These are the coaches who have won back to back NBA championships: Red Auerbach, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley. And now, Erik Spoelstra joins that exclusive club of legendary bosses. But Spoelstra wasn’t always destined for success helming one of the most talented teams ever assembled.
Fans clamored for Phil Jackson. Pat Riley’s ominous specter hovered over every decision after The Decision. About halfway through the first season of the Big Three experiment, everyone blamed Spoelstra for the Heat’s underwhelming performance. They begged Riley to step in, and speculation that he would intervene ran rampant. No one even knew who the leader was on the team, between residual star Dwyane Wade and new arrival and more complete talent LeBron James. Surely, it wasn’t Spoelstra, fans complained. He wasn’t in control, they insisted.
Spoelstra started as a temporary video coordinator in 1995, only ensured his job through the summer. He was hired before Pat Riley was brought in to coach the Heat. According to Spoelstra’s father, Riley would have brought in his own video guy if he was able to terminate Spoelstra, but his hands were tied. Spoelstra stayed and showed his effort and grit, logging long and demanding hours picking apart the game frame by frame. Riley noticed . . . eventually.
“For the first two years he didn’t even know my name,” Spoelstra said after his Finals win. He could afford to laugh about it after his second consecutive ring.
He’s a video junkie, a former college point guard who reads the game like one. He’s a workaholic who cut his teeth picking out the little things, extracting the tale of the tape out of thousands of brief events. Each play was like thread, an individual part to be regarded on its own, but part of the woven blanket of a game, of a season. Spoelstra picked at every thread.
Eventually, he was promoted to assistant coach and called upon as an advance scout, picking out the little things that could be isolated and exploited in Heat opponents. Often, he would pull all-nighters in the video room or scouting on the road.
In 2008, when Pat Riley stepped down as Heat head coach after a 15-win season, he was allowed to choose his successor. He went with the workaholic Spoelstra once only kept around because he was stuck with him. Since then, Riley has stuck with his choice. There have been multiple reports that after tough games, Riley will bring wine to the coache’s office and sit with Spoelstra. Sometimes they are silent; other times, like after an embarrassing game three blowout at the hands of the Spurs, they break down film. Riley helps his former video coordinator break down film.
There’s another important aspect of Spoelstra as coach, and you see it when he turns to Riley for help. Spoelstra is egoless. It’s the reason why a bigger name couldn’t succeed in charge of the Big Three. It would be a fruitless pissing contest, big-headed stars clashing with a big-headed bench. There was that time early on in the experiment where LeBron appeared to bump into Spoelstra in a collision that looked far from incidental. Spoelstra didn’t respond.
I’m not saying it’s good to be a pushover, but it is important with a star-studded cast to cede control. Spoelstra doesn’t need to be the big interview on the team, the attention-grabber. He’s most comfortable buried in tactics, finding adjustments. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, but he certainly doesn’t need it.
Young teams need a mentor, old teams need a curator. Some teams need to be taught how to play defense, or how to orchestrate offense in transition. Some teams need a defined presence on the bench. All Miami’s roster needed was a guy who can gameplan and a guy who can make in-game adjustments and devise successful plays off of a whistle. Spoelstra, low-key and tactical, complements his roster better than any other coach could.
Spoelstra’s adjustments were crucial in the stretch run. Any neutral observer would say that in crunch time of the 2013 NBA Finals, Gregg Popovich got outcoached. Pop gets a ton of credit for keeping the Spurs relevant as they transitioned into a more up-tempo attack and for getting the most out of his players. He’s considered one of the best coaches in the NBA, and rightfully so. But it was a stagnant Spurs team that kept making mistakes, from Duncan sitting on the bench and giving up a clutch rebound, to Ginobili’s erratic passing, laden with turnovers, to Tony Parker sitting on essential possessions, to a Duncan-Parker pick and roll game that Spoelstra counteracted. We saw the Spurs run the same predictable play again and again, and while it worked early on, before adjustments from the Heat bench, it was an exercise in offensive futility down the stretch. In each of the last two series the Heat played in, the other team’s coach was blamed for losses, while Spoelstra quietly steered his team to victory.
Maybe driving a car is the best metaphor to go with in Spoelstra’s case. Pat Riley gave Spoelstra the keys to a clunker, and he did decent. Then, Riley went out and got a souped out luxury car, made with some of the best parts ever assembled. This thing could virtually drive itself, just hit the highway and throw on cruise control. Some drivers couldn’t do this; their pride would force them to try to take over and push the car harder, or continually tinker with the mechanics of it, trying for peak performance. Spoelstra coasted with it, only making adjustments when necessary. He did the research, checked for traffic delays, for potholes to swerve around and avoid. And his preparation allowed him to sit comfortably in the driver’s seat and ride it out, all the way to a championship.
He’s a hard worker without an ego who has an innate grasp on the intricacies of the game. He knows how much– or how little– to manage players. He puts in the effort that it takes to be the best. On a team with so many personalities, the head coach is the last person who needs to make waves. And he makes sure everyone stays involved and sticks to the plan. In what, let’s be honest here, has to be intentionally funny at some level, Spoelstra insists that Chris Bosh is the team’s most important player. Yeah, the guy who got owned in the post by Tim Duncan, and subsequently owned by confetti.
Even if you can’t trust his public assessment of his own players, Spoelstra has shown that you can trust him to lead the Heat to success.