When Miami Heat president Pat Riley met with unrestricted free agent Dion Waiters last summer, the nine-time NBA champion made the 24-year-old shooting guard a promise.
“We’re going to get you in world-class shape,” Riley told Waiters, as he recounted for The Players Tribune. “Not good shape. Not great shape. World-class shape. Give us a season, and you’ll see.”
Riley has made this promise to other free agents over the years, and he has an iPad full of before-and-after pictures that serve as success stories to back up his claim. When a player joins the Heat, it doesn’t take them long to realize that this organization does things differently.
Prior to joining the Heat, Waiters thought he was already in excellent shape after playing four years in the NBA. James Johnson, who had been in the NBA for seven seasons and can literally kick the rim on a regulation hoop, thought the same thing prior to signing with Miami last offseason.
Most players have this reaction. Then, they show up for the team’s workouts.
“After one week, my body [was] shot,” Waiters recalled. “I was damn near throwing up in trash cans like in the movies.”
The Heat’s offseason workouts, training camps and practices are the stuff of legend. Players work extremely hard, spending a ton of time on conditioning and weight training. And it never really lets up. This year’s team was still doing full-contact practices in the final week of this season – even when a playoff berth was a realistic possibility.
“They had us come in early during the offseason to prepare for training camp,” said one current Heat player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We did sprints and other conditioning drills, and we even went outside to push some sleds and flip tires and stuff like that. This was all to get ready for training camp.
“When camp started, it was definitely different. With other teams, they may have veterans who can’t run as much so the training camp is kind of built to accommodate those guys. In Miami, we were all trying to make a name for ourselves so it was competitive and we were all ready to work hard. We had sayings like, ‘No fake gym rats,’ ‘No excuses,’ and, ‘Always get one percent better.’ If you came to the gym, it wasn’t to make an appearance so the coaches can see you. You’re coming to get better. We don’t want any fake gym rats.”
While intense, the work paid off. Sources say that Waiters trimmed his body fat percentage by nearly five percent from the start of the season to now. He was so proud of the transformation that he posted a copy of his before-and-after picture on Snapchat after the season ended.
Those around the NBA say it’s no coincidence that Miami went 30-11 in the second half of the season. Many credit the Heat’s excellent conditioning for their late-season success, as it seemed they were just hitting their stride when other teams were breaking down.
While the Heat ultimately missed the playoffs, it’s amazing they were even in the postseason mix. They were 19 games under .500 at one point during the campaign. In fact, they became the first team in NBA history to rally from more than 12 games below .500 and avoid a losing record (they finished 41-41, missing the playoffs on the final day of the regular season).
“Their conditioning played a big role in their success over that stretch,” one agent said. “This is why they run so much in the offseason, in training camp and during the season. They run like gazelles and work extremely hard to prepare for stretches like that.”
Every player who joins the Heat takes three pictures documenting their progress: one before the season, one during the season and one after the season. This isn’t a common practice around the league; in fact, players typically say that this is all new to them.
“I never had done a before-and-after [picture],” Johnson told Anthony Chiang of The Palm Beach Post. “We got in there and they told me I had to take off my shirt. We had to take a before picture. It was weird to me. It was really weird to me. I thought I was going to be the only one because I came in something huge. I thought they were going to show me progress or what I don’t want to get back to.”
Every Monday, players are weighed and their body fat percentage is measured. Each player has specific goals that are customized for them, but the team goal is for everyone to fall under 10 percent body fat. What happens if a player doesn’t meet his goal? When asked, one Heat player laughed and said he didn’t know because every player on the roster met their goals – mainly because they were too scared to find out the consequences.
Miami has a rule that players can’t put their hands on their knees for a breather during a practice or game. Any player who does this is fined $100, according to a league source who’s close with several former Heat players. If that’s a rule, you can imagine what the penalty would be for showing up overweight…
Some players have gone to great lengths to ensure that they met their weight goal. Several years ago, a few players would sometimes gulp down detox drinks and take laxatives over the weekend in order to be ready for their Monday weigh-in.
