How Erik Spoelstra Saved the Miami Heat from a Lost Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 17, 2017

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 10: Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat during the game against the Chicago Bulls at American Airlines Arena on November 10, 2016 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. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

MIAMI — The demarcation line for the 2016-17 Miami Heat was as unlikely as the turnaround that followed.

They embarked on a daunting six-game road trip in early January with their season already on life support. Their 1-5 performance away from home and anemic 11-30 record overall upon return loudly suggested it was time to pull the plug.

Somehow, that's when everything fell into place.

"We just looked ourselves in the mirror and said, 'We gotta wake up. We gotta play better,'" Hassan Whiteside told Bleacher Report. "That's what we did."

The Heat are loath to talk keys to their logic-defying recovery. That's partly because the secret ingredients aren't secretive at all—health and improved shooting have largely transformed the once-struggling system into a hyper-powered attack. There's also a hesitance to address results of any kind, because head coach Erik Spoelstra wants all focus on the process regardless of the outcome.

But those post-road trip practices are among the few exceptions. The energy and intensity expended during those season-saving sessions powered the most remarkable run of this NBA campaign.

"It's like the Finals in our practices, we're just going so hard at each other," Whiteside said. "I think that's when we became a family."

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 4: Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat gets introduced before the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 4, 2017 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

Familial feelings weren't supposed to be possible this season. Not with a host of new faces on the roster and the leadership void created by Chris Bosh's absence. Not with so many rotation players working on short-term contracts.

"Usually those are teams that everybody wants to show how good they are," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "They don't care about the team."

Unless they play in Miami under Spoelstra, in which case they build bonds beyond basketball that create the ultimate on-court chemistry.

"Spo is one of the best coaches I've ever played for," Rodney McGruder said. "How he's in tune with us on and off the court, that's what makes a coach great. Asking how you're doing, the little things in life that players really appreciate."

That builds a foundation of trust upon which Spoelstra can do some Coach of the Year-quality leading. Plastic surgeons don't make changes this dramatic.

And yet, Spo's genius shines through the subtleties.

Philosophically, Miami is playing the same game it has all season. But slight tweaks have allowed the Heat to rocket from 29th to sixth in offensive efficiency.

The Heat are leaning heavier on Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters to drive the offense. The workloads aren't dramatically different—from 28.8 combined field-goal attempts per game to 30.5; 54.9 usage percentage together, up from 51.0—but it has made Miami's primary offensive objective clearer.

"We understand what our game is and what our strengths are and that is to be an aggressive attacking team," Spoelstra said.

Having both Dragic and Waiters as live-ball threats—and, of equal importance, capable off-ball contributors—has proved mutually beneficial. Waiters has converted 46.3 percent from the field and 44.5 percent outside during this run. Dragic has become even more efficient than he was as an All-NBA third-teamer in 2013-14, hitting 52.7 percent overall and 46.2 percent from distance.

"It's tough, you just got to pick your poison," Waiters said. "If G got it going, I get the hell out of his way."

Keeping those two in constant-attack mode has pulled defenders away from the perimeter. As a result, the Heat are getting almost two additional three-point attempts with at least four feet of space (22.5) than they did during the first half (20.8). That's part of the reason Miami moved from 23rd in threes (8.6 per game) and 28th in percentage (33.7) to fifth (11.8) and first (40.6), respectively, in the second half.

"If you don't have attackers that command the respect of a team to bring a second defender, well the three-point shooting isn't going to be open," Spoelstra said.

That the Heat can carry this style over to their second team only increases its potency.

Tyler Johnson and James Johnson bring the same aggressive mentality and playmaking ability. Together, their assists are up nearly two per game in the second half (7.9 from 6.1). It probably doesn't hurt that Wayne Ellington and Luke Babbitt found the three-point flamethrowers both were expected to carry throughout the season (combined 44.4 percent during this stretch).

"Everything's better—better shots, better spacing," Dragic said. "We feel comfortable now. We know what we need to do on offense."

That direction has paid major dividends late in games.

The Heat played most teams close during the first half, but they continually faltered down the stretch. They entered clutch situations—final five minutes, scoring margin of five or fewer—23 times and lost 15 of those contests. Being outscored by 19.2 points per 100 possessions can have that effect.

But during this run, Miami is 10-4 upon entering the clutch with a plus-20.9 net rating (third overall). Spoelstra, operating without a go-to option for the first time in his career, has taken a hot-hand approach to late-game possessions. A big part of that has been believing the "irrational" confidence of Waiters would pay off, and it already has several times over.

What they aren't doing as much is playing through Whiteside, their $98 million man in the middle. He's getting two fewer shots a night than the first half (from 13.3 to 11.3) and slipped to fourth in usage percentage.

But the rest of his numbers have held steady, which is yet another win for Spoelstra. Right or not, Whiteside has the reputation of being a stats guy. His recent play might change that.

"You get all those numbers to win," Whiteside said. "As long as we get the winning result, that's all I care about."

That mentality starts with Spoelstra, who constantly preaches about the importance of sharing the game and sharing one another's success. And lately, that same message is being relayed by his players.

"You never know where it's going to come from," James Johnson said. "As long as we're moving the ball and being happy for that guy who's on that night—be happy for him, keep feeding him, keep going through him—we're going to be a tough team to beat."

Miami also wears on opponents with superior conditioning.

The Heat have almost a militaristic approach toward getting into what they call primal shape. That allows their offense to perpetually feature snipers racing around screens, slashers streaking to the basket and bigs running to the rim.

"You aren't going to see any fat boys over here," Whiteside said. "We all got beach bodies."

This isn't basketball rocket science. The Heat are playing to their roster's strengths (and spawning several career years by doing so), fully committing to common goals at both ends and making sure they leave nothing to chance by getting in peak physical condition.

There's even some good fortune happening in areas beyond Spoelstra's control.

Waiters and Ellington each missed 20 games in the first half, and their absences hurt much more than anyone realized at the time. On the other side, injuries to Justise Winslow and Josh McRoberts and the release of Derrick Williams helped Spoelstra build a consistent, comfortable rotation.

The Heat have gone from being high-lottery locks to the team no one wants to face in the postseason.

This isn't a fun, fiery stretch anymore. It's a full-on metamorphosis. For the last two months, they have the NBA's most wins and the Eastern Conference's highest net efficiency rating.

"Erik's done a great job of getting those guys to play to their strengths and implementing a system that really works for them," Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Certainly, in my's the best coaching job that's gone on this year."    

All quotes obtained firsthand. Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from or and accurate through March 15.

Zach Buckley covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.


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