What LeBron James And The Miami Heat Teach Us About Teamwork

When the Miami Heat raided the free-agent talent market last summer, many people declared the franchise unstoppable. So far, it’s proven to be good, but vulnerable. What’s behind the group’s struggles? A lesson for us all in teamwork.

What LeBron James And The Miami Heat Teach Us About Teamwork
LeBron James He’s the self-proclaimed king of the NBA, a twotime league MVP who is used to getting his way. But he has yet to win a championship—and critics say he’s uncoachable.Dwyane Wade The Miami Heat’s all-time leading scorer, he has guided the team to one championship. Now, in the prime of his career, he wants more—even if it means taking a backseat to James. | Photograph by MCT/Getty Images (James); NBAE/Getty Images (Wade).

LeBron James sits in a courtside seat after practice, icing his right knee and giving his thumbs a serious workout on his cell phone. Out on the floor, Dwyane Wade continues launching three-pointers while testing a pair of tinted sunglasses under Madison Square Garden’s bright lights. The swishes — one after another, from somewhere approaching New Jersey — rouse James from his digital haze. “Whoa!” he says, impressed. “Whoa!”


Chris Bosh, the third member of the Heat’s holy trinity, is home in Miami, nursing a sprained ankle. If his teammates are troubled, they don’t let on. It’s late January and the audacious experiment known as the Miami Heat has rumbled into New York with the fourth-best record in the NBA. Despite the 24/7 scrutiny, the slew of new faces on the roster, and the feeble first steps at working in concert, the team ranks among the league’s title contenders. It’s also its biggest draw — on the road and on ESPN. “We’ve played great at times,” concedes coach Erik Spoelstra, arms crossed as he watches from the sidelines. “But greatness, we say, is consistency. And we have not shown greatness because we haven’t put together consistent basketball possession after possession, night after night.”

Forget for a moment that this has anything to do with basketball. Forget about sports altogether. What LeBron and company are attempting to do applies to any organization that’s serious about winning. A year ago, James, Wade, and Bosh were the top dogs — the leading scorers — on their respective teams. Today, they’re divvying up the sirloin scraps, at far less pay, in search of one prize: a championship. Yes, they’ve been derided for conspiring to give Miami a huge leg up at the expense of small-market teams (namely James’s former employer in Cleveland and Bosh’s in Toronto), but their mutual sacrifice is a resounding vote for teamwork. Teamwork among superstars. It’s a huge bet that, in the end, talent will prevail.

This is a strategy that’s on the rise these days. Look at Silicon Valley. Which tech company, when given the chance, doesn’t raid the talent pool, stocking up on the world’s best execs and engineers in the hopes of racing past the competition? Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg personally persuaded Lars Rasmussen, the cocreator of Google Maps, to join a host of elite ex-colleagues at Facebook. If ESPN anchor Stuart Scott were to cover the business universe, he would have summed up the acquisition in a word: Boo-yah!


But you don’t have to huddle with superstars to understand the challenges inherent in this approach, challenges that only escalate in a more mobile economy. Job hopping is rampant, not just within industries, but across them. For the most-sought-after talent, company loyalty has given way to a desire for a big, bold short-term project — developing a breakthrough product, pursuing a new market, expanding into China. Add to that the rootlessness unleashed by the recession, the impatience of today’s young hires, and the fact that more and more people work from remote locations, and effective team building becomes an essential priority. For employees, the primary question is how to define your role without subverting the group dynamic. For managers like Coach Spoelstra, it’s how to get a group of disparate personalities to gel and excel before they move on to the next gig.

The Miami Heat’s up-and-down season, which has included lopsided losses, tension between players and coach, and also a few tears, shows just how hard this is to pull off. Even the most straightforward question — who’s in charge? — is fraught with complications. Here, then, courtesy of James and what he calls “the Heatles,” are the six crucial steps required to create a dream team in any industry.

The Ego Equation


High-priced talent doesn’t ensure success. The free-spending New York Yankees can tell you that. Or the Knicks, who are now trying to emulate Miami. Movie moguls, too. Remember when Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen looked like a can’t-miss team at DreamWorks? Turns out, no one bothered to account for the polarity of their personalities.


