No NBA coach faced more pressure the past two seasons than Erik Spoelstra. Handed the keys to the league's next super team in the summer of 2010 when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, Spoelstra guided the Heat to the Finals in 2011 only to see the team fall to the delight of pundits and fans everywhere. With a steady drumbeat of calls for him to be ousted and replaced by Heat president Pat Riley, Spoelstra won the NBA title everyone expected last June. As he prepares for his fifth season as Heat coach, the 41-year-old spoke to SI.com about how the past two seasons have changed the team and what's ahead for the defending champions.
SI.com: Given the pressure you and this team faced since the summer of 2010, what did winning a title feel like for you?
Erik Spoelstra:It was gratifying from the standpoint that all of us went through it together. You hear that a lot, but there was no question that during the course of two years, we were all uncomfortable at some point. It was, at times, tumultuous. It was, at times, rocky. But we were able to find a way to overcome all of that and accomplish something together. And when you find moments like that in sports, it truly is special because you realize how rare that is.
SI.com: What made the biggest difference from Year 1 with the Big Three to Year 2?
Spoelstra: There were a lot of events over the course of two years that steeled us, that forced us to develop a resolve and toughness. The 9-8 start [in Year 1], when it felt like the world was coming down on us after we all thought it would be easier than it actually was. We lost five straight games at home before the playoffs in 2011 and everybody was digging our grave. And then came the ultimate pain of losing in the Finals, which became one of the biggest motivating factors for every single one of us in that locker room. By the time we got to the 2011-12 season we had developed a resolve we needed. We were the only team that's been behind in three straight series to win an NBA title. [The Heat overcame a 2-1 series deficit in the Eastern Conference semis, a 3-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals and a 1-0 deficit in the NBA Finals.] We didn't panic in any of those series, but because of all of those other, tough experiences we were able to compartmentalize and focus on playing our best basketball, knowing that each series is a long series and there are a lot of different storylines.
SI.com: How did the first season with the Big Three change you?
Spoelstra: Failure and pain are incredible motivators but they are also powerful teachers. I went into that first offseason with a commitment to get better. The lockout was really a focused sabbatical for me. I studied other teams and other coaching philosophies. I didn't adopt another philosophy but what I found through that journey was that I needed to look at the team through a different lens, to be open and embrace the versatility of our roster. That's where we started to play position-less and to play faster than we were accustomed to playing.
SI.com: Did that approach flow from the talent on the roster or a shift in strategy?
Spoelstra: In talking to so many other coaches and trying to learn their systems, that got us to circle back to our team and realize we had a unique, unconventional roster. And to fully unlock the strengths of the roster we had to find a way to fully utilize the versatility that we had.
SI.com: Was there resistance to the idea of playing different positions?
Spoelstra: No. We all understood that there would be a process to it, but for us to play our best players, we were going to have to play guys out of their "conventional" positions. They understood that. This process started that first year we were together. We didn't do it as much as we did the second half of last season or in the playoffs, but we were building toward that and developing more confidence in it to where it wasn't so new and uncomfortable. They not only embraced it but they really enjoyed it.
SI.com: Last year you seemed to find success at getting LeBron James to play more in the low post. This year it appears Chris Bosh is embracing the idea of playing center. How have you been able to convince your players to accept roles they have been reluctant to accept in the past?
Spoelstra: We all developed a better trust in each other by going through some of those painful experiences. We don't want to restrict our players to a box or to a conventional position, but rather we want to think of them as typically skilled basketball players out on the court. Chris is a very intelligent player. Part of his strength is his ability to play multiple positions, which is unique with his length and his skill set. But I don't use the term center with Chris. I don't use the term power forward. He's out there in our starting five.
Philosophically, we do things differently than the way we have in the past, and yet we still are a power paint team. ... We still try to develop a game that is predicated on going inside out. We do that with our pace and our space and our post-ups. As for the pace of the game, hopefully we get some opportunities in transition, where we feel we're one of the more explosive teams. The spacing opens up some alleys to drive. And then in the post-up game, we still post arguably as much as some of the old Miami Heat teams, but we do it inverted, with our perimeter players rather than a conventional center.
SI.com: Pat Riley's presence seems to be not only an asset but also a potential problem with the pressure that comes with working under him. How have you handled the task of trying to win with frequent media calls for your boss to take your job?
