Over the years, many NBA teams have taken full advantage of the D-League, using it to develop players and find talent. Some organizations – like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons among others – have utilized their respective D-League teams quite effectively over the years.
But perhaps the team that has leaned on its D-League affiliate the most has been the Miami HEAT.
It seems like the HEAT have been able to find players who either went undrafted or were taken in the second round and continuously mold them into significant contributors using their D-League squad (the Sioux Falls Skyforce) and franchise’s development program. And it’s not just that they’re uncovering end-of-bench players either; the HEAT have discovered meaningful, impact players this way.
Players like Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson all spent some time in the D-League and, at one point, didn’t have a huge role in the NBA. Now, they’ve each done very well for themselves.
We’re all familiar with Whiteside’s journey from a second-round draft pick who rarely played in the NBA, to playing in Lebanon and then the D-League, to reportedly agreeing to sign a max-deal with the HEAT.
Johnson went undrafted out of Fresno State and made a name for himself with the HEAT in Summer League two years ago. He eventually spent about a half a season with the Skyforce before earning a couple of 10-day contracts with the HEAT. The Brooklyn Nets reportedly just signed Johnson to a four-year, $50 million offer sheet. The HEAT have three days from Thursday to match that deal.
Meanwhile, Richardson was the HEAT’s second-round draft pick a year ago and played a big role for Miami as a rookie. He spent time with Sioux Falls, but ultimately ended up becoming a rotation player for Miami. His minutes increased in each month of the regular season, and he averaged 12 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals in 29 minutes per game during the month of February. He also shot 59 percent from three-point range that month.
A shoulder injury forced Johnson to undergo surgery in February, which allowed Richardson to earn more minutes and contribute – one hidden gem stepping in for another. Johnson played the majority of his time at shooting guard, but also played point guard at times. Richardson essentially took over Johnson’s role in the offense and really flourished in that spot.
Perhaps the biggest element that he brought to the floor was his three-point shooting. Miami is a team that has struggled shooting from long distance in recent years, and Richardson certainly filled that specific need. He shot 46 percent from three-point range on the season, which ranked first on the team, and he was second on the team in three-pointers made in the postseason with 17 (trailing only Luol Deng’s 24).
“I wasn’t really sure what to envision,” Richardson said of his rookie season. “I thought I would be in a developmental role a lot of the year. I was just trying to work on my game a lot at the beginning. After the All-Star break, I started getting minutes. All of the work I [did] just paid off.
“It definitely gave me a lot of confidence playing [in the postseason] against the people that we played against, under so much pressure. Out here [in Summer League], it kind of feel likes pick-up a little bit. Being able to come out here with my teammates and have some fun with them has been great.”
The latest under-the-radar find for the HEAT seems to be Briante Weber. The 6’2 guard went undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University last year and appeared with the Memphis Grizzlies and HEAT this past season. The HEAT brought him on board for depth purposes in the postseason and he’s still trying to prove that he belongs with Miami.
Despite not yet having a clear-cut role on the HEAT, Weber is beginning to turn heads during the Orlando Summer League. In three games, Weber is filling the stat sheet – averaging an impressive 6.3 points, six rebounds, five assists and 4.3 steals per game. His best performance came on Tuesday when he recorded nine points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals.
When asked about the HEAT’s scouting department, Richardson smiled.
“They’re good at their jobs,” Richardson said. “They’re good at what they do. A guy like Briante, who got hurt his senior year, a lot of people kind of wrote him off. They brought him in and he’s healthy again, and now he’s probably going to be on the court next year hurting teams. It’s their fault; our win, their loss.”
Weber is a player who seems to understand where he stands in the league. He’s approaching Summer League this year as a guy who’s trying to steal a roster spot away from someone else. He knows that a successful showing in the Summer League will go a long way toward securing a place (and defined role) on the team. If his Summer League performances are any indication, he can add depth in the backcourt and make his presence felt all over the court with his scoring, passing, rebounding and defending.
“[My confidence is] through the roof,” Weber said. “I never lack confidence in any area of basketball. This is a game that I’ve been playing since I was 2 years old, so I never lack confidence.
“I’m not on a big-time contract. I’m here to show that I should play in this league. I’m capable of playing in this league and I can play for a long time. [I also want] to showcase my talent to other teams, just in case Miami lets me go.”
The HEAT’s organizational infrastructure and its success are well-documented to this point. With HEAT President Pat Riley in charge of assembling the roster, Miami has consistently been a playoff team (and typically a contender) under his watch. Of course, adding the “Big Three” a few years ago further added to his credibility as a front office executive.
Beyond Riley, the team has head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has proven to be among the best sideline generals in the league. Spoelstra has often been commended for his work ethic and ability to prepare his players for each game. His road to head coach started as a video coordinator under Stan Van Gundy and he eventually worked his way up to head coach a few years ago (so, yes, he’s another diamond in the rough whom Miami discovered).
The team’s great group of veterans have done a great job welcoming in younger players and helping them get acclimated. With Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic and Udonis Haslem among others in the locker room, rookies and second-year players have learned many valuable lessons (on and off the court) as they try to maximize their potential.
“I think the biggest thing is you just see those guys and how they perform as professionals in all aspects – whether it’s getting to the gym early, getting the treatment, getting shots late,” Justise Winslow said. “That’s something that I think has helped me and a reason why I’m extremely happy with my situation and stepping into somewhere that was a playoff-contending team.
“Those guys help me in every sense of becoming a professional. Those guys have helped me with my work ethic and little things [like that]. When it comes to playoffs, those guys have been through hundreds of games so it definitely benefited me having those guys on my side.”
Looking at how the HEAT have performed in recent years, it’s no surprise that they’ve been so successful. Even after the team lost LeBron James two years ago, they still managed to play well. They narrowly missed the playoffs the year after James left, and they were one game away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals this past season (despite being without Bosh).
Given the way the HEAT’s summer has gone thus far, they might have to rely on the trio of Winslow, Richardson and Weber a lot more next season. The HEAT have just five players guaranteed on the roster for next season as of right now. They lost veterans Luol Deng and Joe Johnson to free agency so far, and may lose Tyler Johnson if they opt not to match his large offer sheet from the Nets.
As things stand currently, the HEAT have just Bosh, Whiteside, Dragic, Josh McRoberts and Winslow on guaranteed deals for next season. It’s unclear at this time when (or if) Bosh can resume basketball activities due to his blood clotting issues. Meanwhile, Richardson and Weber are both on non-guaranteed deals for next season.
Right now, all eyes are on Wade to see if he’ll continue his career in Miami. There is some uncertainty at the moment regarding his future, as he was reportedly upset with the team’s initial one-year, $10 million offer and will meet with other teams beginning today. The Denver Nuggets, for example, will meet with Wade on Wednesday and are reportedly offering a two-year, $52 million deal.
Miami increased their offer to a two-year, $40 million contract but it may be too little, too late. It remains to be seen if Wade will leave for more money (or if he’s just using other teams for negotiating purposes), but it should be a bit concerning for HEAT fans that Wade is no longer just flirting with other teams but actually meeting face to face with them.
It seems reasonable to assume that the HEAT will guarantee Richardson and Weber next season given their bargain contracts ($874,636 each), especially now that the team may have to allocate more money than they initially expected to retain Wade. It’s very possible that this HEAT team looks completely different next season, but it’s still very early in the offseason so it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet.
Regardless of which players return on the roster next season, it seems likely given Miami’s track record that they’ll be able to find more under-the-radar talent in the D-League and elsewhere.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.