MIAMI -- These are good days for Erik Spoelstra, coaching with a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals, living a dream that began in a cold, dark video room so many years earlier. These are good days, so good that it becomes easy to forget the horrors of the recent past. It was just 15 months ago that the Heat, this super team, this basketball Voltron, as Kobe Bryant once so aptly put it, was in a free fall, losers of five straight, stumbling towards the playoffs with little trust in each other and, Mario Chalmers admitted on Monday, little confidence in their head coach. They pulled themselves out of it back then, regrouping in April before charging past Boston and Chicago and into the Finals. Now they are here again, two games away from living up to the considerable hype, two wins from reaching their potential.
They are here because of the superlative talent of LeBron James and the determination of a hobbled Dwyane Wade, the redemptive performance of Chris Bosh and the white-hot shooting of Shane Battier. But they are also here because of Spoelstra, whose role in Miami's success cannot be overlooked. On paper, coaching a roster chock full of talent looks easy, but blend in personalities and egos and it becomes decidedly different.
"Think about the personalities we have here," said Juwan Howard. "And it's not just LeBron, Wade and Bosh. You have guys that have All-Star appearances like myself and Mike Miller. Last year we had Big Z [Zydrunas Ilgauskas] and Mike Bibby. It's challenging. But Spoelstra has done a great job with all of that. He sort of reminds me of Doc [Rivers]. Spo doesn't get a lot of credit for blending all these personalities."
To a man, the players understand the impossibility of Spoelstra's situation. "Lose, and it's your fault," said Miller. "Win, and anyone can coach these guys." They appreciate how he has handled himself through rough waters. When the team opened last season 9-8, Spoelstra preached patience. When Chris Bosh barked that Spoelstra was working the team too hard, he refused to bark back. When an anonymously sourced story appeared blasting him for being too rigid, Spoelstra refused to take the bait.
As many wondered when Pat Riley would descend from the front office and push aside his protégé, Spoelstra refused to back down.
"You just try and compartmentalize," Spoelstra said. "There's going to be an incredible amount of noise. Everybody will be under a story line at some point. I'll probably be under it every week. I was probably uncomfortable for the first two or three weeks of it, and then you adjust quickly, and this becomes the world."
That consistency under pressure slowly earned him respect. When training camp opened in December, the vibe was decidedly different. "It was like, 'We know he isn't going anywhere and we're not going anywhere," Chalmers said. "We just have to do what it takes to get to the Finals."
Perhaps none of Spoelstra's relationships have improved more than the one with James. Spoelstra has never coddled James, never treated him with the reverence Mike Brown and the Cleveland organization once did. There is preferential treatment for star players, always will be. But Spoelstra made sure that no player would be elevated high above the rest. James chafed at Spoelstra's handling of him at first, but over time has grown to accept, if not respect Spoelstra's methods.
"Our first month together, I didn't know him, he didn't know me," James said. "And now we're still growing each and every day, but our trust factor is great. I mean, he trusts me on the floor to do things. As a player, you feel confident when your coach allows you to make changes on the fly, and I have the utmost respect for him for allowing me to have that responsibility, where if I see something on the floor, I can just go with it, and I know I'm doing it for the best of the team, and he gives me that leeway."
It's unlikely Spoelstra will ever feel at ease in his situation. It's championship or bust every season in Miami, the cost of collecting stars like baseball cards. Spoelstra works in Riley's shadow, surrounded by Riley's staff, held to the impossible standard Riley has set. The players still call Riley "coach," still speak his name with reverence. Indeed, Spoelstra may never escape that shadow in Miami, but he has already proved his worth.