By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - When the Miami Heat assembled their 'Big Three' four years ago skeptics wondered if head coach Erik Spoelstra would be able to mould all that talent into an effective team or if they would end up a squabbling set of egos.
With the two-time defending champion Heat set to compete in a fourth consecutive NBA Finals starting on Thursday, Spoelstra has silenced the cynics in the clearest way possible.
The likes of Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and Ray Allen have all made vital while men with lesser minutes, such as Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis, have also stepped up when needed.
Strangely, Spoelstra still gets little recognition for his achievements but his technical and tactical skills as a coach have been matched by his man-management skills.
Miami had their troubles during the 2013-14 regular season, particularly during the home stretch and moments in the playoffs where not everything went according to plan.
But each time Spoelstra, 43, has drawn on the depth he has available to him on his roster and the abundance of options at his disposal.
For Spoelstra, much of Miami's success can be put down to the team spirit that has emerged throughout their time in the spotlight since James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, joined them.
"We have a group that's earned a lot of trust with each other. There's a lot of equity of going through pain, of going through joy, of going through everything in between. I mean, this is your extended family," said Spoelstra.
"Even the guys that haven't been with us for the four years, what we say to them when they join our team is you inherit all of the experiences we've had before. All the pain, all the joy, you inherit that, and you're part of the family."
Surprisingly for a team that has such star quality there have been very few, if any, hints of discord in the Miami locker room and plenty of resilience during the tough patches.
"If you have that trust, when you go through tough times and you're going at it, you actually gain something from it. When we were going through some of the rough stretches this regular season, I kind of liked it," said Spoelstra.
"It wasn't as I think we're often portrayed as - that we're just waiting for the postseason. That couldn't be further from the truth. There's a lot of passion and frustration when we were dropping 10 of those games in the fourth quarter, where we had fourth-quarter leads.
"Guys wanted to win. We had to deal with some injuries and different lineups and all those type of things and the struggle of closing out games. Ultimately, I think that helps you grow."
It helps, of course, when you have the game's best player of the current era in James, three-time NBA champion Wade, nine-times All-Star Bosh and the NBA's all-time three-point leader in Allen.
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team lost the last two Eastern Conference finals to Miami, has no doubt that Miami are among the best teams the sport has seen, even comparing them to the Chicago Bulls team that won six championships during an eight-season stretch of the 1990s.
"We were playing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era," he said after the 4-2 series loss.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Frank Pingue)