By Elena Bergeron
Stories win elections. Politicians know it; that's why their speeches are loaded with anecdotes about humble beginnings rather than, say, breakdowns on fiscal policy. The NBA's season-ending awards are no different. Rookie of the Year, MVP, Coach of the Year -- all are voted on by sportswriters, a group that has an even greater penchant for narratives than the general populace.
If recent history has shown us anything, it's that the group voting for the year's best coaching performance usually goes to the guy who overachieves with the bare minimum in star power. Last year, George Karl was rewarded for clinching a division without a single All-Star… on top of coming back from throat cancer. Prior to that, Scott Brooks pulled a worst-to-first turnaround in 2010 with the same Oklahoma City roster that had only won a quarter of its games the season before (they added James Harden, who no one knew was a superstar then).
By that reasoning, Chicago's Tom Thibodeau will be this year's COY favorite for having earned a four-seed without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. It'll be a valid choice. But it will also mark another year that Miami's Erik Spoelstra will get overlooked.
In the past three seasons, Spoelstra has worked himself into one of the league's top five coaches, capable of stealing a game or two in a playoff series on the strength of his game-planning alone. That puts him in the same company as standard-setters like Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Thibs. But Spoelstra's story is that he happens to coach the best player in the world, as well as the rest of the supremely talented Big Three. Without a better narrative than that, Spoelstra will always be given short shrift in coaching conversations.
He shouldn't. Karl took home the award last year despite the Heat's 27-win streak and before Spoelstra outcoached Pop in the last two games of the Finals. Funny thing is, the job Spoestra's doing with this year's Heat might be even better.
The degree of difficulty is certainly higher: Miami's been down an All-Star. Not for the entire season, like Chicago, but losing Dwyane Wade intermittently is arguably a tougher obstacle to coach around because Wade's absences are unscheduled. Injuries can sabotage a lineup at anytime, but acute, clearly defined ones usually come with a timetable: Two weeks for an ankle sprain, four to six weeks for a minor bone break, a couple of months for surgery.
Wade's ongoing recovery from knee issues (soreness, bone bruises), hamstring and achilles injuries have forced the team to institute a "maintenance plan" for his usage. Instead of shutting Wade down for a defined stretch, he and Spoelstra declared that they'd take his knee rehab on a game-to-game basis. That means Spoelstra plays an almost daily game of chicken with his lineups. Lately, Wade's played in just two of the team's last twelve outings (in Monday's loss to the Wizards, he was on the floor for 18 minutes).
But Spoelstra's coaching acumen goes beyond pain management. The 2012-13 Heat defense was top five in opponents' field goal percentage. Flash forward to this season: Miami gave up seven losses in 11 games in the middle of March, including road losses to the lotto-bound Celtics and Pelicans. The latter caused Chris Bosh to vent that the Heat's D "couldn't stop a nosebleed," and LeBron James to gripe that he and his teammates weren't "doing anything" on that side of the ball.
Those were the side effects of a rhythm-less Heat team that's undergone serious shifts in the process of finding the right alchemy to win matchups. They're an undersized roster with or without Wade, but their best defensive lineup from last year featured 6-foot-8 Udonis Haslem at center alongside Bosh and James. This season, Haslem appeared in only 26 games in the season's first half because his defense no longer provided enough of an advantage to make up for his lack of scoring. Through mid-February, he was shooting a career low field goal percentage (38.6 percent through Feb. 11) and also giving up boards to bigger players, which led to a plus/minus of -4.6 when he was on the court in limited stretches.
With Haslem's ineffectual play, the Heat's top defensive lineup was out of commission. Wade's sporadic absences have also meant that Spoelstra has been without his most efficient offensive lineup. Miami's offensive A-Team -- the lineup of Battier, Bosh, Chalmers, James and Wade -- was the league's highest-rated offensive group (11.4 points per 100 possessions) in 2012-13, out of five-man lineups who played more than 300 min together. That A-Team buried opponents with their firepower -- and a 97.5 defensive rating.
Spoelstra's recourse has been to squeeze even more out of his Plan B grouping, which swaps in Battier for Wade. That crew played only 91 minutes together last year, total. It's now Spoelstra's second most frequently-used lineup. Pressed into service for the shooters' ability to spread the floor, Plan B is now defending better as a unit than it did last year (103.8 Defensive Rating vs. 107.5 in 12-13).
