Ira Winderman: How relationships, patience and six moments in time created Spoelstra’s ultimate Heat payoff

MIAMI — As Erik Spoelstra discussed his new Miami Heat coaching contract – his reluctance to make himself the focus to the degree that he has taken only two questions on the subject from the media since the agreement was finalized Tuesday – he put the emphasis on relationships and patience.

Indeed, even before there was a Big Three with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the two championships that followed, Spoelstra confided to those close to him that he wasn’t sure he was going to last that initial season.

He did. And these 15 seasons that have followed.

Because of relationships and patience.

Of relationships, he spoke in familial terms, both of immediate family and this new family he has forged with Heat President Pat Riley and with Micky Arison, Nick Arison and the Arison ownership.

That led to a story about his father, Jon Spoelstra, a long-time former NBA executive.

“He worked for the original owner of the Trail Blazers, Larry Weinberg,” Spoelstra said of his father. “He would eventually sell the team and my dad got fired. But he said he spent the rest of his career searching for and looking for somebody, a quality human being like Larry. He just always treasured those 11 years.

“And after a certain period of time, working for the Heat, he would tell me, ‘The Arisons really remind me of the Weinbergs. Don’t ever leave this kind of situation.’ And I’m just grateful it’s all worked out to this point.”

And of patience, Spoelstra spoke of the valleys before and between the six trips he’s guided the Heat to the NBA Finals.

“It’s a shame that other organizations can’t get it right,” Spoelstra said of the ever-spinning NBA coaching carousel. “But you have to go through the fires together, where you’re not like, ‘Well, that was a tough season, that’s your fault.’ You rally around each other and I think the best moments we’ve ever had are the growth and learning opportunities we’ve had from tough seasons, disappointing seasons and we’ve come back a lot better as an organization because of those times.”

And that’s the thing, there have been valleys, there have been FireSpo hashtags, there have been dark days. But out of the darkness has come overwhelming success.

It hardly is difficult to find examples of Spoelstra’s greatest coaching success.

2008-09: The dumpster fire of the 15-67 2007-08 season was followed by Riley’s coaching resignation and a dumpster fire of a lottery, when the league’s worst record only resulted in the No. 2 pick (and therefore no eventual NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose). And it got worse from there, when the choice was Michael Beasley instead of other available options such as Russell Westbrook or Kevin Love.

Through it all, including a 7-8 start, Spoelstra brought out the best of Dwyane Wade in a 30.2-point-a-game scoring season, started Jamario Moon and Yakhouba Diawara each for 21 games, drove the team to a 43-39 record and came within one victory (and one Jermaine O’Neal migraine) of a first-round Game 7 playoff upset of the 47-35 Atlanta Hawks.

2010-11: The first season of the Big Three with James, Wade and Bosh put trust of management and ownership to the ultimate test, including bump-gate with James while falling to a 9-8 start after a disturbing 106-95 loss in Dallas.

Management and ownership didn’t budge, even as Spoelstra was nudged by James walking back to a huddle that night. By season’s end there was a 58-24 record and a trip to the NBA Finals.

It ended with a thud, falling to the Mavericks in the championship series, including the indignity of then-Dallas coach Rick Carlisle speaking of how the Mavericks played more as a team.

But out of that darkness emerged the essence of Spoelstra, completely recasting the roles of the Big Three, going on to win championships in 2012 and ’13.

2014-15: Rare are the 37-45 seasons that stand as touchstones.

But then consider the circumstances of the Heat losing James in free agency in the 2014 offseason and then losing Bosh at midseason to life-threatening blood clots.

Through it all, the Heat remained in playoff contention until the penultimate night of the season. If that doesn’t sound like much, glance at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ record in the seasons after they twice lost James in free agency (19-63 in both 2010-11 and then 2018-19).

2016-17: Even rarer are the 41-41 seasons built off 11-30 starts.

