- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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Erik Spoelstra was on the sidelines when he had his moment of clarity.
Only, it came on a football field in Eugene, Ore., and with an Oregon Ducks logo, not a Miami Heat one, on his collared shirt.
On a sunny August morning, two months removed from watching his Heat team collapse against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, Spoelstra stood on the sidelines at the Ducks' training camp, trying to absorb any insight into the contrarian mind of famed Ducks football coach Chip Kelly.
This was the first stop on what Spoelstra refers to as his lockout-induced sabbatical, a trip born of summer boredom. After six weeks of cathartic film marathons in his Miami office, Spoelstra finally had enough, so he mapped out a tour around the country to pick the brains of the collegiate coaching ranks.
"The No. 1 thing I was trying to do was learn," said Spoelstra, who is beginning his fourth season as the Heat's head coach. "I had a lot of time on my hands and I didn't just want to sit there."
As he saw it, the NBA's labor stalemate offered a rare opportunity to become a student again -- on a college campus, no less.
It's fitting that Spoelstra, an Oregon native, kicked off his tour in Eugene. For two coaches who shared similar success so early in their coaching careers, the meeting between Spoelstra and Kelly was long overdue. Not to mention that each has recently come excruciatingly close to winning his first championship.
Over the course of a two-hour conversation on the sidelines, Kelly explained in detail the thinking behind his wildly successful up-tempo spread offense. Spoelstra hung on Kelly's every word. Not just because he is a Ducks fan. But because it was all coming together. Finally.
As Kelly spoke, Spoelstra's mind was consumed with one idea:
"Could a no-huddle spread offense work in the NBA?"
The reinvention of the Heat
Explosive. Fast. Unpredictable.
These are the words that Kelly used to describe the principles behind his signature spread offense that he rode to the BCS National Championship Game in 2011. They're also the same ones often used to describe a Heat team led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
At least, that's what the team is supposed to be. By most accounts, the Heat underachieved both competitively and aesthetically in the Big Three's debut season. Miami didn't smash the record books and played at one of the slowest paces in the NBA in 2010-11. As the one calling the shots, Spoelstra received much of the blame. But rather than deflect the responsibility, the Heat coach went back to the drawing board to find a better model. So he bought a plane ticket to go see Kelly and ask him a simple, yet vexing question:
How exactly do you turn a collection of world-class athletes into a merciless scoring machine?
Kelly's answer made all the sense in the world to Spoelstra. To leverage the team's blinding athleticism, Kelly told him, one must spread the floor, turn up the pace and let it fly. Pace and space are essential.
And so the mantra for the new Heat was born. Under the watch of Pat Riley, the steward of the "Showtime" Lakers in the 1980s, Spoelstra set out to design his very own attack built on speed, versatility and athleticism. But there was only one small problem:
Spoelstra didn't have any players to mold.
An offseason in the classroom
After leaving Eugene inspired, Spoelstra continued his summer tour, visiting college luminaries such as Mike Krzyzewski, Billy Donovan, John Calipari, Tom Crean and even talking shop over dinner with Urban Meyer. He also paid a follow-up visit to Kelly in Oregon. This time, Spoelstra brought his own coaching staff along for the ride while constantly keeping Riley in the loop with his ideas.
But upon returning from the trip around the country, Spoelstra realized he was in a bit of a bind. He had all these compelling ideas about how to deploy his players on the court, except he had no players to deploy thanks to the lockout. So Spoelstra walked into the Heat arena and told his coaching staff to lace up and get out on the practice court.
Spoelstra and his assistants decided to play a game of pretend: Be the Miami Heat.
Their coach? That would be Riley. For the first time in years, Riley assembled his own (pretend) staff, too: Heat CEO Nick Arison and assistant general manager Andy Elisburg.
"Once or twice a week," Riley recalled, "Erik would take all of his eight or nine coaches and they'd be out there running through offense, experimenting on things, and I'd come out with Andy and Nick and we'd watch it. Then I started to go out on the court and say, 'Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that?' I loved it, and I loved what [Erik] was doing."
For Spoelstra, the exercise allowed him to see what they were missing all last season.
