LOS ANGELES -- The new friendship of coaches Chip Kelly and Erik Spoelstra is a marriage of football and basketball. And it all comes down to power.
Kelly came up with the offensive ideas that turned the Oregon Ducks into the only college football team to reach a BCS bowl in each of the last three years. Now Spoelstra has redefined those ideas to turn the Miami Heat into the NBA's highest-scoring team. "I congratulated him on his first win of the season," said Kelly, and then he read aloud the text message Spoelstra sent in reply: "Trying to get our guys to play with the speed and athleticism of the Ducks. Pace and space."
Their friendship matters because neither Kelly nor Spoelstra is pursuing a style of finesse. Other football coaches have been spreading the field for decades, with the aim of creating space to pass the ball. Kelly has updated those systems by playing two-minute offense around the clock with the goal of running the ball. His endgame is to overwhelm and exhaust the opponent physically.
Spoelstra is breaking similar trends with the Heat. They push the ball and spread the floor, and initially they look as if they're drawing from the same playbook used by drive-and-kick teams in Europe and the NCAA and the NBA. But there is a big difference between Miami and most other spread-the-floor offenses. Instead of spotting up at the three-point line, Spoelstra's stars are attacking the basket. During their 5-1 start, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have each attempted (and missed) a single three-pointer.
They are attacking the paint, much the same as Kelly's Ducks attack the tackles. Both coaches are engaged in an evolutionary step that promises to change the way football and basketball are played.
"You look at those guys and they're all finishers," said Kelly of Spoelstra's new offense. "It fits with those guys. LeBron's a finisher, Wade's a finisher, [Chris] Bosh is a finisher."
Kelly was sitting by the swimming pool of the Ducks' hotel Tuesday, the day after Oregon had won its first Rose Bowl in 95 years. Of the 621 total yards they gained in their 45-38 win against Wisconsin, 345 had come on 40 rushes. The Ducks gained 239 yards on six running plays, including a pair of handoffs to freshman DeAnthony Thomas, who turned each one into a touchdown while averaging a preposterous 77.5 yards per carry.
Kelly developed his unique offensive views as an assistant at New Hampshire, where he was operating from a position of weakness. "We were running out of fullbacks," he said. "We had some good receivers we wanted to get on the field. And we wanted to run the ball, too. We were just trying to figure out how to do that."
Over the years he would visit other schools, studying their offenses for clues that would help UNH to line up like a modern passing team even as it sought to emphasize the run. Spoelstra had a similar agenda when he visited Kelly during two-a-days in August. "It's ironic, they did the same thing that we did," said Kelly. "They got to the champonship game and lost to the Mavs, and we got to the championship game and lost to Auburn. So he's in kind of the same situation: It's how do you move forward?
"I think all of our players are huge hoop fans, and they felt if Erik Spoelstra came to watch them practice that was cool. ... I'm really a big fan of his because he's like me. He got presented with the lockout and well, 'what do I do?' So instead of just sitting around and letting the grass grow under his feet, he was really proactive. He was telling me he was visiting with everybody."
Spoelstra covered the spectrum by meeting with Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari and Urban Meyer, among others. After Kelly's season had started, Spoelstra returned to Eugene to meet with Paul Westhead, the Oregon women's coach who has counseled Kelly on uptempo play, as well as men's coach Dana Altman. Once the lockout was resolved and his players reported for a brief training camp last month, Spoelstra sold them on pushing the ball in a way that has to please basketball traditionalists. Over the years the old-schoolers have complained that the three-point line has pulled the game away from the basket. They haven't enjoyed seeing fast-break teams pull up to attempt low-percentage threes when they could be attacking the rim.
The Heat lost the NBA Finals because they played passively, settling for those long jumpers instead of playing to their athletic strengths in transition and around the basket. Now they seem intent on attacking relentlessly, much the same as Kelly seeks to play football at a faster pace than the defense. Kelly has sped up the game by doing away with the huddle; Spoelstra has created a similar effect by limiting the number of plays he calls from the sideline. He wants to liberate the athleticism and fluid playmaking skills of James, Wade and Bosh.
"That's what we try to do," said Kelly. "All we try to do is get speed and space to create big plays, and [the Heat] are similar from that aspect because they have great athletes.''
Kelly has created a new dynamic. His Ducks were No. 5 nationally in rushing this season with 295.7 yards per game, yet they also ranked dead last among 120 schools in time of possession. Football teams have always run the ball to control the clock. The Oregon paradox makes sense only if you watch how the Ducks hurry to the line of scrimmage play after play after play. Kelly runs the ball as a method of attack, of generating big plays. He is able to create the equivalent of a long bomb with a simple handoff up the middle.
"The better you space, the more lanes you have," Kelly said. "And then you get more lanes to run through. That's what we're trying to do."
That's also what Miami is trying to do. The new offense is inspiring its stars with a sense of purpose. Last season, James in particular was trying to understand what he was supposed to do, and he was so busy considering his options that he failed to attack. Now the NBA's most powerful and skilled athlete knows his role is to push relentlessly.
Kelly cautions that it's not as easy as it looks. "Everybody says they want to do it, but to practice at that level and push yourself, it's hard to do," he said.
"You need kids who are 100 percent committed and believe in it. You've got to practice really, really hard to do that."
Kelly looks forward to becoming more efficient by shaving off more time in between plays and putting more pressure on the defense to keep up. "We're trying to play faster," he said. "Some of it's within the limits of the rules; some of it it ends up being dictated by how fast does that particular referee get the ball spotted. Every [game official] that we've had has been consistent, but some guys are consistently slow, and other guys are consistently faster. They're always consistent, it's not like they change it [during the game]. You'd like for them to play faster, and that's why if you get an older crew coming in, you say this game may be a little slower. You just say, 'OK, this is what we've got to do today.' It's not going to be as fast as it normally is. It's not an excuse, it's just that you have to be able to understand what pace they're going to allow us to play.''
Instead of shooting threes over the top or passing the football over the middle, Spoelstra and Kelly are ramming the ball down the throat of opponents. They are spreading the court and the field in order to generate power at the expense of finesse. The question in basketball and football has often been whether a championship can be won without an inside game. Instead of spreading the floor to hide the absence of power inside, these two coaches are spreading the floor in order to exert power.
Someday an NFL team may commit to Kelly's breakthrough style. In the meantime he will look forward to next season at Oregon, while living vicariously through Spoelstra and Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who also met with Kelly during the lockout. Kelly insists he has gained as much or more than Spoelstra and McMillan during their give-and-take conversations.
"Obviously we have so many more players to practice than they have," Kelly said. "But there's still the same process. How do you get everybody working? How do you maximize your practice time? How do you do things really efficiently and not have a lot of guys standing around -- is it crisp? Hopefully after we get done recruiting, I'll get a chance to see how both of those guys practice, and see if I can get some ideas."