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A Heat-Lakers NBA Finals shows just how important culture is to success

With the NBA Finals set to go underway, culture is a huge part of why both the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers have made it to this point. This is evident in three separate categories: team identity, roster construction, and style of play. 

Team identity

Regardless of what franchise LeBron plays for, he becomes the immediate face of that team. He was always the face of the Cavaliers, he became the face of the Heat during his stint there even with Heat legend Dwyane Wade on the team and he is now the face of the most storied franchise in NBA history, the Lakers. 

The Heat Culture comes from the front office, with longtime President Pat Riley and Coach Erik Spoelstra implementing a very rigid system that pushes players to fulfill their potential.

They are known for being one of the best-conditioned teams in the league year-in and year-out. Udonis Haslem’s veteran leadership is a huge reason for the consistency among the way the Heat operate. He’s part of why the Heat are going to the Finals with their third different roster than in 2006 and from 2011-2014. 

The Heat culture is well-documented. Their culture is evident in their ability to develop these players into high-level NBA players. Coach Erik Spoelstra and Team President Pat Riley have been crucial to keeping the Heat competitive even though they may lack the talent level most championship-caliber teams have. It’s why they were able to sign Jimmy Butler. 

Roster construction

There is a big difference in how these teams came to be. Free-agent signings make up most of The Lakers. On the contrary, undrafted players, late lottery picks and opportunistic trades largely make up the Heat.

Seven of the Lakers 15 players are lottery picks, with three of them being former No. 1 picks. Their two biggest stars were acquired from free agency and a trade. 11 of their players were not on the roster last season. They lack the continuity that most championship teams have. 

This is relevant to the culture a LeBron led team has because any team he joins often undergoes a huge roster overhaul. It happened in 2011 when he joined Miami, in 2014 when he returned to Cleveland, and just this past offseason with the Lakers. 

The Heat are the opposite. They are a scrappy team filled with guys who at one point or another have been doubted. The highest drafted player on the team is 36-year-old Andre Iguodala, who was the ninth pick. Undrafted players make up six of their 15 players.

Their roster construction has contributed to their underdog mentality and is an important part of their identity. It is a huge part of why they were able to eliminate the Bucks and Celtics, two teams that are arguably more talented. 

Style of play

Any team that employs LeBron James immediately adopts his identity in terms of style of play. This means a heavy dose of LeBron operating out of isolations and pick-and-rolls surrounded by shooters. It’s effective because it maximizes both of his passing and scoring abilities. This often leads to his teams finishing games with smaller lineups to also provide more spacing in crunch time, making him and the team much harder to guard.   

For better or worse, the wins and losses will always fall at the feet of LeBron and he prefers it that way. His presence on any basketball team immediately makes them a championship caliber team and that’s been the case since 2007. This can be a relief for his teammates because often the pressure doesn’t fall on them, but rather on LeBron himself. 

Heat and Lakers culture

That’s largely the Lakers culture, and Heat Culture is the idea that no matter who comes in the game, the same level of execution, defense and effort is expected from them. They have an equal opportunity offense, with Butler and Adebayo as the focal points but always willing to find the hot hand. They are constantly running shooters like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro off of screens for threes. 

Their defense is a critical part of their success and possibly the biggest on-court symbol of their culture. They all compete on that end and are versatile enough to be able to defend any kind of offense. It is borderline impossible to get on the court in a Heat Jersey without at least competing on that end of the floor, and has been the case since Erik Spoelstra became their head coach. 

It is interesting to look back at LeBron’s time in Miami and look back at how these two differences in cultures meshed together. It worked well enough for four NBA Finals trips in four years and two MVP seasons, but there was some tension when LeBron decided to leave. Pat Riley says he took it personally. 

The difference in styles will make for an interesting Finals. There are plenty of storylines and on paper, these teams match up really well. It’s hard to argue that the Heat or LeBron way is better as both have seen championship level success, but there’s no doubt that the contrast in styles will be seen on the court. We are eagerly awaiting the impact of the Heat and Lakers cultures during this finals.