What exactly does LeBron see in the pick-and-roll with Bosh at the top of the key? Which lanes open up for Wade when LeBron sets a screen at the elbow? What happens when they switch spots? What will the defense decide to do when Bosh goes to the perimeter while LeBron flies down the lane in transition?
We don't have a 7-foot-2-inch guy who's going to take care of that stuff. Playing bigger and thinking bigger is trying something new.
”-- Heat president Pat Riley
Spoelstra's discoveries from his conversations with Kelly were reinforced during the role-playing exercise. Everything needed to be fast, instinctual and responsibly impulsive. That includes forgoing play calls every time down the court.
Spoelstra realized that the Heat's playing style and roster didn't need to be confined by convention. No, the traditional principles of coaching become obsolete when three superstars, two of whom are perennial MVP candidates, decide to play together. And the Heat's trio is largely interchangeable, especially with Bosh adding a 3-point shot and LeBron polishing his post game.
"The more that we've tried to think conventionally in terms of guys playing just a specific position, it restricted us a little bit," Spoelstra said. "We can put pressure on teams to adjust to us."
Spoelstra and Riley understood that a change of philosophy was in order. So they drew up a game plan. They'd sell the players and potential free agents on an offense built on a foundation similar to Riley's "Showtime." Once the lockout ended, the Heat added to their fleet of versatile wings by signing free agent Shane Battier as part of the team's vision to load up on players who could render positional lines obsolete.
With an up-tempo vision in place and a roster filled with players who could fill any of the positions from 1 to 4, the Heat want to be unconventional and deploy lineups that may not have a traditional center. Everything began to come into place. The elderly, lumbering centers of last season were gone. Bosh bulked up with a goal of averaging double-digit rebounds. The Heat's speedy draft pick Norris Cole took training camp by storm. LeBron and Dwyane stayed in sensational shape in the offseason.
All according to plan.
"We don't have Dwight Howard," Riley said. "We don't have an 18-rebound guy. We don't have a 7-foot-2-inch guy who's going to take care of that stuff. Playing bigger and thinking bigger is trying something new."
That sounds all well and good, but a challenge remained.
LeBron holds the key
LeBron has carved out a fine career victimizing smaller opponents from the perimeter. This is his comfort zone. He has won two MVPs this way. But sliding to the power forward spot -- even if it's just a nominal title -- means more bruises and more physical exertion underneath for the 6-foot-8, 265-pounder with 5.2 percent body fat. When asked if he derives any enjoyment playing as a big man, LeBron maintains that he'll do whatever it takes to win, even if it means stepping out of that comfort zone from time to time.
"I was a perimeter guy my whole life," LeBron said with a hint of nostalgia.
LeBron may be the size of Karl Malone, but that doesn't mean he wants to play like him.
"I wouldn't say it's fun," he said. "It's never fun banging with big men. Nothing fun about it."
You can tell that LeBron doesn't like to be pigeonholed into one position. Be careful labeling him as a point guard. Be wary of calling him a power forward. While he may be the first to say that he could play any position if it truly came down to it, he doesn't want a single position to define him.
Wade sympathizes with him. As someone who plays taller than his listed height of 6-foot-4, Wade understands LeBron's reluctance to fully embrace being the Heat's second-largest guy on the court. But Wade also noted that LeBron has warmed up to the idea more since last season.
"He's a lot more comfortable now," Wade said. "But a guy like LeBron, he came in playing the 1, and to have him at the 4 is kind of like moving him down. You don't want to move that far down. You feel cool with the 1, 2, 3, but when you get to the 4, it's a different kind of ... look."
It may just be a matter of ease. When LeBron guards the Joakim Noahs and Amare Stoudemires of the league, the size advantage suddenly disappears and his job becomes a little tougher and a little more taxing. Picking on someone your own size is never the most convenient option.
But the Heat aren't looking for James to be a post-up machine on the low block. Far from it. While some might see LeBron's post game as a litmus test for all-time greatness, the Heat organization isn't concerned about LeBron's ranking next to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. What some people might overlook is that Jordan and Kobe infused a post game into their attacks once they lost their quickness. At 26 years old, LeBron is entering his physical prime. And if all goes to plan, LeBron won't often be stationary on the low block this season. Any offseason tutelage with Hakeem Olajuwon is just icing on the cake.
