Erik Spoelstra Is Key to Miami Heat Reclaiming Status as Contenders

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Erik Spoelstra Is Key to Miami Heat Reclaiming Status as Contenders
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Of all the fate-forming keys that will invariably shape the Miami Heat's post-LeBron James direction, none are more important than Erik Spoelstra himself.

Rarely are coaches thrust into the limelight like this. Head honchos matter, but players, for the most part, matter more.

Chris Bosh and James didn't join the Heat to play for Spoelstra. They joined the Heat hoping to win NBA championships with Dwyane Wade, forging a dynasty as friends and eventually departing as legends.

Pat Riley was more of a selling point than Spoelstra back then. He still is in some ways. During the early part of the Big Three era, there were those clamoring for his return to the sidelines. 

Coach Spo never held, nor does he hold that appeal. Guiding the Big Three to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two titles has earned him respect—plenty of it—but he remains an inconspicuous, marginal needle-nudging figure when it comes to selling futures.

That can all change now. That all needs to change now.

 

Who Else?

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Although Riley and the Heat pieced together something special, players new and old won't act as the selling points they were in the past.

"I like it here," Bosh said in May, per Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post. "It’s Miami. Everybody wants to come here."

In no uncertain terms is that true now. Miami is a beautiful place. It boasts great weather, sandy beaches, interesting dining options and the air conditioning at AmericanAirlines Arena is reliable. But it's not the same.

When James left, a lotif not mostof Miami's appeal went with him. Players won't flock to the Heat willing to accept substantial pay cuts. At least not as frequently as they once did.

Without James, the Heat don't have that all-world allure. They have Bosh, the proud owner of a cap-constraining max contract and the now-No. 1 option who hasn't assumed such a role since he was with the lottery-denning Toronto Raptors in 2009-10. 

Could he wind up being a valuable sticking point? Perhaps, but the Raptors made the playoffs twice in seven years with Bosh as one of their focal points. He's also fresh off a season during which his transition to third fiddle came full circle, along with his dependence on others to create scoring opportunities for him. More than 80 percent of his made field goals came off assists, per NBA.com.

Wade is no longer the compelling sidekick he was in 2010 either. Eleven years of wear and tear on his knees has left him in decline—one that is often overstated but exists all the same, as Bleacher Report's Tom Sunnergren unearths:

According to Basketball-Reference, Wade has scored fewer points per 100 possessions in each successive season since 2008-09, dipping from 41.8 down to 30.5 last year.

Blocks and free-throw attempts are good indicators of athleticism. Wade averaged 0.5 swats and 4.8 FTAs per outing in 2013-14—the lowest marks he's ever posted. Stats in general are good indicators of value: Wade was comfortably under his career averages in points, steals, blocks, assists, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage in 2013-14. At nearly every component part of basketball, the aging guard was less effective than usual.

Far from worthless, Wade's strongest attribute is his discounted two-year contract and the light at the end of the tunnel it provides. And while that flexibility, along with his recurrent financial sacrifices, are valuable, they aren't close to enough anymore. 

None of the Heat's other additions offer anything more. 

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Riley isn't the selling point he once was anymore, either.

Prospective targets won't pounce at the opportunity to join Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or Udonis Haslem no matter how spectacularly they play. Their success will always be seen as conditional and unreliable. 

Luol Deng, a two-time All-Star, figures to be something more, but he's on a two-year deal that easily turns into a one-year pact at his behest, rendering him a possible flight risk and undefined cog in Miami's newly built machine.

At 69 and fresh off an abrupt annihilation of his historical Big Three, Riley isn't the salesman he was in 2010. He is in the most literal sense, but can he promise future players he'll be around for the next five years? How about four? Three?

Nothing about the Heat's new dynamic is insurmountable, nor should their circumstances even be seen as obstacles. They just increase the importance of Coach Spo, who is now one of Miami's most indispensable building blocks.

 

Spo's Opportunity 

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Pointing to what Spoelstra did with the Big Three is the obvious first part of this process.

Too many people assumed his job would be a cakewalk at the beginning. The Heat had an embarrassment of superstar riches making Spoelstra's job mindless and uncomplicated.

That wasn't even close to true, as we came to see. Balancing the egos of three superstars and distributing minutes to players who accepted pay cuts for shots at a title was no easy task. 

It had to be incredibly difficult. Too much goes into it. And on top of the on-court issues, Spoelstra inherited King James when he was still young, naive and prone to lashing out at the media. That James needed to be coached, as did Wade and Bosh. And they were—by Spo.

Some, like CBS Sports' Matt Moore, even think his job is simpler now:

On one level, Spoelstra's job becomes a lot easier. He loses LeBron James, but he also loses the expectations that come with that kind of team. If the Heat secure a top-four seed and make the second round, it's a good season. If they make the playoffs, it's "mission accomplished." He lost the best player on the planet. As long as they don't crash and burn, they have something to celebrate.

Diminished expectations might make Spo's life easier. Exceeding those expectations makes the Heat's rebuild easier.

Think of what it would mean if Spoelstra went Phil Jackson circa 1993-94. That's the year Michael Jordan pursued a career in baseball. Without him, Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to 55 wins and the Eastern Conference's third-best record. Spoelstra has the chance to do the same.

Thanks to a flurry of movement, the Eastern Conference should be more competitive next year. But the Heat still have an opportunity to be a top-four team because there is no clear favorite.

The Cleveland Cavaliers might be a favorite because they have James. The Chicago Bulls could be a favorite if Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah all stay healthy. The Indiana Pacers may be a favorite if they're able to rebound from last year's late-season disaster without Lance Stephenson.

All these "mights, coulds and mays" amount to opportunity.

Spoelstra and the Heat have the chance to not only remain a playoff team but an Eastern Conference contender. 

 

The Benefits of Proving One's Self Again

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If and when the Heat prove themselves to be a legitimate threat, the best performers will be celebrated for their contributions.

Bosh and Wade will take a bow. Deng will earn himself a fat contract with the Heat or another organization. Riley will enter the running for Executive of the Year.

Coach Spo will have once and for all ended all debate regarding his coaching status.

After losing James, the Heat could sputter. They could regress, digging themselves a hole that takes years—a half-decade or more, even—to climb out of. That's what happened to the Cavs and, ironically, it paid off for them.

That won't happen to the Heat.

James won't reward their ineptitude when he becomes a free agent again. This is all different. The Heat don't have that safety net. They're walking a fine line. If Spo can lead them across that tightrope without stumbling and falling into the depths of temporary oblivion, he reveals himself as a coaching juggernaut and someone who Riley can use as a salient face of the future.

Someone who free agents want to play for.

Someone who makes Miami a place to be.

"He seemed at peace with the decision," Spoelstra told reporters in Las Vegas, per the Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson. "We don't have any regrets. He shouldn't have any regrets. It was a historic four-year run."

Now that run is over, and the Heat have responded accordingly by assembling a worthy, albeit imperfect, substitute for the dynastic team they lost to James' Cleveland roots.

Spoelstra won't make them perfect. He cannot and will not ensure they don't incur some type of hit.

But he can lead the Heat into a steady era that doesn't leave them much worse for wear, enhancing his reputation while making it easier for the Heat to re-establish theirs and put James' departure behind them for good.

 

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