By Couper Moorhead
In a stuffy, two-basket gym in Rio de Janeiro, a roundball ballet unfolds. From down on the court, it appears to be organized chaos. There are nearly 30 bodies on the court, this being in the middle of training camp, and they never, ever stop moving. Whatever space one person occupies becomes filled by someone else within seconds. Around and around, back and forth, in and out they go. The sensation is that of looking at an ant farm with your nose pressed up against the glass.
The higher you climb up in the sideline bleachers, the less claustrophobic the scene feels. A wider lens allows you to better appreciate the orchestration. Groups of three or four or five fly across the court, playing out imaginary scenarios shouted at them by men with whistles, and exit stage right – only to reappear in formation seconds later. Swan Lake, at high volume.
This is Erik Spoelstra’s design.
The story behind the Miami HEAT’s pace-and-space offense is a familiar one to many. Coming off a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals and faced with months of purgatory as the league sorted out a new collective bargaining agreement, Spoelstra – perpetually in pursuit of self-improvement – booked some cross-country flights and audited football practice.
Chief among those visits was at the University of Oregon, where now-Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly had implemented an offense that, whether it was or not, felt revolutionary for every second you were watching. Spoelstra returned from this something-of-a-sabbatical and began laying the groundwork for a HEAT attack that would win titles and eventually set and re-set league records in effective field-goal percentage. That part you probably know, but the other thing Spoelstra brought back from Oregon was a reaffirmation of the importance of efficiency on the practice court.
“It was an immediate . . . awe reaction when you saw his practices and how fast they were flying around,” Spoelstra says. “The intensity level of it, how many repetitions they were able to get into it.
“We already had that fundamental philosophy anyway, we didn’t like a lot of standing around and we wanted to teach on the fly, but after that we really tried to make it a no-huddle practice.”
Orchestrating the practice that never stops until it stops for good is, to borrow one of Spoelstra’s favorite terms, a process. While the staff loves to talk about work, none of them are too keen on talking about how much work anyone does. Still, the preparation involved means beating sunlight to the arena in the morning, loading up on coffee and spending upwards of three hours taking all the good and all the bad from recent games and distilling everything into 45-to-120 — and rarely over 45 this time of year — minutes of thoughts and objectives.
Then, the meeting. Or, more aptly described, the dress rehearsal.
“We have to meet as a staff to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Spoelstra says. “If we don’t meet, it’s one thing to have a plan, but things can go haywire if you’re not organized.”
They go over all the things you might expect a basketball team to cover. Fifteen minutes of shooting. Twenty minutes of 5-on-0, going through offensive situations. Another twenty minutes reviewing pick-and-roll defense. Then there’s the finer points – exactly where staff members are supposed to stand during drills, how many turns a coach is to spend facilitating a drill before rotating out, even exactly how many balls are to be at each hoop at any given time.
“It’s no different than anyone else in a business meeting,” said assistant coach Keith Smart. “When coach puts his practice plan together, this coach is going to be doing this, this coach is going to be doing that. I know that if I’m running a particular station today, I need to be there at a particular time, so that when it’s time to move to that particular station, there’s no waiting. We already have balls in place, we already have the players that we’re going to call into that area. Everything is moving at a game pace.”
The sense you get talking to the coaches is that practices to them are what games are to players. Any brief loss of coordination, a single question someone has to ask about what they are supposed to do or a few seconds wasted grabbing an extra ball off the rack, those are missed shots and turnovers. The coaches prepare every detail to the letter in order to end the day in the win column.
A major part of Spoelstra’s philosophy is to separate what has to be taught on an individual and team level. While a football team has many different specialized players who can be taught in breakout groups during the flow of practice, everyone on a basketball team plays with everyone else. So, the coaches make sure everyone is on the same page before they even open the book. Younger players come in an hour early to get their individual work done, but if Chris Bosh, for example, is going to have to switch up his pick-and-roll coverage the next day against a challenging opponent, a coach will sit down and go over film with him for ten minutes so he knows what to expect prior to group work.
“We have a great session of early pre-practice, with guys doing player development stuff,” said assistant coach Juwan Howard. “That player development work is broken down with film, teaching the guys our culture, and how we defend and how we play offensively, and then when it comes to practice, we all come together and it’s, ‘Let’s bring it in, this is what we got.’”
There’s an absurd series of action movies with Jason Statham titled ‘Crank’. In each film, Statham’s character, Chev Chelios (really), is afflicted with some incurable malady which threatens to end his life unless he can procure an organ transplant. The only thing keeping him alive over the course of each movie is his own adrenaline. Every action scene keeps Statham’s heart going just a little bit longer.
If he stops moving, it’s credits.
Once a Miami practice begins in earnest, there are three subdivisions. First comes team film. The nitty gritty. The highlights and lowlights from what the coaches reviewed in the hours – on flights, on busses, in hotel rooms during sleepless nights – since the last game. They try to condense all the material into half an hour, but if it’s necessary they’ll go long.
“That’s not every day though,” Spoelstra adds. “Those are classroom sessions.”
Once they get to the court, there’s a walkthrough. It might only take a couple of minutes, but if there’s a bullet point the players need to visualize from the film session, this is the time for it. They’re going to be stretching and warming up soon. Once that happens, the train doesn’t stop.
The next 45-to-120 minutes, depending on the time of year, are best described by Udonis Haslem…
“Up and down, fast pace, fast pace, next drill, next drill, water break, next drill, next drill,” he says.
Blink, and it’s over.
