Four years ago, in Miami, the fireworks of hubris exploded and the pep rally ensued. LeBron James stood before Miami HEAT fans in his white hot uniform and declared that a dynasty was developing.
He famously counted out aloud, pontificating that Pat Riley would eventually eclipse Phil Jackson as the contemporary NBA’s lord of the rings.
And way back then, back before James knew what it felt like to embrace the Larry O’Brien trophy, the green Erik Spoelstra was thought to be in over his head.
Of his current cast of players, one of the two who know Spoelstra best, Dwyane Wade, discussed his coach with Basketball Insiders in a one-on-one conversation.
“My coach?” Wade surprisingly asked when I told him that I wanted to discuss Spoelstra with him.
“Nobody ever wants to talk about that guy,” he said with a slight chuckle.
And nothing could have been any closer to the truth. When the conversation got serious, though, and I asked Wade about how Spoelstra has progressed before Wade’s very eyes, he got quite serious.
“He has grown tremendously,” he said, recalling the man that his coach is today and contrasting him with the quiet and aloof video coordinator that Spoelstra was before 2008, before he was handed the reins of the team after Riley ceded the sideline.
In July 2010, after two seasons as the head man in Miami and a 90-74 combined record, at just 39 years old, Spoelstra hit the basketball talent jackpot, but it was a blessing and a curse.
James and Chris Bosh agreed to form the modern era’s most prolific triumvirate with Wade, and the three agreed to collectively embark on a journey that would eventually be marked by sacrifice and success. Today, we know that the impetus behind the Miami three and their mindset was and is Spoelstra. The HEAT have succeeded not in spite of their head coach, but in large part, because of him.
Once upon a time, though, the odds seemed stacked against him. Riley’s vision of Spoelstra becoming a great head coach? It was thought to never have a chance of coming to fruition.
Yes, Spoelstra turned in a respectable freshman and sophomore year as the head coach for the HEAT. But with James, Wade and Bosh? Under these lights? With these expectations? Surely, it would be too much for the neophyte. Riley, it was thought, would eventually slap Spoelstra aside, the same way he did Stan Van Gundy. And Riley, it was thought, would again subjugate his head coach in blind pursuit of the glory.
Now, four years later, as the HEAT vie for their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals—a feat that has not been accomplished since Larry Bird’s 1987 Boston Celtics—Spoelstra is still widely overlooked.
His brilliant game-to-game adjustments, his tackling of all the adversity that he and his team have faced and even his existence as the adhesive that has bonded the potential, aspirations and talents of his dynamic trio—of those, you hear not a peep.
The building of a culture in Miami that is dedicated only to playing the game the right way, playing it to the best of your abilities and putting winning before everything else—of that, you hear not a mention.
Way back in June 2012, back when the HEAT were still in search of their first championship, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Scotty Brooks stood in their way.
In every interaction and conversation I had with Spoelstra, each time I observed him up-close, his demeanor, candor and class were evident. And in a moment of honesty, before Game 3 in Miami, with the series tied 1-1, in 2012, he spoke about himself and his team’s journey.
“Well, probably the biggest thing is you just do it,” he said when asked about coaching for his first title.
“I get experience by just doing it. When I first got the job, it was nowhere near what it was last summer or two summers ago,” he said, recalling the team’s first season together when they eventually fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. “You just try to compartmentalize. Going into it you prepare as much as possible. I had met with every single player and said, ‘hey, here’s what we can expect. 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.'”
A little more than a year before that point, the HEAT had lost eight of their first 17 games together. Secretly, James and Wade pondered whether they had made the correct decision in joining forces. Frustration mounted. The venom and hatred that emanated from all corners of the country created tangible tension in the locker room.
Still, green as ever, Spoelstra kept his troops together, his message never wavering.
We will figure this out. We are in this together. We just need to keep at it.
Together, they did. And since then, together, they have become a team.
