It’s often the nature of truly well-run organizations, be it in sports or elsewhere, that the loss of one transcendent talent merely means anointing the next in line.
History is certain to view the Heat’s last two titles in light of LeBron’s basketball genius, how he time and again employed a singular talent for something larger than his own legacy.
What many will forget, though, is how Spoelstra—scrambling for answers in the wake of its 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks—took it upon himself to reimagine Miami’s entire offensive mindset.
With a little help from a college football team.
In December 2012, ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh relayed the story of how, during an impromptu visit to the University of Oregon the previous summer, Spoelstra experienced the first philosophical pangs of what would become the Heat’s vaunted “pace and space” attack:
Spoelstra and [Heat president Pat] Riley understood that a change of philosophy was in order. So they drew up a game plan. They'd sell the players and potential free agents on an offense built on a foundation similar to Riley's ‘Showtime.’ Once the lockout ended, the Heat added to their fleet of versatile wings by signing free agent Shane Battier as part of the team's vision to load up on players who could render positional lines obsolete.
With an up-tempo vision in place and a roster filled with players who could fill any of the positions from 1 to 4, the Heat want to be unconventional and deploy lineups that may not have a traditional center. Everything began to come into place.
Nearly three years on, Spoelstra’s strategic epiphany—midwifed to optimal devastation by James and his cohorts—has yielded three more trips to the Finals, including a pair of championships in 2012 and 2013.
The loss of James might seem a certain death rattle for Miami’s status as perennial contender. Unless, of course, Spoelstra can use the lemons left in LeBron’s wake to mix up something similarly sweet.
Luckily for the Heat, Spoelstra doesn’t have to peer back very far to find an encouraging facsimile for his team’s near-future fate.
Heading into the 1993-94 season, few believed the Chicago Bulls—abandoned as they’d been by the sudden retirement of Michael Jordan—could possibly vie for a fourth consecutive title.
Few doubted the Bulls were good enough to make the playoffs. But it took Phil Jackson to instill in his team a more steely belief.
Fifty-five regular-season wins later, Jackson’s status as a top-tier coach had been all but cast in gold, all the while wielding a full-time starting lineup of Scottie Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and—playing the unfortunate role of Air’s heir—Pete Myers.
“Coach Spo” has a ways to go before he outruns Jackson’s Himalayan shadow. Still, the situational comparison is one well worth making. Or it will be when Miami blazes a Bulls-like path back to the playoffs.
To do so, Spoelstra, much like Jackson before him, must instill in his new-look charges a solid sense that, despite losing its most important cog, the Miami machine is still more than capable of making headway.
Even before James’ prodigal departure, Riley, in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, expressed palpable optimism in Spoelstra’s philosophical flexibility, saying “He'll reinvent himself in some way, shape or form to make this team better."
Except, perhaps, in the way that matters most: collaboratively.
Writing at Sports On Earth, Elena Bergeron underscored the delicate balance coaches like Spoelstra—who must inevitably make up for a lack of playing pedigree with serious diplomatic delicacy—are forced to strike:
There's a respect for coaches who tinker well, like Spoelstra has done, because the roadmap for putting together successful stretches changes depending on who's hot and who's struggling. The mark of a good coach in today's NBA is getting players to buy into experiments -- and having those experiments pay off.
What is obvious is that, in his time as head coach, Spoelstra has engendered respect that's harder to come by for a guy who wasn't a pro himself.
Staying simpatico with your subordinates might be the safest way of assuring one’s job security. Eventually, however, those around you will demand you demonstrate something resembling a tangible plan.
On this front, Spoelstra’s star couldn’t be more pulsing.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve played for unbelievable Hall-of-Fame coaches from Hubie Brown to Jeff Van Gundy to Mike Krzyzewski,” Shane Battier told Basketball Insiders’ Moke Hamilton in a recent interview. “Erik Spoelstra will be a Hall-of-Fame coach someday, too. I think his strength is that he really thinks about the game.”
Three years ago, Heat fans the world over were calling for Erik Spoelstra’s head, convinced, it seemed, the team’s loss to Dallas was a boondoggle of his doing alone. This after speculation months earlier pointing to an imminent coup by Riley, had the Heat not righted the regular-season ship, per Sean Deveney of the Sporting News.
Now, he’s become the single-most important factor to Miami building a bridge between different championship eras, just as it had to following the Heat’s first title in 2006.
Back then it was Riley—fresh off a disastrous 15-win season just two years after guiding the Heat to their first-ever championship—who was looking to pass along the baton. His choice: a 38-year-old former video coordinator and longtime assistant who’d never held a single head coaching job.
Two banners and six consecutive postseason appearances later, it’s clear that Riley saw, and very much still sees, something special in Erik Spoelstra.
Now it’s time for everyone else to follow suit.