It's not a smothering measure, but that improvement has been of critical importance. Aside from seeing more floor time, Plan B's ability to get stops covers for the suddenly stumbling offense. Battier famously hit 6 of 8 threes in last year's Game 7 of the NBA Finals and 45 percent from three for the season last year; this year he's cooled to 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. The group's uptick in defense means that despite having gone cold -- and old -- the group's not ceding points when they're on the court (they're still +12.5).
Spoelstra has had to cobble together matchups to win games a possession at a time. And, yet, the rap is that his players make his a glamour job. When observers talk about good coaching, Spoelstra will always suffer in any breakdown, because it's hard for outsiders to tell where LeBron's brilliance or Pat Riley's influence ends and Spo's expertise begins. But guys in the trenches know.
"We talk about it, which teams are coached well," says Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Johnson. "When that happens it's about the respect that players have for their coaches. And then coaches putting them in the right position to succeed. A little bit of both."
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. This year's buzzed-about coaches were players who may have gotten a "been-there too" bump from their players initially -- Jason Kidd in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix. It's a different path for guys who emerge from the video room.
Spoelstra and Indiana's Frank Vogel (who began his career as video coordinator for Rick Pitino's Celtics) are success stories. But remember back at the start of last season, when one-time video coordinator Mike Brown was coaching the Lakers and tried to switch up the offense? Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant repeatedly referred to him derisively in press conferences as "a video guy" before he was let go five games into the season.
If there is a prevailing story about Spoelstra, it's that he's always been a hoops nerd. He famously sold encyclopedias door-to-door to get over his shyness and got ushered into the game as the son of an NBA exec and grandson of a sportswriter. Nerdiness is such a part of his rap that Adidas made geek chic t-shirts in his honor.
There's never been a doubt of Spoelstra's knowledge of the game, but he's generally been perceived as a high-effort opportunist -- not a mystical leader of men. As that narrative went, he got the Heat job because Stan Van Gundy resigned and Pat Riley wanted to stay upstairs. Then, once again, Spo lucked into being in the right place at the right time when Riley pulled together the great free agent haul of 2010. It has been an unfairly easy learning curve. The world's greatest player picked a supporting cast and got reeled in by one of the all-time great basketball minds. All Spo had to do was not screw it up.
The reality is, it wasn't that easy. During that first regular season, LeBron famously bumped his head coach in a tense 2010 game against the Mavericks. Those same Mavs soured the Heat's championship plans seven months later. Wade barked at Spoelstra in the huddle during the Easter Conference semis in 2012.
Spoelstra has had to figure out how to motivate his team authentically. He's had his video guys splice in footage of championship teams from other spots in between normal scouting reports, editing in Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers golden era highlights for the notoriously NFL-fixated Heat locker room. Before last year's playoffs, he had a replica championship trophy mocked up, in black, and had every player autograph it as a testament to the goal they were chasing together.
Now the player-to-coach bumps are a lot more positive.
Before the Heat won their own championship in 2012, Spo studied the Oregon football offense for creative ways to maximize speed in order to confuse opponents. It was another attempt at motivating this team, but the result helped the Heat's undersized roster in the two years since; Spoelstra introduced and then constantly tweaked a series of "blitzes" -- lightning strike attacks the Heat make on passing lanes. In fact, one of the biggest changes to the defense this year has been sending the bigs to blitz ballhandlers less often, meaning that they don't get pulled away from the goal or allow the roll man a clear path to the goal.
That late-season maneuvering has helped earn the team the Eastern Conference's second best record and home court advantage in these playoffs. In the midst of season-long handwringing about injuries, perimeter depth, motivation and defense, Spoelstra has quietly innovated, adjusted and gotten players to execute. Of course, that's not really a story -- it's now an expected outcome. When elite win totals are the goal and that goal is met, coaches don't get awards. They get rings.
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Elena Bergeron writes and edits in New York City. Formerly a staff writer at ESPN The Magazine, she's also written for such titles as Fast Company, Red Bulletin, and The Network Journal and provided basketball commentary for MTV2, Lives with Meredith Vieira and various sports radio affiliates. Bergeron is co-host of the Monosodium Glutamate podcast and remains a lockdown perimeter defender.