With Erik Spoelstra passing Pat Riley for the Miami HEAT franchise lead in regular season wins, let’s take a look back at some of Spoelstra’s finest coaching moments and decisions of his ten-season career.
The night after trusting Dwyane Wade with back-to-back isolation possessions to sink the Charlotte Hornets, Spoelstra called for a bit more design in the final seconds against the Minnesota Timberwolves. First, with the HEAT up one with 15.9 seconds left they attempted a backdoor lob play that got jammed up and led to a turnover. Later, with six seconds left and the game tied, Wade navigated a labyrinth of screens and finished a perfect lob at the rim.
There would be plenty of game-winning plays that came off Spoelstra’s clipboard as the HEAT would often finish among the elite – or as the very best – in the final minutes of close games, but this lob always stuck out.
Journey To The Post
It may seem odd to consider, watching him now, but coming off the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas there was criticism coming from the national media about LeBron James’ apparent lack of a post-up game. But even in that first year with Miami, Spoelstra had empowered assistant coach David Fizdale to work with both James and Wade in the post. Even before the well-publicized work James put in later on, Miami’s coaching staff was already working to get he and Wade to be some of the best post-up wings in the league – as they remain today.
Pace and Space
While the 2010-11 HEAT had plenty of success, beating a top seeded Chicago Bulls team in the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Dallas in six game, the offense never quite reached an ideal. So, Spoelstra set off to find that ideal, using free time during an NBA lockout to visit with coaches from other sports in a search for inspiration. One of those visits was with Chip Kelly, then leading a powerhouse Oregon Ducks football team. From seeing Oregon’s high speed practices and emphasis on offensive spacing, Spoelstra took those ideas back to Miami and created what would eventually be dubbed the Pace-and-Space offense – one that would win back-to-back titles and set league records in effective field-goal shooting.
A Step Back
While both James and Wade worked to bring their perimeter games inside, Spoelstra focused some of Chris Bosh’s player development on getting one of the league’s best mid-range shooting big men to take a step back and shoot threes. First came the spot-up corner threes as Bosh went from taking 35 shots from deep in 2012 to 74 in 2013, and then the threes from all over as he took 218 in 2014.
It may not sound believable in today’s climate, where taking threes becomes more and more important for big men, but back then it was seen as somewhat controversial to have a power forward take threes despite all statistical evidence encouraging the practice. Then again, back then it was also controversial, at times, to play Bosh at center. And yet that’s how Miami ended up winning titles.
The Ray Allen Play
When the HEAT signed Ray Allen following their first title under Spoelstra, it was something of a no brainer. With two of the best passers in the league the HEAT already generated a ton of open threes, so why not sign one of the best shooters ever?
Clearly, that worked out pretty well. But a subtle, if somewhat basketball-nerdy, storyline was that Spoelstra had already been running one of Doc Rivers’ set designs for Allen. It was a simple flare screen at the top of the key followed by a pick-and-roll, but when the follow up screen was set by Bosh for James or Wade, it became one of the deadliest plays in the league. Then you introduce the namesake of the play and Miami had instant offense whenever they were in a tight spot. As it turns out, they wound up running the same set regularly at the end of the first half for years, and the Ray Allen Play became a big part of the HEAT annually ranking among the league’s best after-timeout teams.
When Chris Bosh was injured during the 2012 playoffs, it took a game starting Dexter Pittman at center against Indiana to get Miami’s lineups even further outside the box. But, as all revolutionary lineups tend to be born of postseason pain – see Golden State starting Andre Iguodala a couple years ago – Spoelstra landed on Battier as the starting power forward against a giant Indiana frontline.
Now, Spoelstra is setting the team record in regular-season wins, so why the postseason talk? Because two years later, Spoelstra took things a step further as he started Battier at the four nearly full-time. What was once a chess move in the playoffs became the game-to-game norm. These days, nobody blinks an eye when a wing starts alongside a center, but back then Spoelstra was blazing his own trail.
A New Defense
While Pat Riley built the foundation for a defensive scheme that Spoelstra eventually dialed up in hyper-aggressive fashion – one that would create turnover after turnover and thus fastbreak dunk after dunk – the scheme that led to so much success for Miami eventually went out of vogue as teams focused more and more on ball movement. And with the emergence of Hassan Whiteside in the second-half of the 2014-15 season, Spoelstra began the process of transforming one of the most recognizable schemes in the league. The team went from blitzing pick-and-rolls to hanging back in the paint and encouraging mid-range shots (while still putting plenty of pressure on the ball).
Instead of forcing a highly successful scheme on his players, he let his roster dictate the style that would lead to future wins.
Dragic Off The Dribble
It caught Goran Dragic off guard to have a coach, and staff, that communicated with him so often. There would be late-night texts after games detailed what the team can improve on, or just casual check-ins. But it was some offseason digital communication that helped Dragic have one of his very best seasons in 2016-17 as Spoelstra suggested he work on both his mid-range shot and shooting off the dribble – something Dragic didn’t always focus on. With that work came success as Dragic had one of his best jump-shooting seasons ever.
Maybe Dragic would have done just as well without the texts and emails, but Spoelstra makes sure to have a plan in place as his players disperse for the offseason.
The Second Half
The most recent entry on this list shouldn’t require much explanation. After a tough, injury-riddled first half in which the HEAT posted a 11-30 record, Spoelstra kept his team together. They played as hard as anyone in the league and they defended, so once the three-pointers started falling everything clicked and Miami ran off an incredible 30-11 second half, missing the playoffs by a tiebreaker. Up and down the roster there was praise for a coach who would accept little credit but was nevertheless instrumental in keeping a team focused where many teams before had long since lost interest.