67RIEFNS No. 28: Erik Spoelstra proving his chops


The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

By nature, NBA head coaches face immense pressure.

As the money at stake has increased, job security is down league-wide. Owners no longer see teams as toys, instead looking at them to produce revenue. That trickles down the organizational chart, often landing on the coaches who fail to produce the wins that sell tickets and raise the value of local TV contracts.

But no coach has faced more pressure in the last four years than Erik Spoelstra.

A team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh faced obvious championship expectations annually. Media descended upon Miami to cover the Heat with unprecedented depth. And to top it all off, his boss, Pat Riley, is a championship-winning coach who once replaced Miami’s sitting coach once the team was ready to win a title.

Not only did Spoelstra have to win, he had to win immediately. Not only did he have to win immediately, he had to win big immediately. Not only did he have to win big immediately, he had to appease a number of bosses.

Riley is the most obvious, but Heat owner Micky Arison could have gotten impatient and ordered a change. What interests me most, though is how Spoelstra won over LeBron, Wade and Bosh.

In a few short years, Spoelstra has gone from the NBA’s youngest coach to the league’s second-longest tenured (behind only the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich). That transformation happened only because LeBron, Wade and Bosh allowed it.

At any moment, the big three could have gotten Spoelstra fired. They obviously carried more cache within the organization than even Riley’s hand-picked successor. But they chose to let Spoelstra coach them.

There could have been only one reason.

Spoelstra did not have an overly impressive resume until LeBron and Bosh showed up. The coach hadn’t even won a playoff series.

He couldn’t use an impressive playing career to impress the big three, either. He played at the University of Portland and a couple years in Germany, and that’s it.

What Spoelstra had was an ability to coach.

LeBron, Wade and Bosh are no fools. They’re smart players, smart enough to recognize when someone can’t do the job. That they let Spoelstra coach them while their championship window was open is quite telling.

Spoelstra didn’t simply roll out the ball and let them play. He made small ball the team’s identity. He created an offense that incorporated both LeBron and Wade, two players with similar skill sets who too often butted heads on the court their first year in Miami. Spoelstra designed a defense featuring aggressive trapping that took advantage of the Heat’s athleticism.

Simply, Spoelstra coached at championship level.

Now, with LeBron in Cleveland, the challenge changes. Expectations are lower, but so are the resources. Spoelstra must adjust his style to fit a new team.

Spoelstra, who has coached two NBA champions, has been described by some as a Hall of Fame lock. That’s really not a certainty, though. Rudy Tomjanovich, who led the Rockets to titles in 1994 and 1995, is not enshrined.

Tomjanovich won just four playoff series outside his championship years. Spoelstra has already won six in non-title years, so his résumé is already looking better.

But he hasn’t won any without LeBron, the greatest player of the generation. That, fairly raises, questions.

Spoelstra can’t rest on his two titles and call it a legacy. It doesn’t sound as if he’s interested in doing that, anyway.

I think Spoelstra, still just 43, will remain successful, even without LeBron. But he must prove it.