May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra speaks to members of the media prior to game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In Praise of Erik Spoelstra’s Beautifully Simple Strategy

Everyone talks about The Big Three and thinks the Heat are an All-Star team. They are not. If fact, they are one of the truest “teams” we’ve seen in a long time. The Spurs are probably the only other squad in the conversation dating back to, oh, the Chris Webber Kings or even Dream’s Rockets, but few rely on as many role players as the Heat do.

And Erik Spoelstra deserves immense credit for his ability to create a system that so many have thrived in.

Obviously LeBron James is the engine of it all, and none of it would work without him. Thus, what they do isn’t entirely replicable, and “LeBron turning into God on Earth” is part of the plan. Some of that was certainly on display in the Heat’s Game 5 loss to the Pacers, as James played just 24 minutes due to foul trouble and Miami’s offense was markedly less efficient while he sat.

So, yes, LeBron is the most vital cog, and Captain Obvious knows that the Heat wouldn’t be the Heat without him. But what Spoelstra has really done — using James and Dywane Wade as catalysts — is tying his team’s success to two things: hitting 3s and forcing turnovers.

If they do those two things well in any given game, they almost always win. If they do only one of them well, they have a very good shot. And if neither works, they can always fall back on the hope-LeBron-and/or-Wade goes nuclear plan.

At just 36.4%, they actually didn’t shoot very well from deep in the regular season (for them anyway), and that was a large reason that they struggled more than expected. It’s hard to say exactly why.

Perhaps it was the shooters themselves? Shane Battier dropped from 43.0% in 2012-13 to 34.8% in 2013-14. Or maybe it had to do with Dwyane Wade not being on the court enough to collapse defenses and kick out? He played just 1,775 minutes, the lowest of his career and fewer than even Ray Allen.

Or was it that LeBron simply didn’t put forth full effort on as many possession after three straight deep playoff runs to the NBA Finals? ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh wrote that the reason LeBron lost by so much to Kevin Durant in MVP voting was because of lackluster defense, so it’s easy to speculate that maybe he also slacked off a bit in his energy-depleting drive-and-kick game.

Regardless of what happened in the past, the Heat are again lights-out from 3-point land. Their paltry 36.4% regular season long-range shooting has ballooned to 39.3% in the playoffs (the best of any team) on an incredible 23.4 attempts per night. This is also ahead of the 38.1%, on 20.2 tries per game, they hit last year in the postseason on the way to a title. And if they win another ring this year, they are likely to be the highest-volume 3-point-shooting champ in history, potentially breaking the 2011 Dallas Mavericks’ record of 22.2 per game.

Most impressive of all might be this fact: six of Miami’s players are shooting 40% or better — and that doesn’t even include the best shooter of all-time, Ray Allen, who has hit 38.3% of his attempts this postseason.

It’s all predicated on Spoelstra’s “pace and space” system, in which LeBron and Wade break down the D enough on pick-and-rolls (or ideally in transition) to collapse the defense and then kick out to an open shooter.

It’s something LeBron can do in his sleep, and he can find the open man from any angle. He can simply make passes nobody else in the NBA (perhaps ever) can. Who else can make those turning-in-midair jump passes from the right block to the opposite wing that hit his teammate perfectly in rhythm and in his shooting pocket?

As a result, Miami has recorded an assist of 87.6% of its 3s this postseason, the highest mark of any team. Compare that to teams like the Trail Blazers and Rockets, which only assisted on 71.3% and 75.5% of their triples, respectively.

How deadly are the Heat when they are making 3s?

Before last night, the LeBron-era Heat were 23-3 (an 0.885 winning percentage) in the playoffs when they made 10 or more 3-pointers in a game, per Basketball-Reference. And in one of those losses — when the Pacers blew them out in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season — it took an alarmingly bad shooting night inside the arc (29.6% on 54 two-pointers) to counteract the 3-point success.

Last night, the Heat lost to the Pacers while hitting 15 treys. To became the fourth team to beat a Big Three Heat team that make 10 or more 3s, it took a heroic effort from Paul George (21 fourth-quarter points) and LeBron playing just 24 minutes (his low this postseason was 32 minutes and he never played fewer than 41 against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals last year).

I think Spo would roll the dice on that not happening again. A lot of what he wanted to do worked — on offense anyway.

Which takes us to the other side of the ball.

Indiana’s other statistical key to victory last night was holding onto the ball. Early on, when they were coughing up the rock constantly, it looked like the Pacers would once again turn the ball over to defeat. Miami forced 11 turnovers in the first half, including 6 steals, and scored 12 points off of those Pacer giveaways. But Indiana only gave up 2 more turnovers in the second half, leading to just 2 Heat points.

As Zach Lowe expertly detailed for Grantland, Spoelstra has dialed back on his high-pressure defensive tactics, but the team still knows where its toast is peanut buttered on defense: forcing turnovers. Spoelstra realized early on that, as good as LeBron and Wade are in a half-court offense, they are down-right unstoppable on the break. Either they will score or they will find someone who can.

