What do you first think of when someone mentions the Miami Heat?
LeBron James- and rightfully so. Ever since the transcendent talent signed with Miami in the summer of 2010, the Heat have seen plenty of success. Four straight NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back Larry O’Brien trophies in 2012 and 2013. The two Finals MVPs and two League MVP trophies ‘Bron has amassed during that span is also quite remarkable.
Next you may think of Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Norris Cole, Shane Battier and Chris Anderson. It’s a roster that is deeper than most, with anyone able to go off on any night. The stars do star things, and the role players supplement them with their specialized abilities. But there is one person who doesn’t get enough credit for the Heat’s continued success and current reign of dominance: head coach Erik Spoelstra.
“Oh, come on, Sean. ANYONE can be perceived as a good coach when LeBron is on their team,” you are likely thinking. I mean, after all…Mike Brown won 272 games in 5 seasons. His winning percentage was 66%. He was fired after two consecutive 60+ win seasons, and collateral damage from The King’s decision to bolt for South Beach. No need to keep him around for the rebuilding process.
“In order to be successful at this level, you have to have management skills, people skills,” Brown told ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz. “If you have that, you have a chance to reach guys who make more money than you and have more staying power than you. At the end of the day, the NBA is about players. And you have to respect that to a certain degree.”
Why does Phil Jackson have eleven rings? Besides being an extraordinary basketball coach, he knew how to handle personalities like Shaq and Kobe, Michael and Scottie. Jackson knew what motivated them, when to get in their ear and when to let them sort it out. And it wasn’t just the star duos- from the top down, he could manage each and every personality whether it was the craziness of Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace or the more sensitive players like Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. He was famous for not calling timeouts and letting his players figure out how to get back in the game as well.
Erik Spoelstra has had to know when to coach and know when to take a step back and sort out his players’ various personalities, and he’s been learning from Day 1.
Spoelstra Started from the Bottom
1995 saw the arrival of both Riley and Spoelstra in Miami. After playing abroad in Germany, Spoelstra wanted to begin his own coaching career. Desperate to start anywhere -even from the bottom- he agreed to run the video department for a team coming off a 32-50 season. Spoelstra had no previous video experience, but it didn’t matter. Basketball was his job, that’s all he cared about.
“The Dungeon” was a room with a few VCRs and video equipment in the old Miami arena. Spoelstra would pour in many hours here, delving into film and breaking it down. Having a life outside of work wasn’t a priority, a he’d go days without going back to his apartment. In 1999, he was promoted to advance scout. Then in 2001, the 31 year-old Spoelstra was named as an assistant coach and Director of Scouting for the Heat. This promotion was due to his intense work ethic- one that would pay dividends years later.
The franchise would find it hard to win for a few seasons until Riley handed the reigns over to Stan Van Gundy in 2003- but even that seemed temporary.
Pat Riley guided the franchise to its first ever title back in 2006 when he took over for Stan Van Gundy who had started out the ’05 season with an 11-10 record. With a superstar in Dwayne Wade and legendary big man Shaquille O’Neal in his last year as an effective center, Riley led them to the promised land. The next two seasons saw the Heat struggle to a combined 59-105 record. Then in 2008, Pat Riley brought up Erik Spoelstra to be the newest Heat head coach. At the time, Spoelstra was only 38. He had been with the team for thirteen years, but did he really have what it took to lead a team as its coach?
B.L. stands for “Before LeBron”. In the two seasons before James arrived, Spoelstra never finished under .500 and had a respectable two year run of 90-74. He led them to the playoffs both seasons, but was dispatched in the first round both times, too. Was that enough to keep him around? Or would Riley pull the plug on the experiment known as Erik Spoelstra like he had with Van Gundy? Fortunately for Miami and its fans, Riley kept Spoelstra as head coach. One would think it was because there was an incredible amount of loyalty between the two after all those years together.
Now We’re Here
Then came the winning. Since “The Big Three” of LeBron, Wade and Bosh aligned themselves with Spoelstra and Riley, the franchise has had a record of 224-88. That’s a winning percentage of 72%. The first season together saw them fall short to the Dallas Mavericks- yet it only fueled the desire not only of LeBron and company- but of Spoelstra. Back to the drawing board, literally. The next two seasons saw the Heat defeat the Thunder and Spurs, certainly nothing to sneeze at. Trying to transition everyone from it being Wade’s team to it now being LeBron’s was no easy task. Egos get hurt. But James, Wade and the rest bought into Spoelstra’s plan, and the evidence is very apparent on the court. Their known for their defense and up-and-down style. Try and run with the Heat. They dare you.
While due in large part to the talent assembled, it’s the meticulous nature of Spoelstra in regards to preparation that has the Heat never taking anything for granted. It’s his obsessive and perfectionist style that keeps the team motivated. He doesn’t just coach for forty-eight minutes each game- he does it all week, repeating himself as much as possible and preparing for everything. He scouts every single player and doesn’t just know their tendencies- he knows their exact movements. His efforts rub off on not only his stars, but his entire team. It’s the managing of personalities and garnering respect that has the Heat primed for a third straight Finals trophy.
This is what Frank Vogel will need to learn and why the Pacers fell short a third straight year against the Heat. There’s a lot of talent, but just as many personalities. Whether it was dealing with the wildcard known as Lance Stephenson, or the confidence issues of Hibbert and George- Vogel and the Pacers couldn’t find a way to be consistent and motivated enough throughout the playoffs.
There’s certainly more than one reason why the Heat have been the cream of the crop in the East since 2010, but none more underrated and overlooked than Erik Spoelstra. Whether it’s Scott Brooks and the Thunder or Greg Poppovich and the Spurs, don’t underestimate Spoelstra- or he’ll make you regret it.
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