Most players don’t have to go to these extremes, though. In addition to working hard in the gym and on the court, the team tries to help players eat right. Breakfast is provided to the players every day and, on gamedays, lunch and a pre-game spread is also available. Players are encouraged to eat home-cooked meals as opposed to going out to restaurants, and they’re taught to be conscious of what they’re putting in their body. These lessons are especially important for young players or former D-League players since they’re accustomed to eating cheap foods (AKA fast food and processed junk).
While Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra obviously played a huge role in creating this culture, Heat strength and conditioning coach Bill Foran deserves credit as well. Foran has been with the organization for 29 years, and this was his 19th season in his current role as strength and conditioning coach. His son, Eric, is now the team’s assistant strength and conditioning coach after two years learning from his father as an intern. Several players cited the Forans as the reason for their weight loss and improved play.
The organization trusts Foran and his process so much that, over the years, they’ve been willing to take risks on players who had weight issues – from Dexter Pittman to Eddy Curry to Shaquille O’Neal. When Curry was in Miami, he lost 100 lbs. and got back to his high school weight.
Their process is also what helps them develop their diamond-in-the-rough players into key contributors, with Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Willie Reed and Josh Richardson being perfect examples.
“Miami is a world-class organization,” another agent said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of teams, but they’re one of the best. They know what they’re doing, they’re organized, and it translates to the court. When it comes to the guys they’ve discovered and developed, you have to credit everyone from the front office to the coaches to the scouts to the strength-and-conditioning staff to the player-development staff (which has a lot of former players) to their D-League affiliate (which they utilize really well). Their success is due to a combination of things. They’re very structured and organized, and they expect the best from their guys. The ones who really put in the time and work can see the difference.”
James Johnson may have had doubts early on when he was asked to take a shirtless picture, but he’s a big believer in the Heat’s process now. Sources say he had the biggest transformation of any player this season, losing nearly 40 lbs. and dropping his body fat percentage by eight percent. It’s worth noting that Johnson averaged career-highs in points (12.8), rebounds (4.9) and assists (3.6) at 30 years old.
Johnson believes the extra focus on conditioning combined with healthy eating and intense practices are what makes Miami’s approach so effective. Having a group that completely buys in and holds each other accountable is important too.
“This culture is real,” Johnson said. “We have the kind of practices where you can’t go out and hang out all night and think you’re going to be able to come to practice and really go hard because I’ll call you out, everybody on this team will call you out. We won’t leave it to the coaches to call you out. We take care of that ourselves.”
Wayne Ellington, who turns 30 in November, is another success story for the Heat. Prior to the season, he weighed 222 pounds with a body fat percentage of 12 percent. Last month, he said he’s at 203 pounds and 6.5 percent body fat.
“I feel like I can run for days,” Ellington told Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald. “I feel like I can just stay out there and continue to play. I don’t get tired on defense. I don’t get tired coming off screens when coach calls that play for me. I feel like my longevity and stamina is by far the best it’s been in a very long time. I’m still working my way down, still getting trim. It feels amazing. My body feels good. I feel as strong as I’ve been in a long time. It just feels good getting those compliments when I see people I haven’t seen in a few months. They’re like, ‘Damn man, you look good. What do they have you doing?’ Me and my boys joke about it all the time. They say, ‘You haven’t looked like that since college.’ It feels good.”
Shortly after the Heat waived Derrick Williams in February, the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to a 10-day contract (and eventually kept him for the whole season). The Cavs’ analytics staff in the front office felt he was a low-risk, high-reward addition so they scooped him up. Sources say LeBron James liked the move because he knew that after five months with the Heat, Williams would be in terrific shape.
It should be noted that not all players like Miami’s intense approach.
While researching this piece, agents named a handful of veteran players who specifically said they wouldn’t consider Miami in free agency because they heard the Heat practice more than other teams and expect guys to work extremely hard. Most of the players mentioned were in the twilight of their career, so they didn’t want to change their entire approach now.