No team forced a turnover on a higher percentage of its opponents’ possessions this season than the 17.6% of Miami. This number in and of itself is impressive but the critical part is how well they scored off of these turnovers. It makes all the difference.

In wins during the regular season, they averaged 20.2 points per game off of turnovers in wins compared to just 17.6 per game in losses. That’s a 3-point swing that accounts for much of the 4.8-point average margin of victory the Heat posted this year.

It’s no surprise that the Heat only scored 14 such points last night in a loss. They had the 3s to win, but didn’t have the turnover points — or, ya know, that LeBron guy.

It’s incredibly simple.

The Xs and Os underlying the success are not, but Spoelstra had taken the best-in-class tools he has been given (the brilliant penetrating and playmaking of LeBron and Wade, and the versatility of Chris Bosh) and fabricated a strategy that hinges on making 3s and forcing turnovers.

It’s a complex scheme built off of simplicity.

Many people still refuse to give Spoelstra the credit he deserves for creating innovative strategies on both ends of the court. Even if his team wins its third straight title, most will still coronate LeBron — as they should. But while plenty of coaches could ride the best player alive to a title, few could put him in such an ideal system to do it again. And maybe again.

Tags: Erik Spoelstra Lebron James Miami Heat NBA

  • Real M-Fing talk !!!

    Another typical numbers B.S., try watching the game instead of spouting out off all this numbers crap, if these numbers translated to the basketball court, the Heat would not be playing a game 6 against the Pacers…

    The Miami heat is Lebron, Lebron and did i mention Lebron ! you can’t say Erik should be credited and then on the other hand say it couldn’t work without Lebron.
    One player should NOT lead the team in points, rebounds, assist and be your best defender And the coach get ANY credit !!!!
    What did Erik do before Lebron? a playoff here and there, with a first or second round exit and magically you expect people to believe Erik is a 4 times finals and possible 3 time NBA CHAMPIONSHIP COACH?… Next thing you’re going telling me Mike Brown is a 60-66 wins coach !

    Game 5 against the Pacers was an easy win if Erik was any sort of coach or the players were big time winners… Erik should be getting crushed for leaving a 6’10 athletic scorer and a sharp shooter in Beasley and Jones on the bench while the Heat was struggling to score and Lebron in foul trouble… Erik needs to lean how to feel the game and screw the numbers crap…. it’s always Lebron bailing them out and if they lose it’s him getting the blame… everyone talks about Ray Allen’s 3 but forgetting who kept them in the game and hit the 3 prior….

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      No coach can win without stars, Phil had Jordan/Scottie and Shaq/Kobe. Pop had Duncan. Doc had Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. Carlisle had Dirk. And Spoelstra has LeBron. None of those guys have won a championship without stars.

      But you know what? Jordan and Kobe had Phil. Duncan had Pop. Dirk had Carlisle. Boston had Doc. LeBron has Spoelstra. None of those stars have won a championship without those coaches.

      Give credit where credit is due. Spoelstra has built a system that maximizes the talents of his big three and effectively utilizes their very limited role players.

      Beasley… He got put into game 5 and got hopelessly lost on three consecutive defensive possessions.

      • Real M-Fing talk !!!

        Mike brown won 66 games with only Lebron, add a D-Wade and a part time Bosh to the mix, 2 possibly 3 rings, if Mike brown was coaching this team they would be in the same position they are in right now ! …and i cannot find one person who would say Brown is a great head coach ! …its just Spo. lucking into a job, where 3 guys decided to play together, i am not going to give a coach credit for that ! especially when you have not won before ! …Beasley that’s on the coach, put the guy in positions to succeed, instead of leaving his talents to waste on the bench… we know he has an offensive game, and Beasley is not the worse defender on the team ! …Coach pop would be using Beasley right now, for bleep sakes he is giving playing time to Matt Bonner and Diaw is still a major contributor !

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Yes. Beasley is easily the worst team defender on the team. Worst in isolation? Maybe not, but his horrendous rotations unglue every level of the defense.

          Coach Pop would play Beasley? Coach Pop would never take a chance on a guy with a history of drugs, immaturity, and inability to play heads up defense. Beasley would have his butt glued to the bench, and if anyone asked why he would just tell them that Beasley is a sorry defender that Minnesota didn’t want and Phoenix paid to go away.

          Does Spoelstra have the best big 3 in any series? Almost certainly. But he also has probably the worst two starters, no legitimate center, and a collection of limited role players.

          You can deny Spoelstra’s coaching ability all you want, but Pat Riley, one of the greatest to ever do it, believes in his ability. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh believe in it. Just about everyone in the business sees his talent. Yet somehow you know better.

          • Real M-Fing talk !!!

