Yes, the Heat have three of the best players on Earth—but it takes 15 to fill out an NBA roster. The Other 12 could be key to getting a sputtering team on the right track
This is an article from the Dec. 6, 2010 issue
They come from Lithuania and Puerto Rico, Canada and Alaska, Mississippi and Miami, South Dakota and the South Side of Chicago. They go by Big Cat and Nooky, Docta and Joops, Slim and Sexy Dexy. One of them did not pick up a basketball until he was in 12th grade. One weighed 400 pounds at high school graduation. One made the National Honor Society. Five went to college in Florida, where two were roommates. Six played in the Final Four, but three went undrafted. Four were second-round picks. Two were exiled to Europe. They are an average of 30 years old, have been with an average of four NBA teams and scored an average of eight points. Three were All-Stars. Two were NBA champions. Four have been unemployed. Two have openly considered retirement. Heading into July, only one was under contract with the Heat. This season only three are making more than the veteran's minimum of $1.4 million.
They are Miami's Discounted Dozen, the scruffy extras scattered around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, meant to stay under the salary cap and out of the way. They are part of the roster, but not the phenomenon. The Heat can seem like two separate teams, the three megastars escorted off to a stage where they deliver their postgame press briefings and the other 12 left behind in a near-empty locker room. "You here for my cover shoot?" forward Juwan Howard asked after a recent practice, laughing uproariously because nowhere in the NBA is the line more clear between the cover boys and the shadow dwellers.
The Dozen came to Miami to fill the passenger seats on a historic joyride: 30-point blowouts, road trips disguised as concert tours, playoff parties and champagne showers. As it turns out, they've found more scrutiny than many of them have ever known. The Heat has discovered, a month into their epic experiment, that three are not enough. If James, Wade and Bosh were as overpowering as anticipated, they might have required only caddies. But the Big Three need help to stretch defenses, chase rebounds and score inside. Miami was just 9--8 through Sunday, ranked 20th in rebounds per game, last in points-in-the-paint, and last in sympathy received. In the past week Lakers coach Phil Jackson speculated in a radio interview that James and Bosh would lobby Heat president Pat Riley to replace coach Erik Spoelstra; ESPN, citing unnamed sources, reported that several players were frustrated with Spoelstra's offensive strategies and questioned whether he was the right fit; and President Barack Obama, asked by Barbara Walters for his opinion on the Heat's slow start, reminded her that "there's no I in team." Players around the league piled on, attributing Miami's troubles to its lack of depth—a direct shot at The Dozen. The scene will grow uglier Thursday night in Cleveland, where extra security has been dispatched to control the crowd for James's return.
The Heat has failed to keep even its spare parts intact. Top rebounder Udonis Haslem tore a ligament in his left foot on Nov. 20 and could be out for the season. Sharpshooter Mike Miller is still recovering from a broken right thumb suffered in October and may not return until after Christmas. Last week rookie center Dexter Pittman was banished to the Development League, veteran swingman Jerry Stackhouse was released and 35-year-old center Erick Dampier was signed for another veteran's minimum contract—more than two months after he was waived by the Bobcats. By Sunday the depleted Dozen was down to nine.
The Heat already used its trade chips to clear cap space and land its Big Three. So in-season reinforcements must come from within, from a pool consisting mostly of has-beens and might-bes. For James, Wade and Bosh, struggle was never part of the plan. For the others, it's all they've ever known.
On July 10 Miami had four players under contract: James, Wade and Bosh, set to make more than $107 million each over the next six years, and point guard Mario Chalmers, set to earn $850,000 in the last year of his rookie deal. "I'm the only other player on the team," Chalmers cheerfully told his friends. Chalmers sank a last-second three-pointer that helped Kansas win the 2008 national championship and started the first 104 games of his NBA career, but he showed up late to a shootaround last December and was demoted to third string. Miami needed at least one more reliable ball handler, a couple outside shooters and a lot of interior muscle.