Spoelstra: First, I'm grateful for the opportunity Micky Arison and Coach Riley have given me, and I would not be here without Pat's guidance over the years. Still, it's never easy in sports replacing a Hall of Famer, but then coaching a team with the type of players that we had was a new experience. As much as I tried to prepare before the 2010-11 season, those first three weeks when we were 9-8, sure ... I was uncomfortable. I had never experienced anything like that before as an assistant coach or in the two years I had been a head coach. After that I was able to realize, OK, this is the world I'll live in. All coaches live in it to some extent, and from there I was able to find a way to compartmentalize and focus on the things I could control, and that was to coach. Everything else was just noise.
SI.com: Much has been made over whose team the Heat is: Dwyane's or LeBron's? Does it matter?
Spoelstra: Yeah, and I think one of the last hurdles that we finally overcame was that it became our team, and everybody had a voice. Regardless of the role, not one person could have won that Finals trophy without everybody else. There was a not an epiphany; it happened through experiences and often times through failure and pain.
SI.com: Did you have to prove yourself to LeBron and Chris?
Spoelstra: I've always felt that I've had to prove my integrity, my competence every single day, and earn the trust of my players every single day, and that's regardless of my background. And winning a title as an assistant coach or a head coach doesn't change that. You have to earn your players' trust all the time. And I'm grateful Dwyane and U.D. [longtime Heat power forward Udonis Haslem] helped me open up the doors to new players and bridge a connection with players I didn't know yet. But those two could vouch for me in terms of my integrity and work ethic and character. I don't know what it would have been like to coach my first game if I didn't have good existing relationships with Dwyane and U.D. already.
SI.com: How did the additions of 2010 change your relationship with Dwyane?
Spoelstra: Dwyane and I have been through everything. In every single position I've had in our organization, from a scout to an assistant coach to head coach, I have developed a relationship with Dwyane. We've been through the good and bad and everything in between. You really get to know each other in this league once you go through tough times, not just the championships; that's where you develop a level of trust that goes above and beyond.
SI.com: Does winning a ring afford you a level of freedom in which you can try different strategies than in the past?
Spoelstra: I don't plan on being cavalier about our team. This is still a fragile opportunity. So many things have to go your way and you have to rise to the occasion in the moments of truth time and time again. One of our greatest teachers and motivators before was losing in the Finals. Sometimes, inversely, success can be a deceptive and inefficient teacher if you don't review it with the proper perspective.
SI.com: And that perspective is?
Spoelstra: One, to remember how difficult it actually was. Two, to understand there's no way to take the same path, so it will be a new journey for us. And third, to commit to a growth mindset. We can't fast-track to June, to times that are certainly not guaranteed. Rather, we need to focus on the present moment and to try to improve every day. That can be a cliché but it is also true. Everybody wants to fast-forward to the Eastern Conference finals or to the NBA Finals, to possible opponents, to the things that can't possibly be planned for. But there's a reason we play 82 regular-season games and have a training camp and a preseason, and that's to improve as a team and to go through the trials and tribulations together and hopefully grow to the point where you have a legitimate chance to win it all.
SI.com: You have a roster with the reigning MVP, two perennial All-Stars and the greatest three-point shooter in the game who also happens to be a perennial All-Star. Are there areas to improve?
Spoelstra: Yes. And one of the areas is to play with more pace. That is a synapse that we have to continue to build. We were one of the slower-paced teams in 2010 and last year we were in the top half. I would like to play a little faster this year. It won't be out of control but hopefully we can create more possessions.
SI.com: How much of your job now is psychologist vs. game strategist?
Spoelstra: As an assistant coach, it was probably 70 percent strategy, preparation, schematics, and 30 percent player development/interaction. And as a head coach it became 50 percent pressure and 50 percent managing personalities. You can see that I left out the Xs and Os. That isn't to diminish the importance of those -- it's a major part of what we do. But managing personalities and managing all the outside circumstances are probably the biggest part of this job.
SI.com: Now that you have won a ring, what will keep you up nights this season?
Spoelstra: I feel as uncomfortable as I did last year or the year before. It doesn't stop. You win the title and you celebrate for the weekend and then you're already starting to think about the challenges of the next season. That's the life and the curse for a head coach in any sport. Now we've been around long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed and not to trust success. It will be the toughest thing any of us will have to do, to win another title.