SALT LAKE CITY—When the public thinks of strong coaches, it is prone to picture screamers, browbeaters, my-way-or-no-way sideline-stalkers.
Yet there also can be strength—and success—in letting go.
Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly shown he has a firm grasp on that critical concept.
The Heat coach has progressively reduced practice time over the course of the past four years—drastically when compared to the maniacal approach of his mentor, Pat Riley. And he has increasingly acknowledged his players’ opinions, which is in line with his oft-stated philosophy that roughly 75 percent of modern NBA coaching is about managing personalities.
His willingness to listen has been evident again in the past week, and it’s one reason that his squad has found its form again, winning three straight entering Saturday’s scrap with the Utah Jazz.
Since James revealed publicly that he wanted to play more minutes, he’s played an average of 40.1 minutes in the past four games, raising his season average from 36.9 to 37.2. And since Wade spoke of being just a “setup man” in the offense, Spoelstra has met with him, designing a different offensive package for him, one that has allowed the 10-time All-Star to operate more with the ball at the center of the floor, especially when he’s leading the second unit. Spoelstra has done this frequently over the past three years whenever Wade has openly struggled with an altered role, and it's worked again—Wade has shot 28-for-42 in the past three games.
And if the Jazz pull a Saturday surprise and push the Heat to the brink, don’t be surprised if Spoelstra continues another trend, one that played out most prominently in Portland in late December. That’s where James was out of action due to a sore groin and Wade was out of rhythm. That’s where Spoelstra drew up a play for Chris Bosh to attempt a game-tying two-pointer. That’s where Bosh told Spoelstra he wanted more, quickly convincing the coach to let him fire from a few feet deeper.
That’s where Bosh’s buzzer-beater gave the Heat what is still their most satisfying win of the season.
That’s where Spoelstra illustrated again that he’s unusually in tune with his players, which also means he’s unusually in tune with the times.
Late in tight games, most coaches tend to tighten the grip.
“You get some guys, ‘Hey, this is gonna run, we’re gonna do it my way, and that’s it,’” Bosh said. “It makes it a lot more difficult to be in. But being a veteran with a lot of other veteran players on a championship level team, it’s catered for us.”
Spoelstra didn’t always take an inclusive approach, not in his first two seasons as a Heat coach (2008-09 and 2009-10) and not even at the start of the so-called “Big Three” era in the fall of 2010.
“When we first put this team together, we needed to have structure and everybody on the same plan, without a lot of noise,” Spoelstra said. “Initially, you just want everybody on the same page, the huddle to be coherent. Sometimes the quickest way to do that is to have one voice with it. But with this team, it’s certainly evolved, and they see things, but they’ve been in so many situations that it only makes sense for all of us to be able to do it. It evolves with the comfort level and trust with your team, back and forth. That takes time.”
Of the current players, Wade and Udonis Haslem have been with Spoelstra for the longest period of time.
“It was different before the Big Three,” Wade said. “I mean, it was more so, 'Just give me the ball, iso, and I’ll shoot a shot and hopefully it will go in.' It’s a little different now.”
When reminded of the Bosh play in Portland, Wade said, “That’s the growth in (Spoelstra). He probably wouldn’t have done that a few years ago. He’s become very flexible, especially in those moments. He has. And it’s the kind of team he has, where he can trust guys.”
So how often does it happen, where Spoelstra alters a plan on a suggestion?
“A lot,” Wade said.
“All the time,” Bosh said. “Yeah, all the time. He gives us that freedom if it makes sense. He trusts our intelligence as basketball players.”
“I mean, it happens,” Spoelstra said. “It happens all the time, where guys say, ‘I saw this. Well, what about that?’ Well, okay. Adjust it.”
And how does it work?
“Sometimes I’ll ask,” Spoelstra said, "'What did you guys see on that one?' Or, 'I think we can get this, do you see that?' And they’ll say, ‘No, I don’t see that, let’s go back to the one we ran before.’”