Miami is banking on the fact that James, Wade, and Bosh are buddies. They entered the league together in 2003 (drafted first, fifth, and fourth, respectively) and played side by side on the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 — the one that won back the gold medal. James and Bosh were so enamored with the idea of joining forces with Wade that they were willing to give up tens of millions of dollars in the free-agent market last summer.

But teaming up has its trade-offs, particularly for big shots. Wade once had the spotlight — not to mention the ball — all to himself in Miami. Now he has to share it with a perennial MVP contender. (James won the award the past two years.) Wade no longer commands the team’s top salary either. James and Bosh both outrank him by $300,000.

Before “taking his talents to South Beach,” as the player who calls himself King James put it, LeBron called his own shots in Cleveland. In Miami, he follows Wade’s rules: No more solo travel to away games. No more entourage members employed by the team. No more skirting the media after practice and games. Like Wade, James now meets regularly with reporters.


And all three have seen less of the basketball, with Bosh’s stats taking the biggest hit. He’s putting up 16% fewer shots this season — more than twice the decline experienced by James and Wade. His scoring is down a whopping 23%.

In other words, the team’s leaders have done what stars need to do when they merge: show a willingness to sacrifice. It’s a necessary start.

The Rule of Many


Larry Page and Sergey Brin are a formidable pairing — much like Hewlett and Packard, Ben and Jerry, the brothers Coen (Joel and Ethan) — but the truth is none of those guys could have achieved what they did if it weren’t for the help of supremely gifted employees. The Heat is no different.


New hires perform better when they bring a former colleague with them, says Harvard associate professor Boris Groysberg, who has studied the firm hopping of Wall Street analysts. This may well explain the value of 35-year-old Lithuanian center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who joined Miami after playing beside James for seven seasons in Cleveland. The minute Ilgauskas arrived, James had a confidant, a supportive teammate, someone who made the strange new surroundings feel familiar. This is especially important now that James, once one of the league’s most popular players, has suddenly become a villain, the Hester Prynne of the NBA. “Welcome Big Z,” James tweeted when he heard the news. “Glad u are joining me in South Beach my friend. Also thanks for your encouraging words big fella.”

Likewise, Wade wanted to keep free agent and longtime buddy Udonis Haslem on the roster. The two have been teammates since Wade entered the league in 2003. Haslem is one of those gritty, unselfish glue guys that every team craves, a unifying presence behind the scenes. James and Bosh helped Miami’s cocaptain get his wish. At Wade’s request, they each trimmed their contract by $15 million so the Heat could compete for Haslem’s services. The power forward happily agreed to stay put — for $14 million less than what he was being offered in the free-agent market.

All told, Miami added six new players in a span of 21 days — three-point specialists (such as Haslem’s former college teammate Mike Miller) and guys who happily agreed to do the grunt work of rebounding, setting picks, and feeding the basketball to the “Big 3.” And, because the Heat had something special to offer, it signed most of them at well below market value. In March, 32-year-old point guard Mike Bibby gave up $6 million to join the cast. Why? Because late in his career, he wanted the chance to play for a championship. James, Wade, and Bosh are relatively young — 26, 29, and 27, respectively — but the Heat now has the league’s most experienced roster.


The Platoon Principle


Nothing brings a team together like a common enemy. Google needs Microsoft. Under Armour needs Nike. The Heat needs, well, everybody who’s not on the Heat. The battle began the moment 10 million people watched James break up with the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer on ESPN’s much-hyped “The Decision.” “Literally overnight,” wrote Miami Herald columnist Dan LeBatard, the Heat “became the most interesting, most famous, most envied, most targeted, most talented, and most feared basketball team on the planet.”

Coach Spoelstra seized on the backlash to try uniting his squad, hoping to turn the vitriol to his advantage. At first, it didn’t work — his maneuvering was too contrived. He moved preseason training camp to Elgin Air Force Base, in Florida’s panhandle. Sequestered 600 miles from Miami, in military environs, the players ate together, practiced twice a day, and toured the firing range as a group. They wore matching black T-shirts that read Heat Troops. But the experience, says Brian Windhorst, who covers the team for ESPN, fell flat. It was like a typical corporate retreat. The guys couldn’t wait to escape back to their lives, particularly those who were just getting settled in Miami.

