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Heat Nation Feature: Spoelstra’s Rocky Road to NBA Success
- Updated: May 17, 2014
My mother has always told me “no matter what you’re doing in life, be the best at whatever it is and be the person who comes to mind when an opportunity to move up comes along.”
Perhaps Erik Spoelstra’s mother shared the same wisdom with him in his younger years, because he has taken advantage of every opportunity given to him and succeeded at every level along the way.
When you hear Spoelstra’s name today, many words are likely to come to mind for basketball fans. Champion and innovator are some of the most popular phrases used to describe the Heat coach in 2014.
But despite all of his recent successes, Spoelstra’s path to becoming a champion as a head coach was anything but smooth sailing.
Before earning all of his accolades as the head coach of the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra got his start as a video coordinator for the team, joining the organization in the summer of 1995. At the time, he wasn’t even guaranteed a position with the team past the offseason, but as injuries had derailed his playing career, Spoelstra decided to take the gamble.
When Pat Riley was hired as head coach, Erik feared that he would soon be out of a job, but instead he stuck around and made a name for himself over the next few years, earning the trust and respect of the legendary coach. In 1999, Spoelstra was promoted to an assistant coach/advance scout position, which involved a great deal of scouting and talent evaluation assignments.
After a successful stint in that position, he was again promoted in 2001, becoming the director of scouting and the top assistant coach on Pat Riley’s squad. Spoelstra was also the head of Miami’s Individual Player Development Program, and spent a great deal of time molding Dwyane Wade into a star, improving his balance and shooting skills before his sophomore campaign.
Spoelstra also designed a new method of statistical analysis for the Heat, helping them break down team and individual strengths, as well as opponents’ weaknesses. His program is still used today, and is a key part of the team’s video study program when game-planning for opponents.
It is undoubtedly his hard work and revolutionary ideas that helped Spoelstra become the leading candidate for Miami’s head coaching position when Pat Riley stepped down following the Heat’s worst season ever in 2008.
Spoelstra had been a Miami Heat lifer, climbing the ladder from video assistant all the way to Head Coach, and becoming the protégé and right hand man of NBA legend Pat Riley in the process. Still, many were surprised when Riley made the decision to hire the little-known assistant to lead the Heat in 2008, but Riley stood firm, referencing the many positives that Spoelstra brings to the organization.
“This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative, and bring fresh new ideas.” Riley said shortly after the hiring, “That’s what we feel we are getting with Erik Spoelstra. He’s a man that was born to coach.”
Replacing a legend is never an easy task, but that dialogue speaks for itself, showing the amount of confidence and belief the Heat’s front office had in Spoelstra, even when things weren’t going so great. After the Heat were knocked out in the first round of Spoelstra’s first two seasons at the helm, however, most assumed it was time for change, and many thought that change would come in the form of a new head coach.
Instead, Spoelstra stayed, and we all know what ended up happening in the summer of 2010.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh came to town, bringing with them astronomical, and some would say unattainable expectations. The so called “Big 3” didn’t help lessen the pressure either, with their Hollywood-style introduction ceremony and James’ “not five, not six, not seven…” remarks.
All of this added up to even more disappointment, much of it directed at Spoelstra, when the team failed to win a championship in their first year together. There was rumored tension between Spoelstra and James, and once again, many assumed the Heat would be led by a new coach the next season.
But once again, Riley stood firmly behind his coach, his guy, and the move finally began to pay off in a big way.
The Heat bought into Spoelstra’s approach and philosophies in the summer of 2011 and played exceptionally well in the second season of their all-star roster. The team began to see major chemistry building, as they ran through a lockout-shortened season with a winning percentage just below .700. They cruised through the first two series of the playoffs, before outlasting the Boston Celtics in a historic seven game Eastern Conference Finals series.
The tough Boston series appeared to be a turning point for the team, as they were never challenged the same way in the finals. They went on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, earning Spoelstra his first NBA championship as a head coach.
The next year brought Miami even more success, as the Heat went 66-16 in the regular season and won their second consecutive championship. The heart of the Miami Heat showed bigger than ever in game six of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, when it looked like the Heat were about to lose the title for the second time in three years.
The Heat trailed 94-89 with just 28 seconds to go, and many fans began filing out of American Airlines Arena. LeBron James nailed a three pointer to cut the lead to two, and Kawhi Leonard missed one of two free throws after being fouled to keep it a one possession game.
Down by three points with under 15 seconds left, Ray Allen got the ball and took two steps backward and hit the biggest shot of his career, tying the game and sending it to overtime. Spoelstra outcoached Gregg Popovich down the stretch, as the Spurs took their big men off the court to attempt to guard the shots along the perimeter. Spoelstra, however, decided to leave Chris Bosh in the game and it resulted in the Heat getting two critical offensive rebounds that lead to the game tying shot.
Bosh continued to come up huge in overtime, blocking a shot from red-hot Spurs guard Danny Green at the buzzer to seal the Heat’s comeback win and force game seven, which Miami went on to win.
Once again, the Heat are rolling through the playoffs this year, and much of the credit goes to Spoelstra again. His trust in other players besides LeBron James has resulted in a much more balanced offensive attack, something that will help the Heat succeed in the next two series. I am especially intrigued to see how the Heat will attack the Indiana Pacers, a team that they have historically struggled to match up with size-wise.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Spoelstra go with a small lineup, forcing Indiana to play a game that they aren’t comfortable with. The Heat will definitely be primed and ready for the series, as they have been looking forward to the rematch of last year’s ECF for nearly 12 months.
Spoelstra is still often questioned or criticized by fans and media members alike, and probably always will be, but he has an uncanny ability to motivate his players and keep them hungry, even with two championship titles under their belt. He knows how to utilize his roster to its full potential, exploiting matchups and changing philosophies to best suit his team’s strengths.
In a league marred by constant coaching changes, even by successful teams, it’s time for Heat fans to realize how fortunate they are to have Spoelstra at the helm. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in winning percentage, both regular season and postseason, in addition to being the franchise leader in postseason wins.
Between his incredible work ethic, his revolutionary ideas and his ability to keep his team focused, Erik Spoelstra has quickly become one of the most successful coaches in NBA history.
Now if only he could get some credit.