Through the use of NBA.com’s Advanced Stats machinery, in conjunction with the finest analytical tools both currently in use throughout the league and yet to be conjured in the eventual big brain of Daryl Morey’s someday great-grandchild we can say unequivocally that coach Erik Spoelstra contributed 5.279 victories to the Miami Heat’s recent, remarkable 27-game winning streak.
There’s no reliable way to know precisely what Spoelstra’s contribution was to the streak, the second-longest in NBA history. In that way, it’s not unlike the Heat’s championship last June or their consecutive trips to The Finals. Considering LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh hardly needed a general manager to pull off their SuperFriends scheme, it’s tempting for people to presume they might not need much of a head coach, either.
How hard can it be? Miami’s roster boasts the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, certain to be validated again this spring with his fourth Maurice Podoloff trophy. It has, in All-Stars Wade and Bosh, another top 10 and top 20 player. And the Heat have become a recruit-yourself destination for quality veterans such as Shane Battier and Ray Allen eager to win rings.
But consider how far Spoelstra has come from the death watch of two seasons ago, when a five-game losing streak, a 9-8 start and a timeout bump on the court with James had everyone predicting his demise in days, if not hours. Even a year ago – on the heels of a two-year, $6 million contract extension through 2013-14 – speculation simmered that anything short of a championship might bring a change.
And now? None of that. Quite the opposite, in fact, to the point that Spoelstra – with a 250-133 mark and, counting this season, with five trips to the playoffs – would be well within his rights to blow cigar smoke at his critics like Red Auerbach or give that self-satisfied Phil Jackson/Cheshire Cat smile while pointing above to various scoreboards.
Instead, he grinds like the video coordinator he once was. He plugs along. And he proves to be of no help whatsoever in attributing his share of the credit for what Miami is doing. Invariably he’ll lapse into his preferred brand of group speak. “I think the untold story about this group was the willingness of professional athletes to sacrifice for something greater,” Spoelstra said the other night in Chicago. “Virtually everybody on our roster had to sacrifice something financially and, in today’s day and age, you just don’t see that very often. … And save for LeBron, virtually everybody else on our roster in a perfect world would have a bigger role. But they sacrificed to make this thing happen – sacrificing to less minutes, less opportunities, less shots, whatever – and I think that’s pretty remarkable.”
Doesn’t scratch the Spoelstra surface, though. For that, you’re better off seeking exhibits and deposing witnesses. Such as Zach Lowe‘s recent splendid read on the Heat’s evolution into the Swiss watch-slash-monster-truck of NBA offenses:
These Heat look almost nothing like the 2010-11 version that melted away against Dallas in the Finals, and they don’t even look much like the team that took the floor for the bulk of their championship campaign last season. The Heat, more than anything else, are a story of slow and fitful evolution — a reaffirmation that the regular season really does matter, and that true basketball chemistry is a fragile thing that almost always requires patience, time, sacrifice, and deep knowledge of teammates.1
The Heat have almost totally reinvented their offense over those three seasons, and in the process they’ve done something very rare: taken a good offense and transformed it into something almost historically great.
That at least starts with Spoelstra, young enough yet wise enough to know what he doesn’t know. So says David Fizdale, the Heat assistant who’s an expert witness because he’s been at Spoelstra’s side all five seasons in Miami after working previously for Atlanta and Golden State.
“Every year he’s gotten better since I’ve been with him,” Fizdale said. “He challenges himself to get better. He’s never satisfied with where he is as a coach. He rarely gets credit. And the best part about him is, he doesn’t want any of the credit. You can’t say that about a lot of coaches in this league. He is one guy who really would prefer to coach and no one know who he was.”
Fizdale admitted that Spoelstra did savor the Heat’s title beyond the moments on court or in the trophy presentation. “He finally relaxed and got to sit back and smile and enjoy the fruits of his labor,” the assistant said. “Now, he’s not the type who’s going to sit there for a long. Probably a couple weeks after that, he was meeting with Billy Donovan or [John] Calipari or Chip Kelly [now of the NFL Eagles] or one of these guys. He’s always seeking knowledge and ways he can apply it to this team.”
Any time squeezed in there for, y’know, gloating? Spoelstra certainly earned the right.
“No. No way. Never ever,” Fizdale said. “He’ll never take the credit, he’ll never throw things in people’s faces because that’s not who he is. He’s competitive as hell. Wants to win everything. But not the type of person who, after he beats you, will gloat about it.”
Battier scoffs at any suggestion Spoelstra has it easier because of the Heat’s star power. “I’d beg to differ,” he said. “At this level, not only do you have to worry about the X’s & O’s, you have to balance egos. And the egos in this locker room are big. Global icons. It takes a person with a strong personality.”
Battier and Fizdale see the Pat Riley influences in Spoelstra, both in the gym and as a motivator. Then there’s a little Stan Van Gundy in there, and bits and pieces gleaned from those other coaches, maybe even from other sports.
In particular, Fizdale talked of Spoelstra’s ability, even his drive, to adapt and innovate to personnel and to various roster tweaks. “He understood these guys were a different monster,” Fizdale said. “And every year a team is a little different. He has always adjusted his tactics and his personality to that.
“You got to make talent mesh. Individually, those guys are going to the Hall of Fame. But they’re guys who were used to getting the ball 100 percent of the time. Now that’s been chopped into pieces.
“With the way he’s built our offense, he’s also developed those Hall of Famers in some way. Where you see them doing a lot more cutting, a lot more posting, more reading and reacting. It says something that these guys are having career years from a field-goal percentage standpoint. It’s not just that they went to the gym and started shooting 1,000 shots. It’s the structure that he’s put out there and the quality of shots they’re getting. The fact that they’re probably getting more easy baskets than they’ve ever gotten in their careers.”
Divvying up the percentages of credit for that interests Miami less than seeing that it continues into June.