Efficient. Precise. Detail-oriented. Those are the core principles of a Spoelstra practice. There are coaches around the league who stop practice in the middle of a drill to unravel a lecture. Once the players are going full speed, some of those coaches will spend 30 minutes or longer talking to their teams while everyone stands and listens. Estimates vary, but on average Spoelstra will only spend 10-15 minutes of a full, two-hour practice teaching. Sometimes, if things are going well, he won’t stop things at all.
“One special quality that coach has is he knows how to keep the guys engaged,” Howard said. “Players’ attention spans, you only get them for a certain amount of time – you have to be sharp and quick with it and keep them engaged. That’s why I’ve been so impressed with Coach Spo.”
The key is finding a balance.
“The challenge is to really be detail oriented and hold guys accountable when they’re trying to do it on the fly,” Spoelstra says.
More often than not, the solution is teaching in the margins. If a player didn’t do something right in the drill, the staff waits for him to come off the court and, while the next group is going, a correction is made.
“What we’re trying to do it utilize the size of our staff to keep the practice moving,” said assistant coach David Fizdale. “When guys step off the court and two other groups are going, we can be coaching those guys as the groups are going. The whole practice doesn’t have to stop.”
But with things moving so fast, a player is never out of a drill for more than a minute. Teaching, like everything on the court, happens on the clock.
“You have to know your stuff and know what you’re teaching,” Fizdale said. “Don’t be out there trying to explain something in two minutes when you can explain it in one sentence.”
While the practices shown to media came during a time of year when coaches can afford to take more time – the HEAT have gone three or four weeks in previous seasons without an off-day practice – during the two sessions in Brazil the coaches only stopped drills two or three times, at the most, to make a specific point. Those stoppages each took less than a minute.
In fact, the only time practice stopped for longer than that was when a veteran player had something to say.
Above all, the reason Miami’s practices work is that the players like them. Sure, they would probably prefer no practice at all on some days, but by keeping as much of a flow as possible, players become active participants. Instead of going through the motions, they’re engaged and doing their own teaching on the fly.
And they know when they’re going home.
“Get in and get out,” Chris Bosh said. “That’s one of the things I love, even when we do practice hard, it’s an hour-fifteen, hour-and-a-half of going hard. I don’t like to get in and stand around and be here for three hours. You can do that, but after a while you’re tuning stuff out. The attention span is only so long.
“You can get what you want done in a shorter amount of time. We’re all grown men and we have our lives outside of basketball. We want to enjoy stuff. I’m sure it’s no different with the coaches.”
If you’ve played an organized sport, you know how a coach talking and talking and talking can kill the mood of a practice. You spend the right amount of time warming up, you get up to full speed, get a good sweat going, and suddenly you’re standing in place for 20 minutes.
Now imagine you aren’t in High School. You’re a 30-year old veteran, maybe with a couple of knee surgeries and definitely with thousands of minutes of games in your past.
How is that standing around going for you now?
“It’s the worst,” says Danny Granger. “You have to get moving again. Nobody wants to stand for 20 minutes and get stiff, and then you get into a drill, then you stop and talk and get stiff. Once you’re playing, you want to play.”
“You never want to stand still,” says Luol Deng.
“Players get warm and then they get cold,” says Howard, veteran of just about every style of coach imaginable. “Guys say, ‘Wow, we’re stiffening up, and you’re sitting here talking for 10-15 minutes and now you want me to go back and run in transition and move quickly and get through the next drill, but then you stop that drill, too’.”
You can’t put any numbers to it, but Bosh believes the constant movement has a long-term effect on winning percentage.
“Sometimes guys will stop practice and start talking and it messes up the whole practice. You can mess up momentum,” Bosh said. “Standing there, then you get stiff, then you don’t have a good practice and you lose the game the next day.”
It’s not quite that simple, though in some cases it probably is for players. Feel good coming out of practice and you’ll have a better chance of feeling good going into the game. But content matters, too, and the way the HEAT practice has a direct correlation with how they play.
Spoelstra doesn’t like to call a ton of set plays in games. His offense, when functioning with a healthy squad and consistent rotation, is of the read-and-react variety. Bring the ball up, hit one or two triggers, and if those don’t produce a good shot then there are plenty of options for players to choose from. If you want your players making split-second decisions on the fly in games, ask them to do it in practice as well.
So when the HEAT practice their offense without a defense, coaches are yelling out coverages on the fly. Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh may initiate a pick-and-roll, but if Spoelstra or Fizdale yells, ‘Blitz’ or ‘Skip Pass’ then Chalmers has to adjust without breaking the flow of the drill.
It’s a conditioning process for building habits.
“All the players I’ve spoken with that have been on multiple teams all say that nobody practices like we do,” says assistant coach Dan Craig. “Even the players that have left that I talk to, they say, ‘Nobody practices like you do.’
“They say, ‘Our games are like your practices.’”
Spoelstra and his staff are careful not to act like they’re reinventing the wheel. The Chip Kelly inspiration may be unique, but in the Age of Efficiency there are surely other coaches in the league trying to get as much as they can out of increasingly shorter and infrequent amounts of time. They just aren’t sharing notes with one another.
There’s no one right way to do things, either. Many of the current HEAT players have had coaches who run longer, slower practices, while others have been closer to Spoelstra’s style. There’s success on both sides of the spectrum. But everyone stays on message in Miami – you don’t stay in the organization long without buy-in – and it’s easy to see the benefits of what they’re preaching. In watching a couple of practices, you share the same sense of awe that Spoelstra had when visiting the University of Oregon. Even if it’s not special, it feels as much when two hours have gone by as quickly as a prime Spielberg.
“Times have changed,” Dwyane Wade said. “He’s evolving with the times of today.”
What comes tomorrow, Spoelstra doesn’t know. But the look on his face when considering the question suggests that he’s going to find out.
All photos courtesy Issac Baldizon