As he returned from a scouting trip last Jan. 14, one day after another dispiriting loss dropped the Heat to 11-30, Andy Elisburg, the team’s senior vice president and general manager, used a layover to phone his boss, Pat Riley, and tell him it was time for a tough conversation.
“Math,” Elisburg remembers warning Riley, “is going to catch us.”
The Heat don’t tank entire seasons. It is not in the ultra-competitive, borderline militaristic DNA Riley has instilled over two decades. But they aren’t dumb, either. They know what the NBA’s incentive structure recommends when bad chemistry and injuries undo a season.
The full brain trust agreed to meet about how to approach the rest of the season during Miami’s upcoming four-game homestand. The Heat won the first game, over Houston. They postponed the meeting. Miami didn’t lose again until mid-February. The meeting never happened.
Miami went 30-11 the rest of the way, missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker, and transformed into one of those random teams NBA nerds will always remember — unwanted misfits who coalesced around an identity of relentless work and rapid-fire drive-and-kick basketball.
Players bonded over their winding journeys to the NBA. Someone — Hassan Whiteside claims it now — nicknamed the D-League “The Jungle,” and the players bestowed the same moniker upon their practice court.
“That became ‘The Jungle,'” James Johnson says. “Every morning before practice, you’re gonna see the same thing written on that whiteboard: ‘Mouthpiece, knee pads, rib pads.’ You wear all of that for practice. The Jungle became our obsession. If you’re from The Jungle, no top draft pick should ever get a loose ball over you. If a top pick and Rodney McGruder are going for a loose ball, I’d bet my house on Rodney.”
Johnson lost 35 pounds in The Jungle, and found he could play at full throttle for longer stretches. Everyone could. The Heat outran and outworked people. “I saw a lot of similarities with our team in Boston,” Kelly Olynyk says. “Tough, hard-nosed, didn’t have any All-Star — just like us before Isaiah [Thomas] came out of nowhere.”