Erik Spoelstra thrives under scrutiny
SAN FRANCISCO -- Erik Spoelstra is not a natural salesman, though his job might be easier if he were.
He is focused, consistent, thorough and a dogged worker. He's got the smile to pull it off but not the eyes, which endlessly burn with intensity even when he's trying to use humor to relieve the constant tension he works with.
The challenge is formidable. He's got so many people he's in charge of selling, more than just your average coach in an average season. There are his Heat players at the top of the list, and they're the hardest, especially because there are stars who have discriminating taste when it comes to what they buy into.
Not being a former player or a coach with decades of success to use as capital makes the task even more challenging.
"One of the hardest things to do as a coach in this league is to get NBA players to do things they don't want to do," Spoelstra is fond of saying. He's right. It is one of the toughest demands on a coach in such a star-driven league.
There's more. Spoelstra has to sell his plan and his vision to his mentor, Heat GM Pat Riley, who is a salesman, and to owner Micky Arison, who is famous for owning ships and running a tight one with his franchise.
Then Spoelstra has to sell the media, which smothers his team on a daily basis, analyzing each week like it's a mini-playoff series. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh might have signed up for that, but Spoelstra isn't in their pay grade.
And of course he's got to sell the fans, many of whom nationally seem to revel in any struggles the Heat have. These fans may not be able to name the presidents and general managers of even half the teams in the league, but they know Riley is in the front office and they know he's gone downstairs before.
To a certain extent, Spoelstra even has to sell himself to some of his peers. There are a handful of young coaches who like him and relate to his struggle to rise from intern to head coach. But the old guard isn't totally there yet, evidenced by Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who talked about Spoelstra's potential firing on the radio like it was a throwaway line at a cocktail party.
So he has a hard job -- all can agree to that. Yet here is what is interesting and maybe even surprising: He's thriving at it.
Heading into Friday night's game with the Warriors on ESPN, the Heat are riding a six-game win streak. Wade and James are playing well together and happy with their roles. Bosh has been the steadiest player on the team for nearly a month. And the supporting cast, with nearly every player earning the league minimum salary for various reasons, is finding ways to help almost nightly.
As with any winning streak, it all comes with a caveat that things can change quickly. Surely there will be more struggles to come. But it is also only fair to praise the job Spoelstra has done this season under extreme circumstances that are often out of his control.
His most impressive work, without much doubt, has been the past two weeks.
After the Heat lost five of eight games, some of them in terrible fashion, Spoelstra not unexpectedly found himself dealing with rumors about his job security. It was especially trying when reports surfaced of player unrest. Actually, make that star player unrest.
This is when slick salesman tactics are often useful. Spoelstra responded with some selling and did so probably the only way he knows how.
On a Monday afternoon, before the Heat were to play a game against the Wizards, Spoelstra held a defining news conference in which he talked about welcoming conflicts. He didn't speak like a man who was afraid to be fired but rather like a coach who knew he was right.
It was clear that Spoelstra had made the same statements behind closed doors. And it was clear he was unafraid and unfazed. There was a different vibe in the Heat locker room that night and it showed on the floor. The team hasn't lost since.
Words and attitude weren't his entire plan, but they sure seemed like an effective way to start. Then he made some other changes that backed up his confident air.
He altered the demands on Wade and James to free them to play more comfortably on offense, taking away some point guard duties from both by inserting Mario Chalmers into the rotation. He made Bosh happier by giving playing time to three centers so Bosh could play exclusively at power forward. And the coach installed some new plays that enhanced the on-court compatibility of James and Wade.
Now that the Heat are winning, Spoelstra has continued on the same track. After a good win to open the team's road trip in Milwaukee on Monday night, there was plenty of laughter. But the Heat were right back on the practice floor Tuesday afternoon in Salt Lake City after a long overnight flight, and they were in a serious mode after a serious session to prepare for the Jazz.
Spoelstra clearly set a tone that there is no resting permitted just because the team is on a winning streak. The Heat started Wednesday's game against the Jazz with an excellent focus that seemed to carry over from that practice, and it led to their most impressive road victory of the young season.
This follows his methods. As a disciple of Riley, Spoelstra has always tried to stick to a structure. He runs extremely tight practices, usually making the players do unsavory defensive drills first just to get them into work mode.
There's a fast pace with enforced rules. No one is allowed to bend over and pull on his shorts to show fatigue. Water breaks rarely last more than a minute or two. Defense is preached over and over. Special treatment is nearly nonexistent.
It is still early in the season. There are many challenges ahead for the Heat's coach, who turned 40 last month. The stress likely will only build as the season goes along.
But right now everyone on the Heat is buying into Spoelstra's plan, and that is no small accomplishment.