Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra is succeeding in a can’t-win job

June 18, 2012

The Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra has virtually no hope of being described as a coaching genius, at least not anytime soon. As Miami takes a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals into Game 4 here Tuesday night, Spoelstra seems to realize there are only two possible outcomes for him: to be largely overlooked in victory or judged a failure in defeat.

Yet Spoelstra, now in his fourth season as Miami’s coach, has quietly, subtly and maybe even artfully manipulated a team that — for all the attention it has gotten for its Big Three stars — started the playoffs with gigantic holes in its lineup and a perceived late-game confidence problem. And then it lost forward Chris Bosh for nine games.

“He’s done a masterful job,” said Hall of Fame Coach Jack Ramsay, now a commentator for ESPN Radio. “This isn’t the best roster in the world. He’s made that work.”

All season, Spoelstra has tangled with the team’s personnel deficiencies at point guard and center, and a bench Ramsay described as lacking. Though the Heat might have the most talented trio in the league in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh, it would also be in the running for the weakest in those other areas.

Spoelstra has “been challenged the last two years by a lot of people, but I think he’s been awesome,” James said. “Two straight Finals appearances, and he’s put us in position to win each and every game. . . . He’s been a great coach.”

Unlike former Heat coach Pat Riley, now team president, Spoelstra has never sought to project the attitude of an all-powerful commander in chief. He freely admits he consults constantly with his one-time mentor, talking so frequently the pair resorts to conversations via text messages. Players say Spoelstra also seeks their input, even on the sideline in the waning seconds of games. If somebody has a gut feeling about a good call, Spoelstra is as likely to go with that as his own.

He encourages “players to voice their opinion on certain situations, either at practice or in a game, no matter what the magnitude of the game is,” James said. “As a player you love that.”

Spoelstra, who climbed from video coordinator to assistant coach during Riley’s tenure as head coach, is no pushover, however. When he doesn’t like something, he will say so, and is generally savvy enough to back it up with visual evidence. Players say he still relies on the tool that earned him the notice and respect of Riley.

“He didn’t play in the NBA; as he puts it, he played in a beer league in Germany for a few years,” forward Shane Battier said. “[But] he comes from a background of video coordinator. It’s called the ‘truth tape’ because it doesn’t lie. He’s done a good job of using tape to teach.”

Added Battier: “It’s a fine line. We all respect him as our coach . . . [but] no team in the NBA is completely obedient. The good coaches in this league have a feel for the players. They are able to adjust and allow input without allowing the inmates to run the asylum.”

Asked about how he’s evolved as a coach, Spoelstra shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really care.”

After starting no fewer than four different players at center in the postseason’s opening three rounds, Spoelstra asked a reluctant Bosh to move into that spot in Games 2 and 3 of the Finals, both victories for Miami.

That left an opening at power forward for the hot-shooting Battier, who started just 10 games during the season but has already matched that in the postseason.

Battier has provided a crucial and surprising boost for Miami, converting 11 of 15 (73.3 percent) three-point attempts in this series while managing to contain bigger players defensively. Mario Chalmers, meantime, has solidified what once seemed a precarious hold on the point guard slot, and the Heat has outperformed its opponent in these playoffs in a number of pressure-packed close games.

Spoelstra’s “adjustments have always been great,” Bosh said, adding: “If we’re at our best when I’m at center, so be it.”

No matter how quietly or inconspicuously Riley lurks in the background, there’s always the sense that Spoelstra’s job could be on the line if the Heat doesn’t win a title this year after falling short in the Finals last year. In 2006, after Stan Van Gundy left early in the season, Riley stepped in and finished the season as coach, winning his seventh NBA title.

Riley, however, has offered nothing but public praise for Spoelstra, who received a three-year extension at the beginning of this season.

“We talk all the time,” Spoelstra said. “All the time. It’s almost as if he’s a member on my staff. . . . Our dialogue is very good.”

There are other things that work in Spoelstra’s favor. Though he uncannily uses the same expressions, philosophical language and types of analysis as Riley, and even stalks the sidelines with the same hands-on-his-hips posture, the similarities end there.

Spoelstra will never call a player out publicly. Wade says he and Spoelstra have grown up together and love each other like brothers. Spoelstra was tasked with helping Wade work on his shot early in his Heat career.

“Me and coach, since I’ve been here . . . he was a guy that was in the gym with me late, making sure that my game was where I wanted it to be,” Wade said. “I’ve enjoyed seeing him grow. . . . Even during games, tough moments, big moments, he’s open to what [we] think.”

Spoelstra and Wade exchanged heated words during Miami’s second-round series against the Indiana Pacers coming out of a timeout, but both have since characterized the exchange as little more than a family squabble.

“It’s just like family members, just like a brother,” Wade said. “We have moments, but we love each other and move on from it. We grow from it.”

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