Still, Miami does want to take advantage of his unique size. The Heat ran teams out of the gym when LeBron played the 4. Consider that the five most frequent Heat lineups with LeBron at power forward led to the their outscoring opponents by 39 points in about 100 minutes of action last season, which is the equivalent of winning by about 20 points in regulation. And some of those lineups included Joel Anthony at center, not Bosh.
Spoelstra inevitably came across these astounding numbers while doing his homework. Checking lineup data is something he routinely does during the season, but he decided to put his small-ball lineups under the microscope this offseason.
His takeaway? Small ball worked.
"Sometimes you think that if you're smaller, you don't rebound as well, or you might not defend as well," Spoelstra said. "But those were not true in our case."
However, as stunning as the results were, the implication is that success was achieved before LeBron became fully comfortable with his new role. In order to achieve that, Spoelstra had to switch hats from coach to salesman.
The transaction of trust
When the Heat's training camp finally opened after the five-month lockout, Spoelstra explained his new philosophy to his players by appealing to its offensive freedom. Inspired by Kelly's gridiron principles, Spoelstra laid out a simple offensive blueprint: spread the floor, maintain spacing and create controlled chaos.
By doing this, Spoelstra was essentially burning his playbook and relying on his players' basketball IQ to make decisions. The Heat coach had to think long and hard about taking his hands off the wheel. Ultimately, he decided that easing off might be a good thing with players of this basketball acumen.
There is, however, a fluid framework in place, with infused elements of Rick Adelman's elbow offense and a motion dribble-drive offense, something Spoelstra picked up from his trip to Lexington, Ky., to see Calipari. Spoelstra's pitch to his team involved a very simple transaction of trust:
Do what I want, then you can do what you want.
The concept isn't an entirely new one for the Heat. In the middle of last season, as something of a motivating technique, Spoelstra told his players that if they locked down the defensive end and created turnovers, they could run all they pleased. But that didn't seem to change much of anything. After all, it was midseason and habits are difficult to adjust on the fly.
And [Chris] Bosh? He's gushing about Spoelstra's new groove for a different reason: You can't really scout it.
But after a crushing Finals loss to Dallas, the Heat were ready for a fresh start. Now, the team seems fully on board with what they call "the triangle on steroids," and players have even adopted Spoelstra's "pace and space" terminology in their press conferences.
You could see it in action early in the first quarter of the team's first preseason game against Orlando. LeBron quickly dribbled up the court with Hedo Turkoglu defending and immediately fed the ball to Wade on the right block. Turkoglu turned his back for a moment and that was it -- James made the read, darted to the baseline off Wade's left shoulder, and by the time Turkoglu knew what was going on, Wade had already given the ball to LeBron on a handoff. LeBron soared to the basket and finished a reverse layup on the other side of the rim.
That wasn't a play call. It was a read.
"And that's the way we like to keep it," Spoelstra said, recalling the possession. "We want to continue to develop more actions where the two of them are involved and it's not necessarily scripted."
Spoelstra made a grand total of three play calls during the entire game. Yes, it was preseason, but the Heat won by 33 points.
What happens when the Heat lose three games in a row this winter? What happens when the Chicago Bulls go on an 8-0 run down the stretch of a crucial game? What happens when Spoelstra needs to take advantage of a hole in the opposing defense with sharp X's and O's?
It remains to be seen, but the potential benefits are hard to ignore, and the players seem happy with the tweaks. LeBron says he loves where the Heat's offense is right now. Wade believes Spoelstra has done "a great job."
And Bosh? He's gushing about Spoelstra's new groove for a different reason: You can't really scout it.
This is perhaps the greatest potential benefit of all. Opponents knew where LeBron, Wade and Bosh would be last season because they memorized Spoelstra's playbook. The Heat were predictable, and that's what made them beatable at times, especially in the playoffs.
Armed with a unique roster, Spoelstra is thinking outside the box and the plan seems to be working for now. With his own spin on "Showtime" in place, Spoelstra is hoping his moment of clarity in Oregon will lead to a moment of triumph for Miami.
Tom Haberstroh covers the Miami Heat for the Heat Index. Follow him on Twitter.