Erik Spoelstra has 40 hours to tipoff

How the sleep-deprived, workaholic Heat coach builds his game plan

Updated: April 10, 2012, 10:08 AM ET
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN The Magazine

Erik SpoelstraChip LitherlandHours before the Heat face the Bulls, Spoelstra preaches chapter and verse of the game plan.

This story appears in the April 16, 2012 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

SUNDAY, 6 A.M. -- 9.5 HOURS TO TIP-OFF
The workers in the Dunkin' Donuts don't seem to know they're serving the coach of the Miami Heat.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra Player Tracker
Todd DetwilerErik Spoelstra: Player Tracker

As they pour his large coffee and wrap his breakfast sandwich -- no Boston Kreme for Erik Spoelstra -- they chat away in Spanish, paying little attention to the Filipino American with one of the most pressure-filled jobs in Florida. It's early morning on a winter Sunday in Miami, and aside from the 6,000 people running in the Miami Marathon, the city is either not yet in bed or not yet out of it. Spoelstra, though, is wide awake, focused on his team's biggest game of the 5-week-old season.

Going to the doughnut shop is one of Spoelstra's routines on game day, and that's hardly a surprise given that it was also a favorite stop for Pat Riley when he was the Heat's coach. Calling Riley a mere mentor for Spoelstra would cheapen the relationship. Riley hasn't just influenced Spoelstra, he's virtually manufactured a clone.

Spoelstra talks like Riley, he coaches like Riley, he stalks the sideline like Riley. Even the hand signals he uses to send in plays are duplicates of Riley's motion and rhythm, drawing laughter from veteran advance scouts who used to chart the old master.

Most of all, though, Spoelstra works like Riley, the team's all-powerful chief since 1995 and a man who demands that his subordinates put in hour upon hour at the arena -- just as he does. To this day, according to a well-placed NBA exec, even if Riley is at the Super Bowl, doing a lucrative speaking engagement or at his West Coast home in Malibu, one of his staffers reports to him about who is working in the office and when. Spoelstra usually beats that guy to the office.

"The best way for a young coach to gain credibility is to always be prepared," says veteran Heat forward Shane Battier. "Spo does his homework, and the extra credit."

This is not without consequences. Spoelstra, 41 years old and single, has at times this season not gone to bed between games. He barely closed his eyes during one three-day stretch in February when the Heat played three games in three nights, all on the road, before he finally crashed on an off-day in Cleveland. It's how he operated when he was a low-level assistant to Riley, pulling all-nighters in the video room or filing scouting reports from the road before catching a 6 a.m. flight to the next town. At times, after particularly stressful games, Spoelstra is wound so tightly that Riley takes emergency measures, calling his pupil into his expansive office and pulling an expensive bottle of wine from his supply. There the two will sit, and sip, in silence.

Just because Spoelstra now has his own closet of finely tailored suits -- almost always dark, narrowly cut, with tight collars and perfect knots, just like the boss -- doesn't mean he's changed his work ethic. Thus the two-day preparation bender he's currently riding. He'll need the coffee.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.


FRIDAY, 11:05 P.M. -- 40.5 HOURS TO TIP-OFF
For a few minutes -- and these minutes are rare -- Spoelstra seems almost relaxed. The Heat have just notched a 10-point win over the Knicks, and Dwyane Wade scored 28 points after sitting out the past two weeks because of a series of injuries. "Nice welcome back for that kid, No. 3," Spoelstra says at the postgame news conference. "That's a good way to have a Friday night in Miami."

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Chip LitherlandWhen Heat players arrive for the game, it's like Christmas morning -- with scouting reports and a whiteboard full of plays.

Spoelstra's lightheartedness will last a few minutes. Tie off and collar unbuttoned, he strolls down to the family receiving area within AmericanAirlines Arena to greet some friends who attended the game. Then it's back to business -- and with each step down the bright burgundy carpet that leads past the locker room to his office, his thoughts turn increasingly to the Bulls, Miami's next opponent.

