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Why Erik Spoelstra Is ‘The Real Coach Of The Year’

© Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

How the Miami Heat coach turned a rag-tag team into an exciting postseason hopeful

At this time three seasons ago, the Miami Heat were gearing up for another deep playoff run, which eventually resulted in their fourth consecutive finals appearance. Despite their sustained success, head coach Erik Spoelstra was often overlooked on a team that featured perhaps the most star-studded lineup the association had ever seen. 

This season, Spoelstra is a prime candidate for Coach of the Year, but nobody is talking about his all-star cast. That’s because he doesn’t have one.

Since his time at the helm with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh on the floor, the Heat have undergone a drastic makeover, and adjusting to life without the big three has not come easy for the franchise. After a difficult season following James’ departure in the summer of 2014, they were able to bounce back with an impressive showing in the Eastern Conference semifinals last year before falling in seven games to Toronto. Then, last July, their all-time franchise leader in numerous categories signed a deal with Chicago after a fallout with team president, Pat Riley. 

The roster turnover proved to be trying for Spoelstra. However, this season may have been the one that was most revealing of his expertise.

After beginning 11-30, the team changed course and rattled off 13 straight wins, and secured victories in 21 of their next 25 games. In an era where the final quarter of the season features most sub-.500 teams tanking for potentially higher positions in the draft, the Heat chose to go against this new normality. 

The keys to the team’s unlikely turnaround: getting a variety of players involved on the offensive end, limiting mistakes, and locking down defensively.

Scoring Distribution

Per, Miami led the league with eight players averaging double-digit figures in scoring, with six of them shooting at least 41% from the field. Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic were typically the duo that controlled the floor offensively for a majority of the season. However, Spoelstra’s past experience as the team’s director of scouting from 2001-2008 allows him to develop his role players in order to maximize the potential of his lineups. Pat Riley will be the first to testify regarding Spoelstra’s capability to improve players. “He does love the guys that he’s already developed. We have a developmental program, which he works really hard at improving from within,” says Riley. “His philosophy as coach to me is, ‘Bring them to me and I’ll coach them.’ That’s it. That’s the way it has to be right now.” 

Among the Heat’s prominent role players is guard Tyler Johnson who finished second in points per game for players with no starts this season (13.9 PPG), and forward James Johnson who found himself in a newly-acquired starting role, while also tallying impressive scoring figures despite starting just five games this season (12.8 PPG). 

Read more about the surprising success of the Heat’s Johnson and Johnson combo.

To understand how the Heat have shared the wealth on offense, let’s take a look at how their scoring as a team evolved over the course of the season:

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As the season has progressed, the increase in offensive numbers shows that the team became more comfortable shooting the ball in Spoelstra’s offense. Since January 17, they finished 11th among the league in points per game at 108, despite their lackluster free throw percentage of 73.4%, which ranked 27th. Even more impressive, their 30-11 record over that period was the second-best, only trailing the Golden State Warriors.

Defensive Stronghold

The most fruitful aspect of this Miami team is the clear effort that they gave on the defensive end of the floor. Whiteside’s post presence was a vital part of bringing this team back from life-support. At 7’0” (with a monstrous wingspan of 8’0”), the former D-League standout causes havoc near the rim. His ability to alter shots, and snatch attempts from mid-air is what makes him such a unique player.

Miami’s success in containing opponents was not limited to the prominence of their franchise center, though. The team as a whole had great success on defense. Here’s how their numbers stacked up in comparison to some teams with the best defensive ratings in the league:

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(Numbers represent statistics from January 17 – April 12)

Since Spoelstra’s group turned their season around in mid-January, their defensive numbers were among the league’s best. Their defensive rating ranked third in the association. They were also able to do an excellent job of containing opposing teams in transition. When turning the ball over, on average, they limited their opponents to 13.6 points per game on such possessions, while also leading the league with only 9 fast break points allowed per game. To provide context to these numbers, Miami gave up the 10th-least turnovers on the offensive end, showing that their defensive prowess has been attributed to the ball security displayed on offense. 

Over his nine-year career as a head coach, Spoelstra has successfully transitioned from an offense that featured an emphasis on driving the basketball into the paint and slashing toward the rim to a pick and roll-oriented system that heavily incorporates the ‘drive and kick’. His ability to adapt between different schemes based on personnel is even more of a testament to his incredible coaching skills. His success in motivating his players to hustle on both ends of the floor is the reason that Miami has been characterized as a team that consistently played hard for 48 minutes. 

There are plenty of other candidates who have submitted a strong résumé for Coach of the Year, such as Mike D’Antoni, Brad Stevens, and as always, Gregg Popovich. The difference between Spoelstra and the others, though, is that he has done more with less. The Heat have quality players who can came up big on many nights, but the overall success of this team ran off of the direction provided by Spoelstra. While Miami’s record may not represent that this season was a success, there’s something to be said about a leader who can will his team to make a strong playoff push despite being 19 games below .500.

Despite their win against Washington in their season finale on Wednesday, Miami’s postseason hopes were cut short following wins by Indiana and Chicago. Still, the Heat became the first team in NBA history to ever make it back to .500 after being more than 12 games below. Regardless of the disappointing outcome, their campaign over the second-half of the season was nothing short of remarkable, further catapulting Spoelstra’s status as one of the best minds in the game.

Edited by Brian Kang, Peyten Maki.

How many championships have the Miami Heat won with Erik Spoelstra as part of the organization?
Created 4/13/17
  1. 3
  2. 0
  3. 2
  4. 4
What statistical category did Hassan Whiteside lead the league in during the 2016-17 season?
Created 4/13/17
  1. Points
  2. Rebounds
  3. Turnovers
  4. Blocks

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