Wade confirmed that these conversations occur, with Spoelstra sometimes asking for suggestions before the play is drawn, and sometimes after. “He’ll say, ‘What y’all want to do?’” Wade said. “He knows we need to be comfortable with it.”
And contrary to what you might think, Heat players aren’t always promoting themselves. “It’s more so calling someone else’s number,” Wade said. He recalled last season's March 6 win against the Orlando Magic, when Spoelstra originally chose him to initiate the action. Wade told Spoelstra to assign the play to James, who accepted and then drove for the game-winning layup.
“It’s not always about, ‘Ooh, I want the ball,’” Wade said. “Of course you do. But sometimes you go off matchups, sometimes you go off how much time is on the clock and what a guy can pull off.”
In those cases, Spoelstra allows himself to be pulled in a different direction.
“If he has something, then we go with it,” James said. “If we feel like we’ve seen something out on the floor, he allows us to go with it as well. There’s definitely growth in the relationship since we got here. We trust him, he trusts us.”
Sometimes, there’s little speech involved.
“If you’ve been around each other a long time, it can be shorthand, talking in fragments, and everybody knows what you’re talking about,” Spoelstra said. “As we’ve gotten so much more experience together, it’s more of a flow. It’s hard to explain.”
He does explain one aspect quite clearly, however.
“I won’t necessarily always agree, and vice versa,” Spoelstra said. “I may see something, they don’t necessarily agree. But whatever we decide, when we leave the huddle or practice or shootaround or a film session, we’re all on the same page. “
Again, all of this has been a process.
It hasn’t been perfect, and it won’t always be, because basketball never is.
“We’ve been in situations in the past, where we’ve both made mistakes in trying to audible, and it just created confusion,” Bosh said. “Yeah, it was a bit chaotic at first. I mean, it happened. But I mean, it was just like, 'Ooooo!' You know, it was just a bunch of noise. But we’ve gotten to the point, and that’s through trial and error, where we can explain what we want to do. We can make suggestions, bounce ideas off in a short amount of time, and everybody knows their place, knows their role and can take suggestions quite easily. We’re able to work out, get a play drawn up, and everybody knows what they’re doing.”
Everybody starts to know his own place.
Does Bosh hesitate before interjecting?
“No, I just say something,” Bosh said. “You play so much basketball, you can kind of forecast some things, and you know what’s gonna happen…it’s kind of like a superpower, I guess, because you kind of just see something. And you put yourself in a situation, it’s like, 'No, that’s not gonna work, because this is what’s gonna happen. And I need this to happen. So why don’t we do this?' I don’t explain all of that. But it’s like, 'Hey, let’s do this.'”
Shane Battier contends that Spoelstra likes “a certain amount of chaos,” which the veteran swingman believes is "good for our team," so it can learn to deal with different, stressful situations. But he also claims that he doesn’t contribute often to that chaos.
When does he speak up?
“I wouldn’t say regularly,” Battier said, laughing. “Not too often. If your name is Wade, James or Bosh, I think you have that freedom.”
Wade, through a laugh, called that “bull-,” well, "bleep."
“They got green lights around here, too,” Wade said.
Apparently, that’s true even when they’re ailing. Recently, when Mario Chalmers was sidelined, he offered his own play-call suggestion. He saw an opportunity to get Ray Allen open with a floppy set.
“It actually worked,” Chalmers said. “Spo looked at me and gave me a wink.”
Not every suggestion gets the nod, as Bosh admitted. But one of James’ suggestions definitely did. That came with the Heat down three against the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 23.
“I changed the play and Ray got fouled on the three,” James said. “It went into overtime and we won.”
Perhaps that won James a little more license to correct his coach.
Still, even he, the sport’s brightest star and strongest personality, has been careful not to overreach.
“I know when I can test Spo,” a smiling James said, “and when not to.”
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