The real bonding didn’t occur until the Heat Troops began to shed blood on the battlefield — to lose, and lose badly. They opened with a humiliating defeat to the Boston Celtics in October and blundered through the next few weeks. In late November, they watched the Dallas Mavericks, another one of the NBA’s top teams, race to an 18-point third-quarter lead en route to an easy victory. That night, James brushed Spoelstra’s shoulder on his way to the bench. Smelling friction, the doomsayers rushed online to dissect video of “the bump.” After the game, Wade and his teammates held a players-only meeting. “They kicked the coaches out,” says Windhorst. “It was literally in the shower. Guys were telling each other to stop playing afraid.”


The team that some NBA observers said might not drop 10 games all season was 9-8. Even President Obama was asked about the cold start; give the players time, the First Baller counseled. James, Wade, and Bosh looked discombobulated, as if they’d never met, much less played together. “We were humbled,” says Spoelstra. “You need those adverse moments. When it’s raw, when you don’t get along, that’s when there’s the most opportunity for growth.”

Under duress, Miami found its identity. The Heat rebounded from the Dallas debacle, winning 21 of its next 22 games. In early December, in front of a hostile crowd on James’s first trip back to Cleveland, Miami played its best ball of the season, clobbering the Cavs 118-90. “For the first time, I sensed there was a brotherhood on the team,” says Spoelstra. “Guys didn’t want to fail each other.”

The coach took to writing a rallying cry on the whiteboard in the locker room before games. He found the line, originally from Shakespeare’s Henry V, in the opening pages of a book by Stephen Ambrose: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother.” For Christmas, Spoelstra gave the group the Band of Brothers best-seller, and DVDs of the HBO series of the same name.


For a three-month span, the Heat posted the best record in the NBA. And then, as the adversity that had bound the players together waned, the chemistry faltered. Miami lost six of the next seven games.

The Trust Theorem


Wade and James are the last to leave the court after the morning practice in New York. On their way to the team bus, Wade teases James about not packing winter clothes. James laughs. It’s obvious these guys get along. But camaraderie doesn’t necessarily translate to seamless collaboration.

For Wade and James, the chief challenge is their similar playing styles. Both combine the scoring of a shooting guard with the passing of a point guard. And both are used to being in charge come crunch time. The growing pains are evident during that night’s game in the Garden. While Miami has coasted in blowouts, close contests are like the New York Times Saturday crossword, a vexing puzzle the team has struggled to crack. Against the resurgent Knicks, James forces shots, single-handedly taking on multiple defenders. Wade, hot all game, goes cold in the fourth quarter. New York wins 93-88. “It was a total meltdown,” says Steve Kerr, the former Chicago Bull and recent GM of the Phoenix Suns. “[James and Wade] had no idea, and the team had no idea, how to function under pressure. It was ‘I’m so talented, I’ll take over.’ They looked awful.”


As of March 14, Miami ranked third in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Against weak or mediocre opponents, its superior talent dominated. But the Heat was a shocking 1-10 when playing the league’s top-four teams; against the San Antonio Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks, and Bulls, Miami’s talent is no match for cohesive team play. (To be fair, though, the Heat did beat the defending champion L.A. Lakers twice.)

When you assemble a team of experts, it’s better to have complementary, not competing, specialties, says Harvard’s Groysberg, author of Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance. Look at the Celtics. When they lured Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Paul Pierce’s side in 2007, they added a shooting guard and a power forward to one of the game’s premier small forwards. There was no confusion about roles, says Groysberg. And as veterans, all three embraced the idea that anyone can lead in any game. The result was an NBA championship in their first season together.

Miami’s transition hasn’t been nearly as smooth. “It’s still not clear who’s in charge,” says Kerr, who played on championship teams with superstar duos, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio. “In business, you probably wouldn’t hire two CEOs to work together. In the NBA, it’s rare you get two super-alpha guys on the same team.” On the Bulls, Kerr says, “it was Michael’s team. He was the disciplinarian, the father figure, and Scottie looked after the other guys. It was a great marriage.”