Haslem was born and raised in Miami, went undrafted out of Florida and in 2002--03 played his first professional season in France, where he kept himself on eastern standard time because he never wanted to get comfortable. The following summer he only received one contract offer—from a team in Oostende, Belgium. Haslem signed the contract and instructed his then agent Jason Levien to send it, but the agent balked. He knew that if Haslem went to Europe for a second season, he was unlikely to make it back. Levien waited, and that Monday, Riley called. He offered $100,000 and a spot at training camp but made it clear that Haslem should never expect meaningful minutes. After a spate of injuries Haslem was an improbable entry into the starting lineup on opening night of 2003--04. Two seasons later Riley was calling him the heart of a championship franchise.
With James and Bosh on the way last summer, Haslem assumed that the Heat had run out of cap space for him. He went to his exit meeting at American Airlines Arena in the second week of July and told Riley that he was accepting a five-year, $34 million contract from the Nuggets. Riley asked Haslem to leave the room, and in the hour that followed, Wade volunteered to shave part of his salary for Haslem, then persuaded James and Bosh to do the same. They needed Haslem as a leader, a rebounder and also a recruiter. Haslem accepted a five-year deal for $20 million and then persuaded Miller, his Florida roommate who had never been past the first round of the playoffs, to join Miami as a free agent for $30 million over five years.
At that point, forward James Jones was considering retirement. He grew up in Miami, where his mother and stepfather, correctional officers, let him see the inmates to scare him into staying on the straight and narrow. At 6'8" Jones had a three-point stroke as sweet as sugarcane, but his coaches at Miami played him in the low post. Often, the only outside shots he took were alone in the gym after the game was over. Drafted by the Pacers in 2003, he learned to come off screens from Reggie Miller and caught his break in November '04, when Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were suspended for charging into the stands in Auburn Hills. "Without the brawl," says Jones, "I don't know that I'm in the league."
After stops in Phoenix and Portland, Jones signed with the Heat two years ago but ruptured a tendon in his right wrist before his first game, missed more than half of the next two seasons and had his contract bought out in June. "I was a shooter who couldn't shoot," Jones says. A self-described nerd who nearly quit basketball at American Senior High because he took home two C's, Jones wanted to pursue his master's in finance and felt it was time to let his wife, Destiny, put her degree in mental health counseling to use. He even purchased a membership at his local YMCA. Then the Celtics sent him a contract for the veteran's minimum and told him to fax it back. Jones signed and decided to hand-deliver the papers. Just a few hours before Jones left for Boston, Haslem called and said, "Not many people get to do something this special in their hometown." Jones junked the contract and canceled the flight. Miami gave him $4.4 million over three years.
The Heat was overwhelmed with calls from journeymen who wanted to poach a championship, but the club had to identify those who could go a week without a shot and still perform when summoned. "It's like you're looking for relief pitchers," says Spoelstra. He lobbied to re-sign Jamaal Magloire, a former All-Star who in two seasons with the Heat scored 2.5 points per game but keeps himself prepared with a daily stretching regimen that lasts nearly an hour. James traveled to New York City for Carmelo Anthony's wedding, and over lunch asked former Cavaliers teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas to follow him south. And Riley went after the 6'9" Howard. Again.
In the summer of 1996, Howard signed a seven-year contract with the Heat for $100 million, flew to Miami and was introduced at a press conference. Two weeks later the NBA voided the agreement, accusing the Heat of circumventing the salary cap by negotiating an undisclosed pact with center Alonzo Mourning and giving other players deals with easily reached incentives. The NBA ruled Howard a free agent, and he re-signed with Washington on what Riley called the worst day of his career. "It's hard not to think of what could have been," Howard says. He made eight stops after Washington, most recently in Portland last season, where he finished second on the team in rebounding. "You're like Moses," Howard's agent, David Falk, told him. "You've been wandering around for 14 years, and you're finally going back to where you should have been all along."
