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Monday, April 25, 2011
The Heat as a case study in team-building

By Kevin Arnovitz

The magazine Fast Company has made its journalistic mark examining nuances and cutting-edge trends in the business world. They cover how innovative companies approach technological challenges in the digital age, attract the smartest people, and use design and branding to remain relevant in a super-competitive environment.

In their current issue, Fast Company features LeBron James on the cover. The headline of the corresponding feature story is, "What LeBron James And The Miami Heat Teach Us About Teamwork." The top of the piece speaks to themes that will be familiar to hard-core NBA fans and those who have followed the team closely. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh each sacrificed millions of dollars to join forces in Miami; each will see fewer touches on the floor (especially Bosh); each will have to sublimate his ego because there will be no single "face of the franchise."

Then the article touches on an interesting tidbit about recruitment and the job performance of new employees in an organization:
New hires perform better when they bring a former colleague with them, says Harvard associate professor Boris Groysberg, who has studied the firm hopping of Wall Street analysts. This may well explain the value of 35-year-old Lithuanian center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who joined Miami after playing beside James for seven seasons in Cleveland. The minute Ilgauskas arrived, James had a confidant, a supportive teammate, someone who made the strange new surroundings feel familiar. This is especially important now that James, once one of the league's most popular players, has suddenly become a villain, the Hester Prynne of the NBA. "Welcome Big Z," James tweeted when he heard the news. "Glad u are joining me in South Beach my friend. Also thanks for your encouraging words big fella."

Likewise, Wade wanted to keep free agent and longtime buddy Udonis Haslem on the roster. The two have been teammates since Wade entered the league in 2003. Haslem is one of those gritty, unselfish glue guys that every team craves, a unifying presence behind the scenes. James and Bosh helped Miami's cocaptain get his wish. At Wade's request, they each trimmed their contract by $15 million so the Heat could compete for Haslem's services. The power forward happily agreed to stay put -- for $14 million less than what he was being offered in the free-agent market.

From a managerial standpoint, the confluence of talent assembled in Miami offered another challenge -- namely the overlapping skill sets of James and Wade. Chuck Salter, the author of the piece, contrasts the Heat's experiment with what the Celtics built in 2007-08, when three complementary talents joined forces. Salter cites those late-game breakdowns we've revisited over the past 24 hours (since the Heat's last-possession Game 4 loss in Philadelphia on Sunday) as products of this challenge.

But he then points to James' kickout to Eddie House for the big game-winner in Oklahoma City as one of the rare instances this season when the Heat demonstrated a pure exhibition of teamwork at the end of a game. Salter wrote up a sidebar titled "Chemistry At Work" to illustrate precisely what transpired on that House jumper assisted by James.

Salter addresses on what might be the most important element of the conversation, one that's been forgotten for a number of reasons, including James' "Not one, not two, not three..." pledge of multiple championships at the Heat's pep rally last July:
Everyone remembers the six NBA titles the Chicago Bulls won with Jordan, Pippen, and a cast of feisty specialists that included three-point marksman Kerr and rebounding fiend Dennis Rodman. What we tend to forget is how long it took to put all those pieces together. The Bulls didn't win a championship its first year with Jordan and Pippen. Or its second. Or even its third.

It took the team four years.

Chemistry takes time. The most successful superstar teams embrace shared leadership, says Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard. The players respect one another's individual skills and even learn from one another. But those patterns don't emerge right away. They need time to crystallize. They need consistency, the same people butting heads, compromising, collaborating, day after day. Spoelstra acknowledges this, though it's hard to know how much patience he really has -- or can afford. "You can prepare as much as you want in July, August, and September," he says. "But none of us knew what it would be like until we were in it."

Chemistry isn't something you create and then ignore, like a mark on a growth chart. It's a reflection of the bonds between team members, and those bonds are fragile and needy. They're constantly changing, strengthened and fractured by the various personalities as well as the wins and losses. "You have to keep an eye out for small things that make a difference, early warning signs," says Terri Scandura, dean of the graduate school at the University of Miami, who cites the Heat in her course on management.

A consensus on how-long-is-too-long to wait for the Heat's first title -- assuming they ever win won -- has never emerged. With the exception of James' declaration at the pep rally, none of the principals involved, from James, Wade and Bosh to Spoelstra and Riley, has volunteered a definitive statement of what does and does not constitute success. Spoelstra has said of a title this season, "That's what we're here for," but has resisted the idea that not winning one would be an abject failure.

If the Heat have to wait two or three seasons to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy, would that signal underachievement, or merely the natural course for any organization that underwent a dramatic change in composition?