Is Erik Spoelstra the Right Coach to Keep LeBron James with Heat Long-Term?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2013

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 3: Head Coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat celebrates with LeBron James #6 in the locker room following their team's series victory against the Indiana Pacers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on June 3, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: Copyright NBAE 2013 (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Maybe the identity of the Miami Heat's head coach won't rate among the top 50 factors LeBron James will weigh if he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2014. But it certainly can't hurt that Erik Spoelstra—the coach with whom James has enjoyed the most career success—is now guaranteed to remain with the team for the foreseeable future.

According to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Spoelstra signed a multi-year extension to remain in Miami, though the Heat haven't yet made an official announcement.

As a preliminary matter, there's no doubt that Spoelstra deserves a little job security. Anyone dismissing his success, or attributing it solely to Miami's considerable on-court talent, is essentially making an argument that coaching doesn't matter.

And while it's certainly true that talent is what wins in the NBA, it's silly to look past the incredibly difficult circumstances in which Spoelstra has thrived. No coach has been under more pressure or faced greater expectations to win in the past three seasons, and Spoelstra has presided over three consecutive runs to the NBA Finals.

Whether or not Spoelstra is a good coach isn't really up for debate anymore.

But there's a surprising amount of doubt about whether he's the best coach to help in the Heat's efforts to retain James.


One of a Kind

Jun 16, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra looks on as small forward LeBron James (6) runs up the court against the San Antonio Spurs during the third quarter of game five in the 2013 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center. Mandatory
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The most powerful point in Spoelstra's favor is that he's the only coach with whom James has won a championship.

LBJ's goals these days are transparent. He wants to finish his career at the top of the mountain.

King James is no dummy; he knows that winding up as the all-time best is going to require another handful of championship rings. Fair or not, his place in history will be measured by hardware. And unless he equals or exceeds Michael Jordan's six championships, the dispute about the greatest player to ever suit up will remain a short one.

It's certainly possible that James could win rings with another coach, but in the 10 season-long experiments that have made up James' career, only Spoelstra has helped him achieve the desired result.

That's an admittedly reductive way to make a case for Spoelstra.

There are a hundred variables that led to James winning rings in Miami. Spoelstra was one factor, but it's hard to argue that James views him as a particularly significant one.

Fortunately, there's something else that lends Spoelstra's case a little extra strength: the specific way he has maximized James' utility.

Every coach for whom James played before getting to Miami responded to adversity by asking him to give more. Paul Silas, Brendan Malone and Mike Brown heaped greater responsibilities on James at every turn, seeking to remedy whatever ailed the Cleveland Cavaliers by increasing James' minutes and putting the ball in his hands as frequently as possible.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 21: LeBron James #23 & Head Coach Mike Brown of the Cleveland Cavaliers look down the court during game against the Philadelphia 76ers on November 21, 2009 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
David Dow/Getty Images

There never seemed to be a plan that went beyond relying on James to make everyone better.

Spoelstra, on the other hand, has given James a system that maximizes his talent and doesn't require him to take or create every single shot on offense. James' minutes and field-goal attempts have decreased in Miami, but his productivity has spiked.

Maybe some of that has to do with James' own personal maturation or his willingness to be coached. But even if that's true, doesn't Spoelstra get a little credit for helping James realize that he didn't have to do it all?

Whatever the case, Spoelstra has managed to get more out of James by critically determining the types of schemes and personnel groupings that make things less difficult on his superstar. James is still the unquestioned focal point of his team, but he's no longer dribbling the ball around the perimeter while three defenders chase him.

Spoelstra has installed a more sensible system that makes life easier for his best player.

James also has to respect the gutsy way Spoelstra scrapped the Heat's use of a conventional center after losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. It was a bold decision, but one that Spoelstra believed would put James in a position to excel.

I think we can all agree that the experiment of frequently using James as a power forward has worked out pretty well.


Lingering Doubts

MIAMI - OCTOBER 12:  Forward LeBron James #6 and head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat on the bench during a game against CSKA Moskow on October 12, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Marc Serota/Getty Images

The case that Spoelstra isn't the coach best-suited to keeping James in Miami is tough to make, especially because it's difficult to come up with an alternative who would be more attractive to LBJ. And really, the arguments would have to be generic, since Spoelstra hasn't done anything to deserve major criticism in his tenure as coach.

Perhaps there's a case to be made that Spoelstra's not a coach players would go out of their way to play for.

According to a 2012 Sports Illustrated survey, Spoelstra wasn't listed among the top five coaches players wanted to work under. Maybe James is among them.

Sure, the Heat have hauled in veteran free agents at a discount in recent years, but the team's ability to attract the Ray Allens and Shane Battiers of the world probably has much more to do with James' presence on the roster than it does with Spoelstra's spot on the bench.

In that sense, at least, it's possible to argue that Spoelstra isn't all that important to the Heat's success. But that's still not really an argument against him.

I suppose there's also a lingering sentiment around the league that players have greater respect for coaches who actually once ran up and down the hardwood at the NBA level. The absurdity of that way of thinking is a subject too vast to tackle here. The point, though, is that Spoelstra's years as a video coordinator and an assistant coach might not be a resume James respects.

After all, it's hard to imagine a coach with actual NBA playing experience being treated like this:

Or this:


The Best Available Option

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21:  Head Coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat celebrate in the locker room after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals to win the NBA Championship at American Airlines Arena on
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Countless factors are going to come into play when James makes a decision about his future in Miami.

Unfortunately for the Heat, only a few of them are under their control.

Miami can't stop the deterioration in Dwyane Wade's knees, and it can't reduce the appeal of other big-market teams. Most of all, the Heat can't stop James from his almost certain exercise of the early-termination option in his contract.

But they can control who coaches the team, and keeping Spoelstra around is probably one of the best moves the Heat can make in their effort to keep James happy. If the roster falls apart or it appears that James will be able to find a new superteam elsewhere, it may not matter much in the end.

James should want to play for Spoelstra. He's the coach who has made things easier for James. He's been with him during the most successful years of his career.

At the same time, LBJ might want to leave the Heat for any number of other reasons.

It may not sound like much of an endorsement, but of the limited things the Heat can control in their pursuit of James, retaining Spoelstra is the best option they have.


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