To achieve the proper balance, it’s crucial to map out a strategy. Acquiring a player of James’s caliber, says Groysberg, “is like acquiring a company. You need a whole integration plan.” You can’t just expect the parts to fit together. What worked well for James in Cleveland might be disruptive in Miami. Spoelstra experimented early in the season by having James bring the ball up court like a classic point guard. Soon the league’s reigning MVP was turning the ball over at the highest rate since his rookie year. “He was uncomfortable,” says ESPN’s Windhorst, who has covered James since high school. “LeBron wants someone else bringing it up so he can set up on the wing and run the offense through him there.” Spoelstra made the adjustment, and James returned to his old high-scoring self.

Still, the Heat has struggled to resolve who takes the big shot at the end of close games. Through mid-March, James was the primary choice, but he’d hit only 8 of his 22 attempts in the clutch. Wade hadn’t fared much better, posting 4-for-14 shooting. Bosh, at 5 for 8, was the most efficient contributor, delivering four last-minute three-pointers, a team-high. The truest sign of the Heat’s work-in-progress status, though, may be the 4-for-14 contribution of the rest of the squad. With other teams caught up in defending Miami’s Big 3, the complementary players, left unguarded, should be thriving (as Kerr did alongside Jordan in Chicago). That in turn would open things up anew for Wade, James, and Bosh.

The ideal scenario for the Heat–and for any organization–is the teamwork on display in the club’s last-second victory over Oklahoma City in January, when James passed up a three-pointer to share the ball with reserve Eddie House, who was more open (see “Chemistry at Work“). James involved his teammates from start to finish that night. So far, that kind of game-long selflessness remains as infrequent in Miami as snow flurries.


The Credibility Conundrum


The rich, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “are different from you and me.” So are superstars. That includes Heat president Pat Riley, the sartorially resplendent mastermind who coached the Lakers to multiple championships in the 1980s. In 2006, in Miami, he took the reins from then-coach Stan Van Gundy in midseason and steered the Heat to its first NBA title. Without a doubt, Riley’s shadow looms large over the team–and, in particular, over Spoelstra.

Coach Spoelstra’s position is like that of any manager operating between the CEO and the in-the-trenches talent–or any CEO caught between his executive team and an activist shareholder (think Carl Icahn). Spoelstra needs to tread carefully, balancing his obligations to his boss and his commitments to his players, all in a quest to build his own credibility for leadership.

Spoelstra, 40, is the consummate Riley protégé, a former point guard and a student of the game. He started all four years at the University of Portland but never suited up in the NBA. The son of longtime league exec Jon Spoelstra, he made the leap to the pros by studying game tape for the Heat. In 13 years at Riley’s side, he rose to assistant coach and became the go-to guy for revealing statistical analysis. (Spoelstra tracks 54 criteria when Miami is on defense.) Three years ago, Riley tapped him to take over the day-to-day running of the team, making Spoelstra the league’s youngest coach.


Spoelstra still talks to Riley almost daily. Who better to teach him the delicate dance with James, who has a reputation for not being the easiest guy to coach? Riley held together a Lakers team with three future Hall of Famers — Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy — and a Heat team with a demanding veteran, Shaquille O’Neal, and an emerging scorer, Wade. He wrote the book on teamwork. Literally. It’s called The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players. “Probably what I’ve learned from Pat the most is that coaching in this league is about managing personalities, more than about managing Xs and Os,” says Spoelstra. “All players want to be coached. They want to have discipline. They want structure. But some players get to that conclusion differently than others.”

In many ways, Riley is the perfect mentor for Spoelstra–he himself had never been a head coach when he took over the Magic-led Lakers–but he’s so visible he runs the risk of undermining Spoelstra’s authority. And that’s no small thing. Unless you follow the NBA with the devotion of a Talmudic scholar, you probably haven’t heard of Miami’s coach. He’s like a little-known director who wakes up one day to find Hollywood’s biggest names in his film. Mr. Clooney, Mr. DiCaprio, Mr. Hanks, if it’s okay with you, if you don’t mind, could we try that scene again?

