Erik Spoelstra and a winning pursuit

Originally Published: June 5, 2014
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Erik Spoelstra needs a thing. You know, a thing. His thing, a signature move, so to speak.

Red Auerbach smoked his cigars on the bench. Pat Riley wore his stylish attire (I mean, the guy had a collar named after him.) Phil Jackson waved his incense and passed out books.

What is it, exactly, that Erik Spoelstra does?

How about this: He wins.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsHeat coach Erik Spoelstra looks to lead Miami to a three-peat in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Among NBA coaches with 20 or more playoff games, Spoelstra's winning percentage of .660 (62-32) is second only to Jackson's .688.

At some point, he'll have to get credit for it. If the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs four times over the next couple of weeks, it becomes unavoidable. The list of NBA coaches who have won three consecutive championships would be this quartet: Auerbach, Jackson, John Kundla and Spoelstra.

Maybe that's what it would take for Spoelstra to go from being a coach to being known as, you know, Coach.

It doesn't help that he's so youthful looking that you probably don't believe it when you read that he's 43 years old. Oh, and that nickname. When LeBron James lauded him with a "Big-time coaching, Spo" during a first-round playoff game, it sounded equal parts complimentary and dismissive. "Spo" is the name of someone you might send running back to the locker room to fetch your mouthpiece, not someone who draws up game-winning plays in the huddle.

Hmm. Perhaps he needs more footage of him in "action." The crowning (to this point) moment of this Miami Heat run is Ray Allen's 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals -- an off-the-cuff play, a big rebound by Chris Bosh and an alert pass to history's greatest 3-point shooter in the corner. We don't have a YouTube clip of Spoelstra saying, "Do this!" and it paying off. Spoelstra doesn't have the equivalent of legendary NFL Films narrator John Facenda setting up Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram's "65 Toss Power Trap" call in Super Bowl IV, which helped elevate Stram's status.

Spoelstra's greatness requires us to think on our own. You'll note that he had the right combination of players on the court for Allen's shot, a lineup that forced the bad decision by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to keep Tim Duncan on the bench for that play, perhaps costing the Spurs their best chance at grabbing the rebound that went to Bosh.

And if you go back through this Heat team's first championship run in 2012, you'll see that Spoelstra changed his approach on the fly in the playoffs, orienting the offense around LeBron in the post, passing out to 3-point shooters. The Heat went from shooting 16 3-pointers per game during the regular season to shooting more than 20 per game in the playoffs, which culminated with a 14-for-26 3-point explosion in the title-clinching Game 5 of the Finals.

Spoelstra's coaching style is as contemporary as they get, embracing the "positionless" revolution. Yet he's old school enough to understand that sometimes egos come before numbers.

He saw the data and the flow of play during last season's NBA Finals. He knew, statistically, the Heat were worse off when Wade was on the court. He even had a subliminal endorsement for sitting Wade from LeBron, who gave the media his preferred list of teammates for his "space the floor" lineup and didn't include Wade.

But you can't alienate your second-best player in the middle of the Finals. Spoelstra needed to find a blend of functional and practical, and he very nearly hit the sweet spot. Wade played 36 minutes per game, averaging 19.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists in the series. He stayed connected. He scored five points in the final seven minutes of Game 7.

This season, he adhered to Wade's "maintenance program," didn't put unnecessary strain on Wade's creaky knees and sacrificed a shot at the league's best record in order to have a fresher star for the playoff run.

Spoelstra knew finding motivation in the midst of the regular-season drudgery is the biggest challenge for a team that's grown accustomed to the adrenaline rush of playing in June, yet he didn't drive them into the ground in a vain attempt to keep them sharp.

He trusted LeBron's competitive level to keep the Heat engaged in enough games throughout the season. He asked his players to "trust in the process" -- one of the many mantras he repeats over the course of the season -- and they repaid him. A coach is only as effective as his players' willingness to buy into him, and the Heat have willingly opened their checkbooks for Spoelstra. Just look at Bosh, who went from the featured player in Toronto to a guy who sets screens, chases rebounds and accepts the leftover shots in Miami -- and says he wants to sign up for some more.

Yes, he has the best player in the game on his roster. Most NBA champions do. The flip side is the best players typically find their most success with a great coach. Spoelstra qualifies.

Jeff Van Gundy, in a media conference call Wednesday to advance the NBA Finals, said. "I think we have to change the Big Three moniker to the big four because I think Spoelstra definitely belongs in there. They have four guys who could be going to the Hall of Fame as players: Ray Allen and Bosh and Wade and James. But Spoelstra is absolutely vital and instrumental to their success, and he's going to be there as well."

The acclaim is starting to come Spoelstra's way. All it takes is realizing that even if nothing about him -- not the look, not the mannerisms, not the nicknames -- screams "great coach," the facts say it indisputably.

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