The day the Heat left for the season opener in Boston, Spoelstra hauled into their locker room the championship trophy from 2006, when Miami's motto was 15 Strong. He tried to connect all 15 again. "It was no secret that this would be heavily on me, Chris and LeBron," says Wade. "But Coach Spo had to define a role for everyone." Spoelstra, 40, can relate to the Discounted Dozen—a point guard at the University of Portland, he once shot 30,000 three-pointers over the summer, jotting the result of each attempt in a notebook. He was hired by the Heat as a video coordinator in 1995 and often stayed up until sunrise cutting tape. Known mainly for the amusing videos he showed at the annual holiday party, Spoelstra says it took two years for Riley to learn his name. In '08 Riley made Spoelstra the first Filipino-American head coach in the NBA, but Miami staffers still refer to the team president as Coach Riley, a figure as imposing as any of the Big Three.
Spoelstra addressed every player in front of the group, describing in detail how each could contribute. Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo are facilitators, Jones and Eddie House snipers, Magloire and Joel Anthony enforcers, Howard and Ilgauskas locker room elders. Says Spoelstra, "We had to tell some of them, 'I know you've been in the rotation before, but you're not going to be in the rotation now. I need you to practice, be a positive influence and be ready when called.'"
James planned on speaking at the initial meeting, but Haslem had just been elected co-captain with Wade, and he took the floor after Spoelstra. Haslem helped create the Heat's underdog identity seven years ago, and he could not stand that they were now dismissed as divas. "I told the guys, 'The last time I saw my mom smile is when she heard I was coming back to play for this team,'" says Haslem, whose mother, Debra, died of cancer in July. "She saw this team get put together, but she never saw it perform. I want to win a championship and see her smile again." James never spoke, proving that one of the Three could defer to one of the 12. "I just couldn't follow up with anything after that," he said.
When the Heat's lineup was introduced the following night, it was hard to tell if the TD Garden crowd was yelling boo (to James, Wade and Bosh) or who (to Anthony and Arroyo). Anthony played high school football in Montreal, grew six inches in 11th grade and decided to try basketball in 12th. He was cut as a freshman at Dawson College in his hometown and bounced from Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College to UNLV to the Heat, where he averaged 2.6 points at center but blocked 1.3 shots. Arroyo's route was almost as unlikely. He was an NBA point guard for eight seasons but wound up in Israel two years ago. When he returned to South Florida, he became a regular at Suniland Park in Pinecrest. The Heat called him with an offer in October 2009 during a 10 p.m. pickup game. "It was four-on-four," Arroyo says, "and everybody else was at least 40."
In Miami's new offense the point guard is rarely the one pushing the ball because James and Wade can do that. The center is rarely the one taking passes in the post because James, Wade and Bosh can do that, too. The point guard exists mainly to make open shots when he is ignored. The center exists mainly to set screens and chase down missed shots. "Can you imagine," says an Eastern Conference scout, "what it's like when those guys do actually take a shot? They must be looking over at LeBron and Wade like, I hope this is O.K."
But the players insist it's not that way at all. Arroyo says James and Wade actually scold him for passing up open looks. The locker room is hardly divided along the lines of stats or salaries. James sits next to Howard, Wade next to Miller, Bosh next to Magloire. Arroyo blasts the reggaeton single he recorded, Se Va Conmigo. Spoelstra writes messages on the grease board such as PLAY TOGETHER and MAKE THE GAME EASIER FOR EACH OTHER. He is asking them to be a team, even if many of them just met. When Haslem lost a $100 bet to James on the Miami--Ohio State football game in September, Haslem paid him with 10,000 pennies stuffed in a shoe box. And when James gave the 308-pound Pittman the nickname Marshmallow Man, Pittman showed off pictures of himself at Texas when he weighed more than 400 pounds, unable to drop into a defensive stance and embarrassed to take his shirt off in front of his fellow Longhorns. Then he started working out every day at 5:30 a.m. and calling his strength coach before each meal to evaluate menu options. Pittman lost more than 100 pounds and earlier this year was contacted by the White House to help promote physical education. "I've heard every fat joke you can make," he told James and Wade. Now Pittman refers to James as Grimace and SpongeBob, explaining, "If you look at him up close, he looks like a cartoon character."
