OAKLAND, Calif. — Ever since Pat Riley became the czar of all things basketball for the Miami Heat in 1995, the franchise has been built around the pursuit of stars.
The thinking is understandable. The allure of the glitz and glamour of life on South Beach coupled with the stability and respect Riley has made synonymous with the franchise over the past 20-plus years — first as coach and team president and now solely in the latter role — has proven a potent mix, bringing a parade of big names to the shores of Biscayne Bay.
“We think big,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said here Monday, before Miami lost, 97-80, to the Golden State Warriors. “People probably think we are crazy.
“You’ve got to have a little bit of crazy in this league to be good.”
But it’s not a penchant for thinking big that seemed crazy this summer. Instead, it’s Miami’s decision to do the opposite.
As expected, the Heat secured a meeting with the top free agent on the market, forward Gordon Hayward. But when Hayward opted to sign with the Boston Celtics, Miami abandoned its strategy of signing short-term contracts to preserve its cap space — and, by extension, continuing to pursue stars in future seasons — to spend a boatload of money to hang onto its own players.
By the time they were done, they had committed more than $160 million combined to re-sign James Johnson and Dion Waiters to four-year deals, as well as signing free agent Kelly Olynyk. Those deals, combined with prior ones handed out to Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic and a four-year, $42 million extension for Josh Richardson, means the Heat already are looking at $117 million in guaranteed contracts for 10 players for next season — with the luxury tax line likely to start at around $122 million.
That’s an expensive roster for a team that went .500 last season, and is off to a 4-6 start this year — not to mention one that gives the team none of the flexibility it has so often taken advantage of in the past.
So, why now?
Well, in short, the Heat have decided to bet that the 30-11 second half largely the same group had last season — and not the 11-30 first half which preceded it — is a harbinger of things to come.
“There’s just different ways to build teams,” Spoelstra said. “This league is so competitive now, and the landscape has changed a little bit from where we put teams together before.
“We really liked a lot of the guys and as much as we did last year, we felt that there is a much higher ceiling with these guys in our program, with our structure, and our ability to hopefully work with our guys to develop that we can grow to a higher level.
“Expectations as an organization remain the same.”
The expectations in Miami are always clear: Compete for a championship. But now, by locking into this group, if they are to achieve that goal it will not be with the usual cast of stars it tries to get, but the NBA’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys.
Whiteside was a reclamation project from the NBA’s Development League that became a double-double machine and eventually earned himself a max contract last summer. Tyler Johnson was another D-League find, while James Johnson played for five teams before finding a home in Miami, Waiters landed there after having his qualifying offer withdrawn by the Oklahoma City Thunder and Olynyk was deemed unnecessary when Hayward chose to join the Celtics.
Multiple players spoke about the fraternity that had been created between the team when it made its chase for a playoff spot last year — one that the Heat would’ve landed had Waiters not suffered a badly sprained ankle late in the year.
“They gave us another chance,” James Johnson said of the organization’s decision to put the band back together again. “They gave us another chance. We barely missed it. We didn’t make the playoffs, and they saw something special in us. I see the same special thing they see. All we wanted was to get that chance, and we got it. So now we’ve just got to complete it.
“This is our chance not to have any woulda, coulda, shouldas, or what-ifs. We’re getting our chance. So we have to lock in, we have to play hard every night, and we have to lean on each other every night.”
It will undoubtedly take a group effort for the Heat to achieve what Johnson hopes they can, as it is a group that requires plenty of mixing and matching. Without Waiters, who missed both Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers and Monday’s game because of the birth of his child, the Heat struggled to score without anyone besides Dragic capable of consistently breaking down a defense off the dribble.
Whiteside, meanwhile, showed why he remains a mercurial talent when Spoelstra benched him for virtually the entire second half, yanking him out and putting him on the bench after about 90 seconds and never going back to his highest-paid player.
“It was just a coach’s decision,” Spoelstra said. “I just didn’t see a need to go back in that direction.”
In the locker room afterward, Whiteside — fittingly wearing a black T-shirt with “The Great Whiteside” displayed across his chest — first admitted he didn’t get back quickly enough on defense on the possession before he came out, then expressed confusion about why he didn’t come back in the game.
“I guess he thought it was better if I didn’t come back in,” Whiteside said. “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
Spoelstra remains one of the league’s elite coaches, and while Miami’s roster lacks its typical star power, it does have depth and variety for him to try to shape into a team capable of achieving the ambitions both he and its players think that it can.
Now it’ll be up to the Heat to prove that the big bet the front office made on this roster — one very different from the usual, and previously successful, route the Heat have gone to build contenders in the past — was a wise one.