The Bulls, the East's top team, beat the Bucks tonight by seven points, their 10th win in the last 12 games. His team has won six of its last seven, but Spoelstra's not happy. Happy would imply he's content. Content would assume the team had played perfectly. Perfection is not attainable. Thus Spoelstra is not happy. In tonight's game, Wade delivered, and so did LeBron James, with 31 dazzling points. But the Heat gave up 18 three-pointers, breaking various team records of the type a coach does not want broken.

Happy would imply he's content. Content would assume the team had played perfectly. Perfection is not attainable. Thus Spoelstra is not happy.

Troubles? He's got a few. First, he must prepare for the league's reigning MVP, Derrick Rose. Then there's the question of who'll start for the Bulls, with Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton both being called game-time decisions by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Spoelstra doesn't trust the injury reports Thibodeau has been begrudgingly giving the media in Chicago -- reports that Spoelstra, of course, has read. He's assuming they'll both play. Then there's the fact that it's an afternoon game, which means no normal game prep, no day-of-game practice to review the Bulls' plays. Instead, he'll do that at Saturday's practice, which he would rather use on drills to defend the three-pointer.

Spoelstra's off-court preparations come in three flavors -- film, stats and scouting reports -- and he is fanatical about all three. He made his bones with the Heat doing video work back before there was Synergy Sports Technology, a company every NBA team now pays five figures a year to for information that includes a video library of mind-blowing depth. "The technology has not made it easier; it's made it harder in a way," Spoelstra says. "Yes, there's more access to film than when I first came into the league, but because of it there's a desire to see more and study more and cover more." Following his work on the video team, Spoelstra became an advance scout, flying ahead of the Heat to steal play calls and learn opponents' tendencies. As for the stats, Spoelstra, if not quite the Billy Beane of the NBA, is among the leaders of its Moneyball movement. Not that he'll talk. Suggesting he discuss his team's advanced metrics is like asking a key-turner in a missile silo to share the launch codes. Spoelstra, when asked, will say only, "We have our own databases."


SATURDAY, 12:25 A.M. -- 39 HOURS TO TIP-OFF
Spoelstra has another team -- call it Team Geek -- and now, two hours after the Knicks game, that team is in full flow. Dan Craig is the team's video coordinator. And if Spoelstra is Riley's clone, then Craig is Spoelstra's. Craig, like Spoelstra, is a former college point guard from a tiny school. Spoelstra ran the point at the University of Portland, Craig at Plymouth State in New Hampshire. Generously listed at 5'7", the 31-year-old Craig had a college career wrecked by knee injuries, which put him on the path to the screen-staring dream job he currently holds. He's been with the Heat for nine years, working his way up from intern, and was recently promoted to part-time player development coach. It's Spoelstra's path, and it's little coincidence that Spoelstra and Craig are close -- engaged in a degree of constant communication even 14-year-old girls would find obsessive. Still, it's more ASAP than OMG, and it's about to get intense.

[+] EnlargeErik Spoelstra
Pouya DianatSpoelstra, at the Heat's Saturday practice, always has his eyes on the ball.

Craig and his team edit in real time, so as the Heat-Knicks game ends, DVDs are in the final stages of preparation. A clip with all the high pick-and-roll plays the Heat had to defend tonight? That's ready. A sequence of clips on Heat out-of-bounds plays? Craig can have it in minutes. The Friday night Bulls-Bucks game in Chicago started the same time as the Heat game, and Spoelstra, naturally, wants to watch Bulls clips as soon as he's done rewatching Knicks film. So Craig's team keeps both production pipelines flowing simultaneously.

Meanwhile, in a cubicle in a windowless room, 30 feet down a hallway covered with wall-size scenes from the 2006 Finals, sits assistant coach Chad Kammerer. A former all-conference forward at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Kammerer, 44, has been with the Heat for the past 11 years and -- you may be noticing a pattern here -- worked his way up the ladder alongside Spoelstra. Kammerer is a Californian who spent his adulthood in the Sunshine State, but you wouldn't know this by meeting him. The dome of his shaved head is practically devoid of melanin; eight months a year he lives under fluorescent lights. Formerly the Heat's advance scout for six years -- another role Spoelstra used to hold -- Kammerer is now in charge of game-planning.