Pittman believes he is no different from his higher profile teammates—"We're all just big kids," he says—but obviously they do not enjoy the same kind of security. When Miller broke his thumb in a preseason practice, Miami signed Stackhouse, who at the time was preparing to broadcast college games for CBS. Then Haslem hurt his foot and Stackhouse was released to make room for Dampier, who in 14 seasons has averaged 7.8 points and 7.4 rebounds. Because the Heat did not want to carry five centers, Pittman was sent down to the NBDL affiliate in Sioux Falls, S.D. Without Haslem, the Heat's spiritual leader and the NBA's best rebounding reserve, the team dropped three games in a row last week and the bench was outscored 40--4 in a hideous home loss to the Pacers.
Wade has always leaned on Haslem in difficult times, but recently he started shooting free throws after practice with House, who spent the first three years of his career in Miami and was then passed around by six teams in four seasons. After being waived by the Bobcats in December 2004, House went home to Sacramento. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, called with an offer from the Bucks, to which House responded, "F--- everyone. I'm staying home for the holidays." Bartelstein warned that he might stay home for good, so House packed his bags, and in less than three years he was draining threes for the champion Celtics. "We need to communicate more," House said he told Wade as they shot free throws. "We can't worry if guys will be sensitive."
They maintain that chemistry will come with time and that ball movement will improve when Miller returns. But Spoelstra must find a functioning rotation of big men to avoid being cast off like the others. Anthony has already ceded his starting job to the 35-year-old Ilgauskas, who was thinking about retiring a decade ago, having broken his left foot twice and his right foot three times. But in February 2001 his left heel was surgically realigned and his left foot recontoured, and two years later Ilgauskas was an All-Star. He played 12 seasons with the Cavs, seven with James, and when he left in the summer, he took out an ad in the local newspaper that read in part, "I realize how lucky I was to have grown up in a place like Cleveland."
Every road game for the Heat has become a referendum on the Decision. "When you walk into the arena, you feel the hatred," says Magloire, though it is not directed at him. Magloire is a former All-Star who refers to his opponents as "gentlemen" and had his lone tattoo (it read MISTER MAGLOIRE) removed because he did not like the example it set for his 11-year-old son. Magloire and the Heat used to walk practically unnoticed through other cities. Now they are targets because they wear the same color jersey as James. "How different is it?" says Haslem. "Three-hundred-sixty degrees different, multiplied by two and then spun around a few times."
And yet, through 17 games, the Heat had a better record last season (10--7). Wade has fared worse with James and Bosh than with Quentin Richardson and Michael Beasley. The problems with the three magnify the importance of the 12, and the team is being held up even by the President as proof that the star system does not work. A true champion, after all, transcends titles like the Big Three and the Discounted Dozen to become what the Heat once was: 15 Strong.
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Lethal three-point shooter with winning pedigree brings energy as a sub.
Rookie is a load in the low post but was sent to the D-League for polish.
Enforcer who can bang inside when he's not buried on the bench.
With soft touch, remains solid pick-and-pop partner for LeBron James.
Elite shooter will make big difference when he returns in December.
Signed last week, brings much-needed size and toughness to front line.
Rugged rebounder had foot surgery and could be out until spring.
Sixteen-year vet still hits the boards and provides locker room leadership.
Adept shot blocker rarely scores and is still developing as a rebounder.
One of the team's few bright spots is reviving career by taking open threes.
Can play off the ball and make midrange jumpers when left unguarded.
Started as a rookie but now gets to run the offense only in short spurts.