Six years removed from four straight Finals trips, two celebratory visits to the White House, and as much internal and external pressure as any basketball team ever assembled, Erik Spoelstra has yet another opportunity to coach a world champion. The difference between then and now is that with LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, Spoelstra always had the most talent on his side. It was a lose-lose for him: Win and it’s because of the players; fail and it’s because he wasn’t up for the challenge.
But this year, literally no one expected the Miami Heat to be back at the mountaintop—on the first day of the playoffs and the last day of the preseason, they were given a 2% chance to crack the Finals. Yet here they are. For Spoelstra, it’s one of the most impressive coaching feats in recent history, and cements him as not only the most composed and assured basketball coach in the world, but also the only one who can reasonably be viewed as the face of an NBA franchise, outside of Gregg Popovich.
In the past 50 years, only three coaches have appeared in more Finals than Spoelstra’s five: Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Pop. That’s it. In this run, he leapt past Riley in career playoff win percentage and the Dream Team’s Chuck Daly in playoff wins. Spoelstra has four more victories in this postseason than he did in the previous five years combined, but that disappointment had more to do with the bloated, unnecessarily expensive roster sewn together on the fly by Riley after James left than Spoelstra’s coaching acumen.
Miami’s current roster is more reflective of the gritty, complementary, trusting groups they strive to have, with key players who are young enough—Bam Adebayo (23) and Tyler Herro (20) will earn little more than half of what Andre Iguodala is due next season—to form a nucleus that can ensure prosperity for the foreseeable future.
This is Candyland for a coach whose self-described professional motivation is to shepherd incremental growth. After the Big 3 era came to a screeching halt, Spoelstra reflected on his own purpose in the NBA. The conclusion is critical to understanding why this Heat team made the Finals: “I really connected with this idea that my purpose was just to serve and help guys like Duncan [Robinson] achieve their dreams and to be able to help our organization develop teams and a culture that we believe in,” he said recently.
Spoelstra embodies that selflessly competitive ethos better than any other coach, in a league brimming with extremely capable strategists. In Miami, his personality is a tone-setter. And with that comes respect at all levels in the organization and unilateral commitment by all to do their job, even as it evolves every day. When he landed with the Heat 25 years ago, Spoelstra started out as a video coordinator. But that title didn’t accurately describe his myriad responsibilities, which included but were not limited to fetching dry cleaning and making sandwich runs for the staff. He’s been with the Heat just seven fewer seasons than the 71-year-old Popovich has been in San Antonio; the Spurs first hired Pop as an assistant coach when he was nine years younger than Spoelstra is today.
That longevity is unique in a league that churns through head coaches and prioritizes players. The 49-year-old Spoelstra saw the seeds of the Player Empowerment era get planted in his backyard, and as they sprouted, no coach benefited and suffered more. Nearly a decade later, he’s arguably the most important nonplayer in the entire league: resilient, everlasting, respected, and willfully egoless, with full understanding that his job status will always be (at least) as firm as any players beneath him. It took a quarter of a century, but Miami is officially Spoelstra’s town.
Riley’s shadow is almost all-consuming, but Spoelstra has managed to shed it while still carrying the same timeless principles instilled by the Hall of Famer in Los Angeles, New York City, and then South Beach: the best-conditioned, hardest-working, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked team in the NBA. The Heat practice hard and often, even if they aren’t Riley practices—once an all-day slog that was designed to weed out the weak and make the strong invulnerable.
But they still have the league’s most notorious conditioning test. They weigh their players, measure body fat, and are as meticulous as any other organization at rummaging through the dustbin for overlooked prospects who fit with their own core values. Spoelstra molds it all together into a cohesive and distinctive brand of basketball that manifests on both ends. Miami is second in the playoffs in both deflections and loose balls recovered per 48 minutes. They hustle and move, averaging more collective miles on offense per game than any other playoff team except the Orlando Magic, who only played five games. (The Heat’s average miles per hour was second only to Orlando in Round 1, but has since outpaced every team.)