By Saturday morning, Kammerer is expected to know every Bulls play call and to have broken down the reports filed by the Heat's current advance scout, Pat Delaney, another former small-college standout who's risen through the ranks from video intern. Kammerer will also have watched the past several Bulls games on film and is expected to deliver a comprehensive scouting report to Spoelstra before he builds his practice plans.

The Heat, as noted, generate their own advanced metrics, blending those of a database service with the team's own statistical analyses. This duty falls on another member of Spoelstra's staff, Brian Hecker, the 43-year-old director of basketball information technology, whose résumé includes stints as a college assistant coach at Wisconsin and Houston. These days, it's Hecker's job to discern what's statistically important, explain why it's important and deliver it to Spoelstra in charts, graphs and digests. That report is expected to be on Spoelstra's desk before the coach sees the players again and will be filed in a large brown folder with "2011-12 Chicago Bulls" on it. The file is an inch thick and will not leave Spoelstra's side until Sunday's 3:30 p.m. tip-off. There are 29 such files, one for each opponent, each closely guarded, each representing hundreds of thousands of dollars in scouting and investment -- and unless you've worked your way up from intern for the past 10 years, you're not getting a peek at one of them.

"What we do to prepare for games is not something we talk about [publicly]," Spoelstra says. "We're not going to give away what we do."

Team Geek is deep -- more than a dozen staffers in all. Still, Spoelstra insists on getting his hands dirty too. Call it force of habit. By tip-off, he'll have watched dozens of clips to see how new Chicago arrival Hamilton is coming off those baseline screens that he lived on with the Pistons. He'll know which side out-of-bounds plays Thibodeau has been using in late-game situations over the past month. He'll know what percentage of the time Rose goes to the backside of screens set at the top of the key. How much is wasted time and how much is vital? It's impossible to predict, so Spoelstra swallows it all.

And this is not to mention the reams of info Spoelstra has on his own team. He's a fan of pie charts, and he has plenty of them. How many of the Heat's points are coming from high pick-and-rolls versus iso plays versus shots at the rim? Spoelstra has the chart. How many of Battier's attempted threes are coming from the corner, his sweet spot, or from the less effective wing? Got that chart too. How many times when the Heat run their "elbow" set do they get a shot within 10 feet? How often does it draw a positional foul in the post? Chart and chart. And there at his desk, into the wee hours of the morning, Spoelstra hunches over printouts like a scientist over a microscope.


SATURDAY, 1:20 P.M. -- 26 HOURS TO TIP-OFF
Heat players are paired off, spread out among seven baskets, chatting loosely as they shoot free throws and rebound for each other. Sunlight pours in from the large windows that overlook Biscayne Bay on the eastern side of the practice court at the AmericanAirlines Arena. Spoelstra is seated in a folding chair next to Riley, leaning over the practice plan he's just finished going through.

Spoelstra was back at the arena by mid-morning, along with his coaches. He has three assistant coaches who sit on the bench with him: Bob McAdoo, Ron Rothstein and David Fizdale. McAdoo, a Hall of Famer known for his shooting touch, works with the big men. Spoelstra's lead strategists are veteran assistant Rothstein, the team's first head coach back in 1988, and Fizdale, a former college point guard at the University of San Diego who got his start -- wait for it -- in the Heat's video room in the mid-'90s.

Each is familiar with the Bulls, who carry essentially the same lineup they did when the teams met in the Eastern Conference finals last May. And the coaches have the same age-old issue they did eight months ago: how to defend Rose on the pick-and-roll. Back off and encourage him to shoot while denying him the drive? Use the strategy they've been employing against most point guards this season, which is to attack them with double-teams to force them to give up the ball? The scouting report says Rose has been dealing with an injured left toe; it's possible he'll be hobbled. But he certainly didn't look limited the night before -- the coaches have watched the Bulls' win over the Bucks -- as he went off for 34 points. Probably best to assume he's 100 percent and plan accordingly.

All of this is covered in the briefing to the players as they perform the walk-through, with Spoelstra and some assistants at times acting as the scout team, running some of the Bulls' favorite plays. When the workout is over, Spoelstra spends 15 minutes with Fizdale going over those pick-and-roll defensive maneuvers in a corner away from the players. They act out various options, debating angles and passing lanes. Both were point guards, so they understand what a man like Rose can do.

