As the Miami Heat evolved, so did Udonis Haslem
By Sopan Deb
Udonis Haslem is a rarity in today’s NBA.
In an era when players change teams more than ever, he has been a Miami Heat lifer, a member of the team since his rookie season in 2003-04. Star players almost never stay with one franchise so long, and for role players, it is unheard-of. To top it off, Haslem went undrafted and is a Miami native.
Haslem, who has established himself as a tough defender over his 17 seasons, has by far the longest tenure on one team among active players. The closest is Stephen Curry, who has been with the Golden State Warriors since 2009. The only players who have had longer careers with just one team, and no other, are Dirk Nowitzki (21 seasons, Dallas Mavericks), Kobe Bryant (20, Los Angeles Lakers), Tim Duncan (19, San Antonio Spurs), John Stockton (19, Utah Jazz) and Reggie Miller (18, Indiana Pacers).
And Haslem, now 40, isn’t necessarily done yet. He said recently that he had not decided if this season would be his last.
The Heat were founded in 1988 and have made the finals six times, including this season against the Los Angeles Lakers, who held a series lead of two games to none going into Sunday night’s Game 3. Haslem has been part of each run and is going for his fourth championship. What makes his journey even more unusual is that the six trips to the finals have come in three distinct eras for the franchise, featuring rosters constructed with separate approaches by Pat Riley, the team president, who was also its coach.
Some role players get to be part of several runs to the NBA Finals, because their team’s roster is stable. But Riley made multiple roster turnovers, all while keeping the Heat relatively competitive. There have been two constants through the three eras: One is Riley’s penchant for acquiring cheap, overlooked talent; the other is Haslem. In some ways, he is a relic, as an undersized big man whose rebounding, defense and ability to hit midrange jumpers made him valuable to multiple championship contenders.
Here is a look at the three eras of Miami basketball that Haslem has helped carry to the finals, initially as a starter and now essentially in the role of an assistant coach.
2005-06: NBA Champions
This was the franchise’s first championship run, led by a 34-year-old Shaquille O’Neal and a 24-year-old Dwyane Wade. It was a bit of a strange season, which began with coaching drama: Riley, the team president, stepped in to replace Stan Van Gundy as head coach after the team started 11-10. O’Neal, in his second season with the Heat, missed 18 games because of an ankle injury.
The roster, beyond its two big stars, was unusual for a finals-bound team. There were several past-their-prime veterans hoping for a shot at a ring in their first season with the team: Derek Anderson, Gary Payton, James Posey, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker. Jason Kapono, a solid shooter off the bench, also was new to the team in his third NBA season. Alonzo Mourning, a Heat staple, was nearing the end of his career. None of the rookies played significant roles.
Many of the Miami players retired soon after beating the Mavericks over six games in the finals. The only genuine building blocks on the team were O’Neal, Wade and Haslem. The next season, the team fizzled in the first round of the playoffs.
The Haslem Effect
Haslem was in his third NBA season, and his second as a full-time starter. He averaged 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds, and shot 50.8 percent from the field. Haslem would remain the Heat’s starting forward for only the next three seasons. In the clinching game of the finals against Dallas, he scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Unlike the 2005-06 team, the early 2010s Heat were constructed to be a dynasty. Riley remained team president but turned over the coaching duties to Erik Spoelstra. Once again, Miami brought in free-agent veterans to carry the team to the finish line. But this time, the veterans happened to be some of the best players in their primes: LeBron James and Chris Bosh. (For bookkeeping purposes, they were technically acquired through trades, but as part of the swaps, they first re-signed with their original teams as free agents.)
James and Bosh, both 26 then, joined Wade to form one of the most fearsome trios in league history. The balance of power in the NBA instantly shifted toward Miami. At an early event celebrating their arrival, James said the team intended to win championships, plural: “Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five. Not six. Not seven.”
It ended up being just two. Miami’s Big Three went to the finals in all four of their seasons together. The Mavericks upset them the first time, then the Heat won back-to-back championships against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. In their last run, they lost to the vengeful Spurs. And then James left for Cleveland, bringing the powerhouse to an end.
In those four years, Riley stocked the team, as usual, with veterans signed on the cheap, including Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Juwan Howard and Rashard Lewis — all of whom finished their NBA careers in this era with the Heat. But there were also younger players whom Spoelstra relied on, like Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers.
The Haslem Effect
Haslem was a free agent in the summer of 2010, when James and Bosh decided to play for the Heat. Haslem passed up more lucrative offers and stayed in Miami.
In the 2010-11 season, he played only 13 games because of a left foot injury. For the next three seasons, Haslem, then in his early 30s, shuffled in and out of the starting lineup and saw his role reduced significantly, as the team became more top-heavy. Each year, his minutes per game declined — from 24.8 in 2011-12 to 14.2 in 2013-14. But in those minutes, Haslem was still a strong defender, particularly known for his one-on-one stops in the post, and he produced the best rebounding percentages of his career.
The Youth Movement
This year’s Miami team is a departure from the previous iterations with championship aspirations, in that it is more reliant on inexperienced players. But like those teams, this version is full of players who have been overlooked.
Tyler Herro, the 20-year-old dynamic rookie guard, has been one of the team’s best scorers off the bench. Duncan Robinson (second year) and Kendrick Nunn (rookie) are key contributors who, like Haslem, went undrafted and were later signed by the Heat. Neither Bam Adebayo, an athletic big man who made the All-Star team this season (his third), nor Herro was drafted in the Top 10.
The team is still led by veterans, like Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. And Riley traded for one veteran near the end of his career, Andre Iguodala, a hallmark acquisition, as well as for Jae Crowder.
The Haslem Effect
Now Haslem is essentially an assistant coach with a player’s roster spot. While he played only four games during the regular season and a total of 44 minutes, he is the team’s captain. His mentorship has been cited by players, coaches and executives as crucial, especially for a team with so many young players. In the spring, Spoelstra referred to Haslem as “Mr. Miami.” Separately, in a recent interview with The Ringer, Riley called him “Mr. 305,” a reference to Miami’s area code.
When Haslem retires, expect the Heat to raise his No. 40 jersey to the rafters.