With that foundation underneath his feet, Spoelstra doesn’t just tinker around the margins of who plays and for how long: He violently shakes the snow globe. Few coaches have the credibility to disrupt a rotation and know the decision won’t lead to a disgruntled locker room. This applies to Spoelstra’s decision to bench his starting center, Meyers Leonard, at the season’s restart, piling even more food onto Bam Adebayo’s plate. It’s also why he was able to move one of the NBA’s proudest players, Goran Dragic, to the pine before this season began and start an undrafted 25-year-old rookie in his place—said rookie, Kendrick Nunn, was the runner-up for Rookie of the Year and launched more shots this season than anybody else. But in the bubble, Nunn’s role was slashed and Dragic was promoted into the starting lineup. The team’s health is the constant priority.
Spoelstra is also the only coach who, with a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, could sub minimally used Solomon Hill in after playing him a grand total of zero minutes in the postseason’s first 12 games, and not be second-guessed. One measure of greatness in coaching is an authority earned with authenticity that instills blind confidence in whoever’s watching or following along. Spoelstra has reached that nirvana. The word inertia probably makes him vomit in his mouth. Change is constant, and being prepared for its inevitability is essential. “When you subscribe to a growth mind-set, you challenge yourself to do things differently, and you actually produce a drug in your brain that allows you to work more creatively. That’s when you’re most alive,” Spoelstra told Sports Illustrated six years ago.
All this applies to X’s and O’s too, where Spoelstra’s schematic boldness is second to none. He couldn't care less about how every other team is playing. All he wants is a style that can maximize his own group, whether that means turning his center into a point guard and letting him initiate offense or telling his max-contract free-agent signing to set screens, attack the glass, and guard the opponent’s top scoring threat. Miami generates a comically high 129.55 points per 100 possessions on plays after a timeout.
Three years ago, zone defense was sparse in the NBA, typically deployed as a last-ditch effort of frustration and desperation. Today, Miami’s zone is the backbone of their playoff run. It wasn’t implemented overnight either. Out of necessity, the Heat ran it more last season than any other team. The same thing happened this year, except it became more of a weapon that would chop up the opponent’s rhythm and force Miami’s own defenders to lock in, communicate, and work as one. (Spoelstra is a fastidious note-taker, and once jotted down an inspirational sentence to his team: “All of you are good, but all of you together is overwhelming.” That idea is personified in the zone.)
The Heat work together because they have to. They’re the only team in these playoffs that average at least 300 passes per game. Equally notable: While most teams have seen their passes drop from the regular season, Miami’s have increased. They’re also one of only a few playoff teams that end a higher percentage of their possessions with a cut rather than an isolation. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Trust goes a long way when you're trying to build a network of intertwined egos and desires, some in direct competition with each other. No coach balances those needs with the team’s better than Spoelstra, whose life is one of adaptation: He’s as much a motivational speaker, philosopher, and psychologist as he is a basketball coach, constantly connecting, poking, and pushing players to not just be the best version of themselves, but to search for something more. As with Popovich and Riley before him, Spoelstra’s words fill whatever space they’re uttered in with gravitas and meaning. That’s why Adebayo is an All-Star and one of the three or four centers in basketball who demand the label “untradable.”
Unlike Pop in small-market San Antonio, Spoelstra has the benefit of working in a desirable free-agent destination. The Heat won’t be above courting Giannis Antetokounmpo once he becomes a free agent next summer, and if they get him, Spoelstra will adjust his game plan once again around a megastar. But the team he’s currently leading is a showcase for the value of a leader who preaches accountability, sacrifice, and discipline. Spoelstra’s daily influence has helped shape a team with no players who made first- or second-team All-NBA into NBA finalists. Things have come full circle: Miami started player empowerment, and now they defy it. Spoelstra is the hands-on common denominator.
The Heat are always altering themselves, constantly growing with the same people in their respective roles. None is more critical than Spoelstra, the calming guide who’s chartered this franchise through turbulence and glory with a steadfast consistency few others could ever emulate. Right now, he’s the last of a dying breed, even as his career feels like it’s about to reach another gear.
Originally Appeared on GQ