Allow that to marinate. When seemingly any other coach or any other team would have given up on a season, Spoelstra managed a 30-11 turnaround over the second half of the season, missing out on the playoffs in a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls of Dwyane Wade, who had been lost in the 2016 offseason in free agency.

Somehow, Spoelstra found a way to redemption that season with a roster that featured Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters and James Johnson.

And there was one more victory from that season . . . the lottery addition of Bam Adebayo.

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2019-20: Perspectives remain mixed about the 2019-20 season that ended in the quarantine pandemic bubble at Disney World.

But there also was a consensus that the Heat were built for such a moment, driven by the single-minded focus of a coach from a 44-29 regular-season to a 4-2 NBA Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers marred by injuries in that series to Adebayo and Goran Dragic.

2022-23: Another testament to perseverance, from the play-in round and No. 8 Eastern Conference seed to a 4-1 NBA Finals loss to the Denver Nuggets.

No, not what is supposed to happen to 44-38 teams. Unless they’re Spoelstra teams.


THE NEW MARKET: Spoelstra’s contract drew the expected attention of those in the coaching fraternity, including fellow USA Basketball assistant coach Tyronn Lue. The Los Angeles Clippers coach signed a five-year, $35 million contract in the 2022 offseason, with USA Basketball coach Steve Kerr due for his own new contract with the Golden State Warriors. “I had a great reaction, for coaches to now be recognized, and understand how important they are to the game,” Lue said of learning of Spoelstra’s deal. He then cited other coaches who have received significant recent paydays, such as San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Detroit’s Monty Williams. “Just seeing Spo, like Monty and Pop, guys that have changed the game for coaches, and Steve’s next. So it’s just good to see,” Lue said. “So I just texted him, happy for him and the situation. A huge contract for a huge personality, someone who has done a lot of things for our game in the NBA, won two championships, 109 playoff wins. So it’s very deserving. And so it’s really good to see coaches now getting more credit and getting paid the way they’re getting paid. So it’s good to see.”

A BIG FAN: And then there are those who are fans of Spoelstra’s coaching. Count Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault in that group. “They just are the essence of competition. They don’t quit. They’re grimy. They’re willing to do hard things. They’ve done that for years. It seems like every player that wears their uniform embodies that,” Daigneault said before Wednesday’s victory over the Heat. “They’ve really done an incredible job of building a first-class organization in the way that they operate, and certainly the way they’ve been able to maximize their team. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to be a team where the whole is better than the sum of the parts. And they’re done that consistently for a long, long period of time, through a lot of different circumstances.”

STEPPING UP: In the midst of a career revival, former Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. has found himself as a starter with the Dallas Mavericks after starting only eight games the previous two seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Still only 26 despite this being his fifth NBA stop, Jones’ defense has drawn the praise of Mavericks coach Jason Kidd. “I just think it’s his makeup of who he is,” Kidd told the Dallas Morning News. “He loves the competition. If you look at his abilities, there’s not a lot of muscle, but he loves the competition, he loves to compete, he loves to win.” As for the scoring, Jones leaves that to teammates Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. “We try to do as much as we can to get a mismatch on them and get somebody that we know can’t guard them at all, has no chance,” Jones said. Asked what percentage of the league can’t stop those two, Jones said 98%, before adding, “the other two percent is me.”

NO FAVORS: Yes, the Heat will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back against a team coming off three days rest when they face the Nets in Brooklyn on Monday night. But the NBA has done the Nets no favors with their schedule. Thursday, the Nets were in Paris for an in-season international game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Back home after that loss, the Nets face the Heat and then immediately head out on a three-game western swing that opens Wednesday in Portland. Paris to Portland? 5,122 miles.


7. Consecutive seasons Heat center Bam Adebayo has had at least 100 assists. His seven such seasons, including this season, are the most in franchise history for a player listed 6 feet 9 or taller. LeBron James did it in all four of his seasons with the team and Chris Bosh also did it four times. In Heat history, the only players with more 100-assist seasons were Dwyane Wade (14) and Goran Dragic and Mario Chalmers (seven each).