He is 49 going on 17. He does not look at all old enough to be a basketball coach in charge of an NBA team for 12 seasons, 959 games and 77 playoff wins, which may be one of the reasons so many have been so dismissive of Erik Spoelstra for so many years.
The other, of course, is LeBron James.
With Spoelstra as head coach, the Heat reached the NBA Finals every year from 2011 through 2014, but unless you’re Phil Jackson, it’s a challenge to be properly recognized for coaching excellence when the very best player in the game is on your side. Unlike Jackson, who had a career as an NBA player to establish his brand and then worked diligently to polish his image during his time as a wildly successful head coach, Spoelstra has been a blank canvas for those writing and talking about the game.
He’s turning out to be a masterpiece, though. The Heat have become the most remarkable story of the 2020 NBA playoffs. They have played six games in two series, both against higher seeds, and won them all. Their biggest star, forward Jimmy Butler, did not average 20 points a game in the regular season and is up to just 22 in the playoffs. Their rotation includes more players who were undrafted (starter Duncan Robinson, reserves Derrick Jones Jr. and Kendrick Nunn) than chosen in the top 10 (Andre Iguodala).
From this, Spoelstra and his staff have fashioned a team winning its playoff games by an average of 9.2 points, converting 46.3 percent of its field goals and 38.8 percent of its threes, and outscoring the opposition by an average of 3.5 points in the fourth quarter.
Mike Budenholzer twice has been Coach of the Year during Spoelstra’s tenure with the Heat. Nate McMillan has 16 years as a head coach and 661 victories. But Budenholzer’s Bucks have been unable to generate high-quality shots for superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging just 23.5 points after two games. And McMillan’s Pacers, albeit in a diminished form because of big man Domantas Sabonis’ injury, were completely overmatched.
Analyst Jimmy Jackson, who called the opening game of the Pacers-Heat series for TNT, told Sporting News that the key to the Heat’s success against Indiana was containing high-scoring T.J. Warren and Victor Oladipo.
“They built walls around them, and it was tougher for them to get angles and get into the lane,” Jackson said. “If you were going to beat them, it was going to be with a hand in your face. And they played defense without fouling, so Warren and Oladipo weren’t able to get a rhythm at the foul line.
“With Giannis, it’s a lot easier to take away what he wants to do because he’s not prolific from 15 feet and beyond. It’s the same thing that happened to Milwaukee last year in the playoffs. But they’re taking away Giannis but also making it hard on Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. It’s genius from the systematic perspective, because if you take away Giannis with that wall, somebody is going to be open.”
The key is to make sure it isn’t somebody you don’t want to be open.
And that’s what has happened.
This may be the very best work of Spoelstra’s career. It probably ought to be, because a coach should grow more capable over time, with experience, as anyone should in any profession.
It’s a mistake, though, to dismiss his accomplishments and ingenuity with the LeBron/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh teams of the early 2010s. It would have been so easy to fail with these teams: by failing to earn the stars’ respect, by failing to put them into the ideal positions, by failing to be properly prepared to take on the challenge thrust upon him when Heat management successfully pursued free agents Bosh and James in the summer of 2010.
That’s what happened. When the Heat went from 47 wins to 58 in 2010-11 after James and Bosh signed, Spoelstra got one first-place vote and one third-place vote for Coach of the Year and finished eighth. When the Heat won went 46-20 in a shortened 2011-12 season on the way to the NBA title, 15 coaches got Coach of the Year votes. Spoelstra was none of them.
Former Heat assistant David Fizdale, who later served as head coach of the Grizzlies and Knicks, explained on the “Knuckleheads” podcast, with Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson, that when those two stars arrived Spoelstra recognized the wisdom of abandoning the traditional Heat approach installed so many years earlier by Pat Riley — a fierce low-post offense, a defense based on rugged execution — in favor of a scheme that emphasized the team’s dynamism and versatility.
Bosh became the team’s center even though he had stretch-4 skills, but he wasn’t stuck on the block to be pounded by opposing bigs. He played away from the goal, forcing them to cope with his mobility and perimeter skill. On defense, the Heat began to commonly switch screens and crosses. You got away from Wade behind that pick? Say hello to Shane Battier.
“We ended up suffocating people,” Fizdale told the “Knuckleheads” audience. “And that’s why I say Chris Bosh was so important, and Shane at the four was so important, because they were so smart, and they could do the job of switching and containing guards. And so that ended up spring-boarding us into the Finals.”
The new NBA that flowed from these methods and Golden State’s 3-point attack in the middle part of last decade is far different from the one in which Riley built his reputation, even more so with his physical Knicks and Heat teams than when he won four championships with the “Showtime” Lakers in the 1980s.
Riley has proved adaptable, though. He’s the one running the drafts that discovered jewels Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro in the middle of the first round and then picked up Robinson among the draft leftovers and Nunn after a year in the G League. The first three are averaging a combined 41.3 points in the playoffs; Nunn missed the first three playoff games because of personal reasons.
Nunn functioned as the team’s point guard through the regular season, before a positive COVID test delayed his entry into the NBA’s bubble and he had to depart for personal reasons.
Spoelstra adjusted by restoring Goran Dragic to the starting lineup. He has excelled, and it’s possible his time during the regular season as a reserve has helped preserve his legs for the playoff run.
“Erik was there when I was in Miami in ’02,” Jackson told SN. “He was very professional, about his business, great attention to detail. He’s a great people person, which he is able to relate right now to dealing with players. Even if a job was considered menial, he wanted to make sure it was taken care of the right way.
“The difference with him now is he’s adjusted his mindset to the personnel he has. You’ve got the Miami way, preaching defense, but at the same time you have to be able to adjust to your personnel and adjust to the rules and the way the game is being played.”
The Heat still are six wins from another Finals trip. Those will be hard to obtain, because Milwaukee is far from finished and the Raptors and Celtics are imposing opponents. To get there without LeBron might be the achievement that makes the basketball world acknowledge Spoelstra’s ability.
“But he’s been a smart coach,” Jackson said.
Spoelstra looks too young to be wise, but check his work instead of his hairstyle.