Left for NBA Draft Lottery dead after a bad start and worse luck, streaking Miami is fighting for a Eastern Conference playoff berth. Much of the credit belongs to its coach.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The NBA is a players' league. The baseline necessity for sustained success is talent. This isn't complicated, nor is it breaking news: If Team A's players are better than Team B's players, then more often than not, Team A will be fine.
So when an NBA team starts routinely beating its opponents despite an obvious talent disadvantage, it's only natural that we—and I don't just mean fans and writers—look beyond the guys on court for answers. Which brings us to the Miami Heat, and their head coach, Erik Spoelstra.
Coaches such as Mike D'Antoni, Scott Brooks, Gregg Popovich, Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr, and Quin Snyder have all dealt with basketball-related trauma in some form or another since opening night. All have risen above it by sticking to their respective philosophies and principles. Just as important, all have at least one All-Star on their roster, a lighthouse to guide them through their darkest hour.
Spoelstra has no such luxury, and he arguably has endured worse roster luck than any of those other coaches. Still, the Heat have played as well as anyone for the past few months—and much of the credit goes to their coach.
Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are gifted players, but a quick glance at the rest of Miami's roster would lead you to assume, based on past performance and a lack of recognizable names, that this team is Brooklyn Nets-level bad. And that's without mentioning any of the aforementioned misfortune.
According to information provided to VICE Sports by Jeff Stotts, a certified athletic trainer who operates a health-related database at InStreetClothes.com, Miami has lost a whopping 264 man-games due to injury or illness this season—more than any other team in the NBA, and 49 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia 76ers.
Unsurprisingly, the Heat started the season terribly, losing 30 of their first 41 games while being outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions and boasting the league's second-worst offense. After five straight trips to the playoffs, including four Finals appearances and two championships, Miami seemed headed toward a blatant and necessary tank job. President Pat Riley publicly acknowledged the franchise's dire situation in December, as helpful bodies such as Justise Winslow and Josh McRoberts kept crumbling around him.
The Heat reached their nadir on January 13, when the Milwaukee Bucks beat them by eight points. Since then, however, they've been (ahem) red-hot, winning 20 of their next 24 games. They've defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers twice—once with LeBron James—the Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets twice. No team has more wins, fewer losses, or a higher three-point percentage since January 17th; only the San Antonio Spurs and Warriors have a superior defense.
How is this possible? Miami's rise didn't coincide with an uptick in good health, and Spoelstra didn't have any veterans to lean on through the storm—guys like Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, or even Amar'e Stoudemire—as he did in recent years. Instead, the 46-year-old coach turned to journeymen, undrafted rookies, and seemingly borderline NBA prospects.
Look at the roster: Wayne Ellington (seven teams in eight seasons), James Johnson (five teams in eight seasons), Dion Waiters (three teams in five seasons), and Luke Babbitt (three teams in seven seasons) are all in their first seasons with the Heat, and all are playing the best basketball of their careers. Meanwhile, total unknowns Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed, and Okaro White are also contributing at a high level. Nobody expected that, because nobody ever should.
Chris Bosh's unexpected blood clots forced Spoelstra to adapt on the fly last year, but this season he has deployed small lineups from Day 1, modifying his players' traditional responsibilities and putting opposing defenses in a bind. The moves have worked wonders.
"I'm a big fan of what Coach Spoelstra does," Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before a game against Miami earlier this season. "I think that he has got a lot of interesting wrinkles right now with how they're trying to play."
One of those wrinkles? Playing Johnson at the four or five, giving him the ball, and having him run inverted pick-and-rolls with Dragic setting the screen:
It all goes according to plan—Johnson has Tyler Johnson wide open in the weakside corner and can also kick it back to Dragic wide open behind him—until the actual pass. But this type of creativity is what makes Spoelstra one of the best.
"A lot of teams will do it out of a time-out or very, very irregularly, and these guys have made it a huge part of their system, and it's just unique," Stevens said about the Heat. "Maybe it's the next step in small ball that [Spoelstra is] onto, but I think at the end of the day it puts you in a predicament when the bigs are handling the ball and the guards are setting the picks. Sometimes they have two picks up top and it's a heck of a deal, it's a tough deal to guard."
It would be silly to give Spoelstra all of the credit for the Heat's resurgence—Miami has knocked down a league-leading 49.1 percent of "wide open" threes since their 13-game winning streak began back in the middle of January—but he deserves praise for figuring out different ways to accentuate his player's strengths and camouflage their weaknesses.
Take Babbitt. His outside shot is the only reason he's in the NBA. So what does Spoelstra do? He lets him shoot a bunch of outside shots: 79.9 percent of Babbitt's points are from behind the three-point line, which currently leads the league and is nearly double what it was last year on the New Orleans Pelicans.
Similarly, Spoelstra has given Dragic and Waiters—two attack-minded guards—a green light to go to the rim whenever they see a crack in the defense, a freedom that has placed the Heat atop the league in drives per game and passes from said drives.
On defense, Miami has allowed the fewest three-point attempts and makes from beyond the arc since January 17th. That's huge, and it requires an immense amount of energy from perimeter players who have to scramble all over the court to run shooters off the line. The Heat also have the the third best transition defense in the league this season. These are both signs of a focused, disciplined, and well-coached basketball team.
Less quantifiably, Spoelstra is responsible for instilling and communicating Miami's organizational culture. Johnson likely would not have shed 30 pounds without the high standards Spoelstra holds his players to, or the harsh practices he puts them through. Lose that much weight, however, and you too can make plays like this on a consistent basis (just kidding, no you can't):
Currently, the Heat are only 0.5 games behind the seven-seed Detroit Pistons and eight-seed Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoff race. And even if Miami doesn't make the postseason, it's a testament to Spoelstra's command and skill that the team's current leaders in plus/minus are on one-year contracts—in other words, they're guys who should ostensibly be looking to pad their individual stats in search of a hefty deal this summer, as opposed to making the right pass and exerting maximum energy on defense. More remarkably, Dragic and Hassan Whiteside spent months on the trade block, yet from the outside looking in, Miami's locker room has remained copacetic.
The Heat used to be a superstar destination. Now, they subsidize reclamation projects. They've shifted from titans to underdogs, from Big Three to who?, and Spoelstra has shown he can succeed either way. He's a master motivator, and sets the tone for a roster that could've easily crumbled before New Year's Day. His job is not to take the long view and tank for a lottery pick. It's to improve and excel with the players he's given.
Thanks to the job Spoelstra has done, Miami can all but kiss its chance to land a franchise-altering talent in June's draft goodbye. Instead, the team's rebuild will shift to improving through free agency, and making wise use of the cap flexibility Miami looks to have for the foreseeable future. With a coach like Spoelstra, someone who clearly knows how to win regardless of the circumstances, it's hard to think the Heat will stay far removed from championship contention for very long.
Coach of the Year is one of the NBA's sillier annual awards, but Spoelstra deserves all the votes.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of games Miami lost to start the 2016-17 season. They lost 30 of their first 41 games, not 11.
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