By 2 p.m., the floor is clear, and the players head for showers and treatment in the training room, then home with Bulls video clips -- their homework. Spoelstra, however, is far from done with his prep work.

Before tip-off, he'll watch hours of tape on the Bulls. Games from last season against the Heat. Various Bulls games from this season. With today's technology, he can press a few buttons and see all the out-of-bounds plays the Bulls have run in the final five minutes of games for the last month. He prepares two or three plays to have on hand if he needs to draw one up in the huddle. He plots substitution patterns to defend the lineups Thibodeau is likely to use. The entire process is tedious, even with technology that makes it possible to glean in seconds what would've taken hours just a few years ago. "If anything, I think coaches watch more video than ever before because there's so much more available," Spoelstra says. "Even guys who aren't known for being really into film still watch so much now."

Game to game, long night to long night, it's hard to quantify the value of these hours. But occasionally it pays off in a grand and profound way. It will for Spoelstra tomorrow afternoon.

On Sunday, with just 9.9 seconds on the clock and the Heat ahead by two, the Bulls will end up with the ball. In a similar spot 26 days earlier, the Bulls had run a misdirection side out-of-bounds play to beat the Hawks. Spoelstra, of course, will have seen the play. In the timeout, he'll trace the action on a pad in front of his team. He'll share his sense with them that Rose will be the decoy; that's what the Hawks had fallen for, with Deng slipping behind their defense for a backdoor layup. Thirty seconds after that, he will be proved prescient when Hamilton inbounds the ball, then breaks for the basket as Rose flashes open in the other direction, a classic backdoor diversion. The Heat, prepared, will have three players in position to defend Hamilton. The Bulls' first option will be abandoned. Rose will end up with the ball, trapped by a double-team in the lane. He will brick a shot off the front rim. Ball game. Team Geek 1, Bulls 0.


SUNDAY, 1:20 P.M. -- TWO HOURS TO TIP-OFF
As the Heat players arrive, they find in front of their lockers a brightly colored document that looks more like a brochure for a time-share than a scouting report. On it is a breakdown of each opposing player, with bullet points on his strengths and weaknesses and designs of plays the Bulls like to run for him. The type is big and the sentences short, the bits of data designed for easy digestion. The printed version of PowerPoint. The heavy reading has been done for them in the day and a half since they last played.

Both men believe in the powers of the motivational message. The inner hallways of the arena are covered with oversize slogans festooning the walls like a fortune-cookie-factory explosion.

Riley is well known for his motivational speaking, Spoelstra less so. But both men believe in the powers of the motivational message. The inner hallways of the arena are covered with oversize slogans festooning the walls like a fortune-cookie-factory explosion. "Each warrior wants to leave the mark of his will," reads one hallway. "For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother," reads a wall inside the locker room. "Great effort springs naturally from a great attitude" is the last thing the players see before stepping onto the floor.

And on this afternoon, paper-clipped to the top of the Bulls' scouting report, the Heat players find a note: "When two teams meet that are equal in ability and execution, it's the team that has pride that wins."


SUNDAY, 2:45 P.M. -- 45 MINUTES TO TIP-OFF
Spoelstra enters the locker room and reviews the game plan one last time as his players snap on their warmups and tighten their laces. The black curtains that were covering the grease boards that Spoelstra filled with X's and O's hours earlier are removed. The last moments of video, sometimes with a motivational clip from a movie or a reference to an inside joke for comic relief, are played on a giant screen.

"We watch more video with this team than any other team I've been on," Battier says. "[Spoelstra] stays true to his roots."

The room empties; the players go to the floor and Spoelstra to his office to commune with the data. As the pregame countdown clock dwindles to single digits, he puts down the paperwork, closes the laptop and strides down that burgundy-carpeted hallway to the court. He walks briskly. Slate gray suit today. Solid black tie. Matching dark grimace.

When he gets to the court, he goes to the bench, the only one seated as players finish their warmups, as fans start pouring in from the concourse and as the national-anthem singer starts to sweat. Alone, he scribbles a last play on a board in his lap, oblivious to the noise and flashes of light. He almost looks happy.

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