Spoelstra, a relative neophyte, must wrestle with when to coddle and when to push, trying to master the sleight of hand that allows the young millionaires to feel they have ownership of the team even as he calls the plays. Among his ploys, Spoelstra has made a point of singling out Bosh as “our most important player,” counteracting the flood of media attention that washes over James and Wade. With Wade, Spoelstra has a long history: As an assistant, he helped the star improve his jump shot. But he’s still getting to know James. During one slump, he called him out for goofing off at a practice, and the players acted as though he’d crossed the line. During another, after a disheartening loss to Chicago, Spoelstra told the media that Heat players had cried in the locker room. Both incidents raised speculation that the coach wasn’t up to the job of piloting this dream team.

Riley summoned his young charge to his office for a pep talk–over a bottle of wine. It’s an understandable, even prudent response from a boss, and it may have set Spoelstra at ease. But it may also have reinforced questions among the players about who’s in charge. There is no more fragile commodity than the credibility of a team leader.

The Law of Patience


Everyone remembers the six NBA titles the Chicago Bulls won with Jordan, Pippen, and a cast of feisty specialists that included three-point marksman Kerr and rebounding fiend Dennis Rodman. What we tend to forget is how long it took to put all those pieces together. The Bulls didn’t win a championship its first year with Jordan and Pippen. Or its second. Or even its third.

It took the team four years.

Chemistry takes time. The most successful superstar teams embrace shared leadership, says Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard. The players respect one another’s individual skills and even learn from one another. But those patterns don’t emerge right away. They need time to crystallize. They need consistency, the same people butting heads, compromising, collaborating, day after day. Spoelstra acknowledges this, though it’s hard to know how much patience he really has — or can afford. “You can prepare as much as you want in July, August, and September,” he says. “But none of us knew what it would be like until we were in it.”

Chemistry isn’t something you create and then ignore, like a mark on a growth chart. It’s a reflection of the bonds between team members, and those bonds are fragile and needy. They’re constantly changing, strengthened and fractured by the various personalities as well as the wins and losses. “You have to keep an eye out for small things that make a difference, early warning signs,” says Terri Scandura, dean of the graduate school at the University of Miami, who cites the Heat in her course on management.

In the last year, the Miami franchise has increased in value a league-high 17%, according to Forbes. Imagine the impact an NBA title would have. The biggest obstacle to getting there is the blame game. Will the players resist second-guessing one another — and Spoelstra — when they fall behind? True brothers, like the young soldiers in E Company who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II, don’t point fingers. They believe in their mission and fight hard to cover one another’s back. This is what any team aspires to: passion, unity, an absolute conviction that you can achieve whatever you want as a group.

It was in early March, following Miami’s one-point loss to Chicago, that Spoelstra told reporters the defeat and the drawn-out losing streak were painful to the team — so much so that a couple of players teared up in the locker room. The very idea offended the league’s macho sensibility. “This is the NBA — No Boys Allowed,” huffed Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Still, Spoelstra’s revelation is heartening if you’re looking for signs of solidarity. The players were upset about losing, yes, but they were also upset about letting one another down. It’s a potential breakthrough moment: colleagues opening up and embracing a real us-against-them mentality. A rarely humbled James apologized to his teammates for repeatedly failing late in games. This was the sort of togetherness that Spoelstra could never orchestrate.

Of course, that moment could also be just a head fake, a here-today-gone-tomorrow bump in the constant, ever-evolving team-building process. The longer it takes the Heat to win an NBA title (and we doubt it will happen this year), the greater the pressure will be on James, Wade, and Bosh, not to mention Spoelstra. In the face of unmet expectations and endless questions, bonds crack, friendships sour, and sacrifices, financial and otherwise, become burdensome. Guys move on. Heck, even über-successful teams struggle to keep it together. Look at what happened to the Beatles. Will the Heatles be next?

Feeling the Heat
A Balanced Universe
Chemistry at Work


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug