they still have the same amount of grit and hustle that they once did. Of course, the players are substantially better, with small forward Jimmy Butler controlling the tempo. Alongside him is shooting guard Tyler Herro and fellow small forward Duncan Robinson, with Dragić playing point guard and Bam Adebayo causing mayhem in the paint as a big man. Most important, the Heat has players that made it to the NBA because of their willpower, not their skill. This distinction is important because players like Herro, Adebayo and Robinson were not touted as the next big thing. They had to make a name for themselves, proving they could survive in a competitive culture like the one in Miami, subsequently demonstrating how much skill they had.  

This infectious culture spread to the Miami Marlins of Major League Baseball (MLB), the Miami Dolphins of the National Football Association (NFL) and the Miami Hurricanes of college football.  

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Derek Jeter has built a competitive culture for a team that’s fans are used to facing the embarrassment that comes with supporting the “fighting fish.” This winning atmosphere was not truly recognized until the team’s spell for COVID-19 in late July. Although many expected the team to fold, they began to thrive under young, fiery players such as first-baseman Jesus Aguilar, designated hitter Jonathan Villar, left-fielder Corey Dickinson, second baseman Eddy Alvarez and third-baseman Brian Anderson.  

Some of these players were already on the team, but the point still stands: it didn’t matter if the players were called up from the miners, or if they were one of the lucky players that didn’t get the virus, they were going to compete with everything they had. 

A fully healthy Marlins squad sees the likes of dynamic shortstop Miguel Rojas come into play, along with center-fielder Starling Marte and right-fielder Lewis Brinson. Pitching wise, Miami has Max Meyer, JJ Bleday, Jazz Chisholm and Jesus Sanchez. This is a perfect example of the type of culture that spread to Marlins Park; players whose skill would not be acknowledged until they consistently performed well on the mound, earning the title of “great,” rather than it being given to them. 

Finally, we move on to the Dolphins and Hurricanes. Both share the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, so I believe it’s only fair to talk about both when mentioning one.  

Brian Flores and Manny Diaz. Two coaches who are on different stages of a rebuild that extends far beyond the roster, slowly but surely getting rid of a losing culture that has held both organizations hostage. Although the Dolphins have definitely been the bigger laughingstock out of the two, the Hurricanes have lost the prestige that saw them win five national championships. 

Manny Diaz’s culture did not develop until this year. Last season, the Hurricanes were still struggling to get rid of a toxic culture that Canes’ alumni Mark Richt had failed to extinguish. The 2019 season was no different, however. The Hurricanes lost games to Virginia Tech, FIU, Duke and an embarrassingly bad shutout 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech.  

However, one of the main catalysts for change came with the announcement that D’Eriq King would be the starting quarterback, a decision that was unexpected with N’kosi Perry on the roster and transfer of Tate Martell. This was a statement by Diaz, making it clear that expectations would not determine who would or would not start. One had to earn their spot.  

So far, this strategy is working to perfection. The Hurricanes have looked excellent in their first three outings, dominating the Lousiville Cardinals and the Florida State Seminoles, while also beating the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) in a game they were expected to win.  

The Dolphins were consistently trolled on social media because of the fact that they were tanking to get a high-draft pick, with the hopes of landing Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. They ended up landing him, but the culture that was beginning to grow was even more promising.  

Sure, the Dolphins were purposefully losing. But a philosophy was beginning to show itself under Flores, that had not been seen with Joe Philbin or Adam Gase, respectively.  

This season, fewer players from last season’s team can be seen on the depth chart. Myles Gaskin is now the starting running back, after Kenyan’s Drake departure to the Arizona Cardinals. Kenny Stills was traded to the Houston Texans, with Jakeem Grant and Devante Parker stepping up for the team as some of the top receivers on the team. Furthermore, Albert Wilson has proven to also be effective at wide receiver for the team. 

Overall, Flores and his coaching staff are making it clear that everyone will have to work for what they want. If they don’t believe it, or don’t want to work as hard, they will be traded, no matter how much skill they may have. 

This is the main change in Miami sports that is now leading to increased success; effective leadership in Riley, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, Jeter and Marlins manager Mattingly —along with great coaching staffs under Brian Flores and Manny Diaz — have made it possible for this gritty, winning attitude to overtake Miami sports.  

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