If you look at the standings in the East, the four seed Miami Heat looks like a typo. Or, a fantasy. The three teams ahead of them will probably send (5) players to L.A. for the All-Star game next month while the Heat will send none. The teams below them, Washington, Milwaukee and Detroit, will also send (5) players to the All-Star game. Smack in the middle is the star-less Miami Heat who are 13 games better than they were last year at this same time, with the same exact personnel. What in holy Heat land is going on here?
The Miami Heat have the fourth highest payroll,. The money Mickey Aronson is forking over- $23 million (Hassan Whiteside), $17 million (Goran Dragic), $14 million, (James Johnson), $11 million (Dion Waiters)- are for players that have never been an All-Star. Whiteside was All-Defensive two years ago. Goran Dragic was All-NBA four years ago. That’s about it for honors. And yet the Heat are hanging in there for a first round home court series.
Erik Spoelstra, more than any other NBA coach, is gifted at taking the C-students of the league and molding them as a singular group, getting the sum to perform beyond expectations. Yes, he can coach elite talent but he can also pivot, and teach second and third tier NBA players how to win games.
So how has Spoelstra pulled off this magical feat when the Heat are average shot makers, don’t get to the line, don’t rebound, aren’t quick ball hawkers, are in the bottom of the league in scoring? They win close games because they can play defense when the game is on the line. Overall, the Heat are 6th in opponent points. This six game winning streak they are currently on has seen them win games by 16 points, 7 points, 4 points, 1 point, 1 point, 8 points. Their gritty, down dirty style of play, hardball is more like it, is causing issues late in games and it plays to the Heat’s advanatge. One other thing the Heat have over other teams. Toughness. You think it’s a staple in the league but a lot of players are soft when it comes to the close contests and everything on the line.
Erik Spoelstra is a tremendous leader. Preparation drips off his young face, seeps into his mismatched squad and if they are going to do one thing, they are going to play hard. Attribute all of that to coaching. The Heat don’t have a star. Their alpha dog, Dion Waiters, may not be on the court this year because of an injury that may need surgery. The Heat seem to relish their fate as a group of guys who just bring it every game. In fact, Whiteside, their most expenisve asset, is often on the bench in crucial stretches.
One other piece of consistency for the Heat. Their home record and road record is near identical. They don’t care where they play beause they play the same way. They are 11-9 in Miami and 13-8 elsewhere. When they win, they take 31 threes. When they lose, they take 31 threes. When they win, they go to the line 18 times. When they lose, they go to the line 18 times. When they win, they have 7 steals. When they lose, they have 7 steals. They are on pace to win 48 games.
They are going through the East like the East stole their Xmas presents. They are 16-9. Against the West, they are 8-8.
Erik Spolestra’s teams are always defensively tough. But more than that they are prepared, they never give up and they stay in the fight all the way to the end. That is the consequence of a good coach who is respected, listened to, and leads by teaching and willfulness.
This is the same Heat crew as last year. Yet last year at this same time, they had won 11 games and had to make a mad rush to the finish to lose a playoff spot on the last day. One year later, they have won 13 more games with an injured Waiters and Whiteside.
The Heat don’t have a star to dump the ball to and say here, you save us. They have to play unselfishly and embrace the whole group saving the whole group. Egos have to be left outside; with this roster it just doesn’t work.
Who wouldn’t buy in to Spoelstra? He has won two NBA titles. He has coached LeBron James. And now he has coached James Johnson. However, there is a slow your roll, let’s take a breath. The Heat aren’t contenders. They do need an elite scorer. They are doing this all because Erik Spoelstra is their coach. The schedule is going to be their enemy and their friend. They have two games left with Cleveland, a team they haven’t beaten, two games left with the Wizards who they have split with, 3 games left with West contenders, and 12 games against lottery teams.
Jut enough of a schedule for Spoelstra the magician to pull off a top-4 (?) seed and win a unanimous Coach of the Year award, his first of many more to come.