Sources mentioned one veteran who played with Miami and followed all of the rules, but then chose not to re-sign with the Heat because he felt they were asking too much of him. Another player retired and couldn’t be talked out of it because he was tired of doing things the Heat way.
“Miami is an organization that isn’t for everybody,” an agent said. “Either you buy in and you’re part of the Heat culture, or you’re not. They go after players who want to work and put in the necessary time to get better. They look for those kind of guys – the ones who have good character and want to work. They go extremely hard. They like to lift heavy and run a lot. Their strength-and-conditioning program is an emphasis. They like for guys to report early – usually about six weeks early – so that guys can focus on weightlifting and their agility and getting quicker. They’ve been doing it for a long time and they take it very seriously. Some other teams will let guys go work out on their own and do whatever they want, but Miami isn’t like other teams. It’s very organized in Miami; guys have a strict schedule, they’re working with the strength-and-conditioning team and they go hard. They will push you to the limit. After they’re done, the players exhausted because of how hard they go.”
“Pat Riley does like to get guys into ‘world-class shape,’ as he told Dion Waiters,” said another agent. “He makes his guys run a lot. A lot. And there aren’t any days off. With most organizations these days, there are fewer practices, but he runs things like it’s still the ‘80s or ‘90s. Every player is going to be under 10 percent body fat. That’s the norm in Miami. I understand his logic. He wants his guys to be in shape like his teams in the Showtime era, running up and down the court and practicing every day. But I’m not sure today’s players are built like that mentally. Physically, guys are bigger, faster and stronger. But mentally? A lot of these guys can’t handle that. For the younger guys, it’s great. But when you’re a vet and you have a lot of years under your belt…”
Willie Reed, who joined Miami last offseason, believes this group was assembled because they would buy into the Heat’s culture.
“They put a group of guys together who weren’t afraid to work, who weren’t going to back down if something was hard,” Reed told HoopsHype. “We all knew it was going to be hard, but we didn’t give up and that’s what made this team special. I think part of that resiliency comes from most of us having played in the D-League or facing some adversity. It was easier for us to adapt to what they wanted and do exactly what they needed us to do. They don’t want to see us above a certain weight or body fat percentage. You can fluctuate a bit, but you have to make sure that you hit your goals. Everyone on this year’s team dropped their weight and body fat percentage tremendously. That’s a testament to everyone eating right and working hard.
“I realized the difference on the court when I was able to stay consistent throughout the whole season and maintain my level of play. I was able to do that thanks to the Heat and their training regimen. They made sure I worked hard, ate the right things and really made me feel like I was cared about. They gave me an opportunity and wanted me here, so I just tried to follow their plan as well as I could and have it translate to my play.”
One thing several people told HoopsHype is Riley treats all of his players the same way and ensures they stick to their goals.
One former player told a story about Dwyane Wade reporting to camp weighing around 230 lbs. and telling Riley that he bulked up. Riley responded, “No, you’re fat.” This was during Wade’s prime and the players were surprised to hear Riley talk to Wade like that. But it sent the message that everyone – with zero exceptions – would be held accountable.
“Who would have the balls to tell Wade that, other than Riley?!” the former player said. “This was when D-Wade was Flash!”
A second source confirmed the story about Wade.
“There are benefits of ‘the culture’ and how they get people to buy in, including insane levels of fitness,” the source added. “The accountability is important too. Most organizations don’t have that and it shows. The Heat weed out the people who won’t commit. And you can really see the difference when people buy in; it can save a career. Pat’s culture can be very effective. But, at the same time, when the group is self-motivated and has veterans, they don’t need that. When you have guys who already get it, Pat is sort of like a helicopter parent you can’t wait to escape from. You start being annoyed by every little thing. [It’s true] that every player is treated the same. Everyone has to wear the same socks. Nobody has WiFi on airplanes. They don’t alter anything, even for superstars. For some guys, especially veterans, they’d rather make less or go somewhere else if it means having a better experience.”
No matter who you are, if you’re donning a Miami jersey, you’re expected to do things the Heat way.