Rare is the team that can win 30 games in the latter half of the season and not make the playoffs. It hadn’t happened until last season when the Miami Heat reversed their fortunes after having a 11-30 record at the midway mark of the season. While their incredible run ultimately didn’t conclude with a playoff berth, it clearly underlined the genius of the man behind it all, Erik Spoelstra.
Spoelstra’s entrance into the league was far from phenomenal. Born into a Filipino-American family in Illinois, Spoelstra excelled as a point guard during his youth, eventually accepting a scholarship at the University of Portland. Soon after graduating, Spoelstra landed a job as a youth coach at German basketball club TuS Herten, though he turned down a contract extension in favor of an opportunity with the Miami Heat two years later.
He began as a video coordinator for the Heat. His incredible work ethic reaped endless opportunities as he quickly ascended the Heat ladder. Within two years, he had been promoted to assistant coach/video coordinator, and in another four years, he was the assistant coach and director of scouting. He worked tirelessly with members of the Heat, and was credited with fixing Dwyane Wade’s jumpshot in the summer of 2004.
In 2008, it became time for Spoelstra to truly show his worth. As Pat Riley stepped down from the head coach position, he hand-picked the ex-video coordinator to be his successor, citing that the man was “born to coach” in the rapidly changing modern basketball environment which relied on technology and innovation. Spoelstra’s passion for the game was instrumental in the Heat’s recovery from a league-worst record of 15-67 in Riley’s last season to 43-39, sealing them a playoff berth. He followed this up with another playoff appearance in the 2010, though he failed to get the team out of the first round once again.
The next season, however, was when Spoelstra’s abilities were truly tested. The arrival of LeBron James and Chris Bosh led to immense expectations being placed upon the 38 year old. Shortly into the season, his team’s record stood just 9-8 and players were frustrated by his overly-demanding practice schedule. Their attitude towards Spoelstra was passively-aggressively displayed in LeBron’s infamous bump into him on his way to the bench during a team timeout. Spoelstra’s fortunes seemed to have taken a turn for the worse.
Spoelstra, however, didn’t allow the endless criticism to bear him down. He demonstrated his ability to unite the despairing group by leading the Heat to the second seed in the East, and eventually making it to the NBA Finals. While they lost to a Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks, Pat Riley understood that the resilience and craftiness which he’d first seen in Spoelstra was still there, and thus voiced his support for Spoelstra being the Heat head coach going forward.
The following season culminated in Spoelstra’s first ring, as his Heat triumphed over the Thunder in just five games. He backed this up with his second ring in the 2012-13 season, though he couldn’t finish the three-peat as they fell to the Spurs. However, his legacy with the Big 3 of Lebron, Bosh and Wade had already been cemented in the history of the NBA.
After the Lebron James era came to an end, Spoelstra now had to figure out how to win without the best player in the world at his side. It did take some time to adjust. Spoelstra failed to lead the Heat to the playoffs for the first time in his career. Once against, the critics jumped all over him.
In Spoelstra’s next season, he lay the foundations for the future of the Miami Heat. He begun to invest in his young talent and devised a system to suit the specific attributes present in his rostered players. Spoelstra transformed Hassan Whiteside into a physically-imposing, shot-blocking demon while modeling an efficient offense around Goran Dragic’s European basketball style. Wade and Bosh when healthy remained a consistent source of buckets.
Spoelstra also began to improve the confidence of his young players, namely Justice Winslow, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson, by handing them ample opportunities throughout the season. Finishing third in the regular season, the Heat made it to the Conference Semi-Finals in what was Wade’s last season, a respectable outcome given their lack of healthy superstars outside of Wade.
Spoelstra began the post-Wade era with a team that he was far from familiar with. Throughout his career, he’d always had a franchise player at the forefront of his offense. However, as he’s throughout his career, Spoelstra adapted to the conditions given to him. Following the slow start, Miami jumped 21 spots in offensive ratings in the second half of the season. Spoelstra demonstrated his ability to take fringe players who could barely make starting rosters on other teams and provide them with an irreplaceable role on his team.
Dion Waiters led an offense which had adapted to the modern conditions of NBA three-point shooting. James Johnson became a swiss-army knife for the team after shedding 40 pounds. Defenses struggled to adapt to Spoelstra’s system of Dragic and Waiters attacking the rim, where Whiteside lurked, and dishing it out to the corners, where pin-point shooters knocked down shots at the second-best clip in the league.
Spoelstra’s exploits were finally recognized in the 2017 awards ceremony as he placed second in Coach of the Year voting. Jeff van Gundy remarked that Spoelstra has transformed into a “Hall of Fame coach”, and ESPN analyst Mark Jackson seconded that opinion. Those who attributed Spoelstra’s early career success to the presence of superstars on his roster could finally notice his genius.
From the daunting task of handling big personalities which come with the arrival of All-NBA talent, to making players outperform what their draft positions expected of them, Spoelstra has done it all. He’s recycled talent seen as useless and maximized it to fit a system. He’s become known as the chameleon of coaches, given his ability to adapt to whatever situation he’s given. Spoelstra’s motto of constantly “getting better” has been instrumental in the transformation of the Miami Heat into one of the most successful franchises of the past decade.
As Lamar Odom once noted, if you have talent and go to Miami, you know its going to be maximized because of Erik Spoelstra.
photo via llananba