DENVER — The season was slipping away. Team chemistry smelled toxic. People began looking for answers, or at least scapegoats. The most obvious one was Too Big To Fail, which shifted the hand-wringing and finger-pointing to a far less formidable and more predictable target:
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
The date was March 7, 2011. Miami was 43-21.
Late in the exhausting, highly scrutinized first season of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh super team, the Heat had just lost four in a row and had the NBA’s sixth-best record. James already had rocked his then-41-year-old coach with a shoulder bump heard ’round the association, emboldening Spoelstra’s critics.
But anyone suggesting now that Miami “axe” its head coach during a rough patch might as well throw a sucker shoulder at one of the Heat players, a la Nikola Jokic vs. Markieff Morris circa November 2021.
Miami players would flood the hallway begging to differ.
Spoelstra, 52, survived that bumpy regular season to steer the Heat to the 2011 Finals. They got outplayed and outmaneuvered, losing in six games, in one of the hardest lessons the coach ever learned. But he and they returned to the championship round the next three seasons. In 2012 and 2013, they won the second and third NBA titles in Miami history.
The Heat went back to the Finals in 2020 in the “Orlando bubble.” And now they’re back again, set to face the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA Finals that begin Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) at Ball Arena.
Same coach for the Heat as before. Same general supposedly at risk then of being shot by his own troops, back as arguably his team’s most essential ingredient.
After all, there’s no more Big Three in Miami. It’s the Big One and, no, that doesn’t mean Jimmy Butler, no matter how valuable his clutchness and bring-it-on brashness are some nights. None of this would be happening without Spoelstra.
It’s been a while since those words — “without Spoelstra” — even applied. Wrapping up his 15th season, he has been on the job longer than every other NBA coach except San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Popovich just finished his 27th season. Golden State’s Steve Kerr is at nine. Some like Rick Carlisle and Mike Brown have been around for a while, but not with one team and not without interruption.
A scan of the coaches at work when Spoelstra was figuring things out that first season with the Big Three is almost nostalgic: Doug Collins, Scott Skiles, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Rick Adelman, Kurt Rambis, Mike D’Antoni.
Spoelstra has something, however, those guys and most others do not. He was hand-picked by Heat president Pat Riley, elevated from his work down in the video room to the bench, later to scout, finally to the top job. As Riley’s surrogate on the sideline, the unity and stability are unrivaled. Beyond any grumblings from the locker room, too.
“When I look at his teams, to take these different iterations to the Finals,” ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said this week, “I think of habits and consistency. I marvel at what they’ve been able to do. But none of that is possible if you don’t have the continuity.
“If whenever you coach a guy hard you have to be worried that he’s going to go over the top of you to management and ownership … you don’t understand the dynamic if you haven’t been in that type of situation. So, he’s in an unbelievable situation that very few [owners] are willing to do anymore. It’s allowed him to be the best version of who he is. And he’s a Hall of Fame coach, the best Miami Heat coach in history.”
A native of the Phillipines and the son of former NBA executive Jon Spoelstra, the Heat coach spent his Wonder Years in Portland, a fan and observer of the Trail Blazers and coach Rick Adelman. He was the starting point guard for four years at the University of Portland, then spent two seasons as a player/coach for Tus Herten, a German league team. He got to the Heat on the ground floor soon after, 28 years ago.
How Spoelstra got here matters less now than how he stays and how he thrives here. He already ranks 20th all-time among NBA coaches in career regular-season victories (704) and he is fifth in playoff victories (108). Only Phil Jackson (13), Riley (9), Popovich (6) and Kerr (6) have coached teams to as many or more Finals. Also, as part of the league’s 75th anniversary celebration last year, Spoelstra was named one of the 15 Greatest Coaches.
“Erik has seen it all, done it all, and he’s a problem solver as a series goes on,” TNT analyst Stan Van Gundy said recently during the East finals. “He’s focused on solutions. He’s not going to get wrapped up in the problem itself. He’ll figure out a way to do it. And I think his guys believe in him, too.”
Said Kevin Love, with fresh eyes on Spoelstra after playing against him his whole career: “He inspires us to be great. The level of preparation and professionalism that he has is such a part of what we do. Outside of him having a great game plan, having the right Xs and Os, great ATOs, making adjustments within the game, outside of that he has the mental makeup for us to continue to be on board and just grind this thing out.”