            I disagree with the Beasley take, he is not the worse defender on the
            team !, and you bring up Beasley drug abuse when i was referring to him
            being on the team, if he was in the Spurs he would be getting playing
            time over Bonner… and the heat is able to play without a center… because of LEBRON ! … look how OKC looked against a great team without Ibaka… Riley was great yes, he proved it the year bhe won just with Wade…. Thats all i give Riley credit for Riley had 4 years to get the Heat some basic help inside, they had guys like Hawes, Gortat and Batche out there but Riley decides to waste time with the likes of PittMan and so on… i need to know what was
            Erik winning before Lebron, and please name me one other player in the NBA
            who leads the team in points, rebounds, assist
            and defends…. and tell me if the coach deserves any credit for
            that… Erik should be grateful he has a guy to pick up the slack…
            Erik coaches on a whim… Lewis is in the line up only because he got
            hot defensively… it was nothing Erik saw, Jones was in the game for a bit because he was hitting 3′s he missed a few and he isn’t
            playing… Chalmers has yet to show up and Coles was having a bad
            stretch and still played, why because there was others picking up the
            slack !

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Bonner was averaging 4 minutes per game before the last two games against the Thunder. Way to set the bar high!

            And Gortat is making $7 million per year. Feel free to tell me how the Heat were supposed to make that happen with the salary cap.

          • Real M-Fing talk !!!

            That’s 4 minutes more than Beasley was playing and what about Blatche and Hawes, are you telling me the Heat couldn’t use or get them and 7 million for Gortat is not a lot considering Haslem was making over 5 million not to play !

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            Haslem’s contract was signed 4 years ago and is a big part of the reason they couldn’t get Gortat even if they wanted It wasn’t a choice between the two.Hawes is making almost as much money as Gortat.

            Blatche…. in hindsight Blatche would have been a nice pickup at his pricepoint and is the only one of the three that the Heat could have signed. At the same time, he was a free agent after a year in which he shot 38% from the field. Besides ,the Birdman signing has worked out pretty well.

          • Real M-Fing talk !!!

            they had pittman for years, thats all i need to know…. and you need to stop looking at numbers 38% on the wiz would not be 38% playing beside lebron, wade and bosh, he would have nothing but high percentage looks…. thats how you need to look at players they may be ask to do a lot for their pervious team while you would be asking them to dd just enough for the heat so in my eyes thats not hindsight ! and guys like you and Riley don’t see things that way.

          • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

            You put me in the same category as Riley… I’ll take that. The guy has been involved in winning nine championships.

          • Carlos Cannon

            The Heat drafted Dexter Pittman and kept him for the duration of his rookie contract and then cut him. He rarely dressed, and was drafted as a developmental big man but he proved too immature to even try and get in shape. Andray Blatche was coming off an injury prone season where he shot poorly and played only 26 games. Even in hindsight that would of been a risky signing. And you are right, Beasley isn’t the worst defender on the Heat, that honor goes to James Jones. While Beasley can be a very good offensive player at times, he has never been able to play with in the offense well and constantly slows down the ball movement. On the defense of end he is a constant liability. The heat’s defensive scheme is based on blitzing the ball handler with two defenders on the pick and roll, and then quickly rotating and disrupting the passing lanes to force turnovers. All season Beasley showed an inability to defend with in this scheme. That combined with his, offensive issues, are the reason is he is bench and sometimes doesn’t even dress. In the case of James Jones, even if you forget about the fact that he is a defensive nightmare, he literally only provides you 3 point shooting ability (and while he is a good spot up 3 shooter, he struggles to make threes while on the move, when being closed on by a defender, and can be a drastically streaky in game shooter). However, like Beasley, he also does not function well with in the offensive scheme and often slows down the offense and gets stuck with the ball in his hands. Yes having 3 of the greatest players on the planet definitely has made Spo’s life easier but that doesn’t always guarantee success. You cannot argue that he hasn’t developed offensive and defensive schemes that fit his players perfectly. These are very difficult schemes to run that most other teams cannot run, not only because they lack the personnel that the heat have, but because the players on the court have to be very well prepared and disciplined in order to execute at a championship level. That takes a great coach. Spo has also shown he is good at managing the game clock, running effective out of bounds plays, and creating effective in-game line ups on the fly. As far as his first two years go, he took two heat teams who had Wade, doing everything possible while still recovering from devastating knee injuries, and Jermaine O’Neil as their second best player to the play offs. He did that in his first two years as a head coach, and while that isn’t a milestone accomplishment, they do deserve credit. Having all the talent in the world like the heat do now can take any team deep into the playoffs but you need a great coach to be there to make sure the talents and skills of the players are being used properly in those few possessions that make or break a season. Every great coach has had great basketball players because you need both to win it all in the NBA. Whether you like it or not, Spo is a great coach and will most likely be a hall of fame coach if the heat beat the spurs. As far as Mike Brown, he failed Lebron for almost a decade in cleveland, and then went to the lakers, who had four superstar players, and then completely wasted all their talent and they barely made the playoffs. Another example of a great team who didn’t have the coach to win a championship are the Steve Nash Suns. Great Players need great coaches. If you need more proof of that please see the careers of Chris Mullin, Chris Weber, DIKEMBE MUTOMBO, Dominique Wilkins, Petra Maravich, Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Elgin Baylor.

          • Shane Trevor

            Jesus! You talk like an nba history expert about what spo was winning before lebron. Did you know what happened to the heat after winning 2006 championships before spo took over? Either you are a one way pneumatic cylinder or just a plain hater.