Spoelstra’s trust in work habits, his belief that effort and determination will carry the day, were evident in his media session Wednesday, the eve of Game 1. His eyes all but glazed over when asked about ancillary topics such as Denver’s altitude or his NBA impressions as a young guy. They blazed, though, when the questions turned to the fire through which this Miami team has gone, the behind-the-scenes strides few others saw for them to reach this point.
“Yeah, it’s those moments when nobody else understands,” he said. “Nobody else is in the locker room. Nobody else … we say that all the time, our guys are ‘the men in the arena.’ It’s tough to explain it to people on the outside.
“But when you have these privileges to be able to go through adversity or setbacks and learn from that, I think those are lessons that we all could benefit from. You develop a grit and a collective perseverance and fortitude. If you approach it the right way, which this group does, you can really grow. They can be incredible life experiences, to be able to come together like that.”
We’ve got to be careful with stories like this not to toss around lightly the “genius” level. Spoelstra, for all his success, has had some clunkers, too. His teams have missed the playoffs three times. In 2021, after making it to the 2020 Finals, the Heat got swept in the first round by Milwaukee.
It was his choice not to guard the inbounder, Boston’s Derrick White, at the end of Game 6 against the Celtics, which White won when he got to the rim unencumbered for the buzzer-beating putback. And in possibly Spoelstra’s most impressive work until this spring, the 2016-17 team he led to a 30-11 second-half record, well, he was the same guy who led them to an 11-30 mark to start.
Still, if Thomas Edison was right and genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, Spoelstra is awfully close in his chosen field. The fact he has yet to win an NBA Coach of the Year award (he has finished second in balloting twice) says more about the voters and the award than his worthiness for it.
“It’s a crime to say, he is underrated,” ABC’s Mark Jackson said, “and it’s great to see him getting back to the Finals and being recognized all of a sudden as the best in the business.”
In some ways, this season has been version 2.0 of that 2016-17 season. Lots of setbacks and troubles early, especially with injuries, but growth that this time got Miami where it needed to be just in time.
“A journey,” Jeff Van Gundy called it, “straight through the heart of greatness.”
“Year to year,” Van Gundy continued, “they do a tremendous job of going back to a [Bill] Belichick-ian statement, ‘If you want a tough, smart team, go out and find tough, smart players.’ They do that exceptionally well and then they work with those tough, smart players and try to develop a vision for where they can take them.”
Spoelstra bristles these days when Heat contributors Max Strus, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson are labeled “undrafted” because, while true, he feels they have proven they belong, those roots be damned. The team’s talent procurement honchos, from Riley to Andy Elisburg to Chet Kammerer and yes, Spoelstra too (with more input than many coaches get), seeks out mentally strong, physically tough players who might have slipped through other organization’s seams.
This went on even before this edition, with players such as Chris Quinn and franchise Methuselah Udonis Haslem.
Then Spoelstra coaches them up, perhaps a little in his own image. Last month, ESPN’s Tim Legler talked on JJ Redick’s podcast about Spoelstra finding ways to help fringe players succeed, rather than focusing on their flaws.
“He values guys for what they do well,” Legler said. “That explains how they find all these guys that other teams maybe didn’t have an interest in.”
As an example, Legler imagined Strus — a 3-point threat who isn’t much of a shot creator — dribbling the ball off his foot. Many coaches would yank him as soon as possible.
“But that’s bad coaching,” he said. “[Spoelstra’s] thing is, ‘No, this is what you do well. I’m gonna need that. I’m going to value that. The things you don’t do well, it’s my job to protect you from being in those situations.’ I think he does that better than any coach in the league.”
Vincent, a UC-Santa Barbara product, got in the door as a two-way player in January 2020. He worked his way to a full deal by August 2021. It was Spoelstra more than anyone who got Vincent to find his best self.
“His attention to detail,” is what Vincent sees in his coach. “He’s going to look at a problem until he finds a solution. Sometimes he finds two solutions, in case the first one doesn’t work.”
The Heat are counting on Spoelstra to find at least four more.
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