“I think one of his strengths is his ability to be able to prepare, to get us always prepared whether we are playing good or not playing good and to keep us even-keeled,” Wade said. “I think one of the things that he has grown a lot is just being open to what us as players feel, as well, and kinda working together to come with one common goal.”
Wade is speaking of the wrinkles that have found their ways into the HEAT’s offense over the past few years. The latest example is James’ progression and thriving as an off-the-ball player who has become superb at exploiting defensive lapses and converting off both catch-and-shoot opportunities and backdoor cuts.
Now, as they attempt to qualify for their fourth straight NBA Finals, the upstart Indiana Pacers have seen Spoelstra adjust on the fly and have caused Frank Vogel to go back to the drawing board.
The most effective adjustment was Spoelstra understanding that both Lance Stephenson and George Hill—the two entrusted to initiate the Pacers’ playmaking—are mediocre ball handlers, at best. Norris Cole has supplanted Mario Chalmers in the lineup because he is a better on-ball defender and applies better ball pressure. He is quicker and more agile and is difficult to get around.
Cole, by his own admission, has been effective due to the preparation of his head coach and his staff.
“I feel very prepared,” Cole told Basketball Insiders after the HEAT beat the Pacers in Game 3 of the series. “We always go over the game plan. At shoot around in the morning, we always get our prep books, in order to study, we can study all afternoon and we review the game plan before the game so we’re prepared. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing the game plan.”
Thus far, the HEAT have.
“It’s necessary to make adjustments,” Cole said. “Sometimes, you have to throw a wrinkle in there and coach has done a great job of throwing a wrinkle or two here and there and making adjustments that are necessary for us to win.”
Even the sage, Shane Battier, believes that Spoelstra is among the best coaches he has played for, and he knows a thing or two about observing a master of preparation.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve played for unbelievable Hall-of-Fame coaches from Hubie Brown to Jeff Van Gundy to Mike Krzyzewski,” Battier told Basketball Insiders. “Erik Spoelstra will be a Hall-of-Fame coach someday, too. He’s a very good coach.
“I think his strength is that he really thinks about the game. There’s not an angle he doesn’t dissect after a game. He’s willing to try to new things and try to squeeze every last bit of juice out of a coverage or out of something he sees out on the floor and he’s bold, he’s bold from that regard.”
Now, as the HEAT toil and face the prospect of meeting the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals again, I couldn’t help but to recall my first question to Spoelstra during the 2013 NBA Finals, where he would square off against one of the greatest NBA coaches of all-time, Gregg Popovich.
“Look,” Spoelstra began, rather frustrated, “I haven’t ever looked it as an individual coaching challenge. Ever. That would be distracting. I’m focused, and our staff is preparing our team for this opportunity the best that we can. And each series has a life of its own. We’ve faced great teams, great coaching staffs in the last three years, and they’re all different.”
And since the HEAT have become champions, under Spoelstra’s guidance, they have all fallen.
“We just spend our time trying to make sure we’re playing our best basketball,” Spoelstra said.
Nobody has spent their time being more focused on that than the man who has emerged as the leader for this team.
“He doesn’t like the spotlight,” Wade said. “It’s just not who he is. It’s weird that he’s the head coach of this team, being the head coach of a team like this, with the big personalities, but he does it and he doesn’t want it to be about him and it’s worked for him.”
As well, it has worked for the HEAT.
Now, just a few victories away from doing something that has not been done in almost 30 years, the questions about whether Spoelstra can manage these personalities and the bright lights and the expectations? The doubters are now as silent as the Spurs’ locker room was in the aftermath of Game 6 of those 2013 Finals.
“From the beginning, I think the biggest thing is that coach always said that we are all in this together,” Wade recounted. “Nobody was coming to save us, nobody was coming to help us, we had to do it ourselves and it’s just us. It’s him, it’s the players, it’s everybody that’s in this gym and we had to figure it out.”
On the cusp of cementing themselves as a dynasty, despite health concerns and progressive attrition, it is safe to say that the HEAT have.
It has been a long and circuitous journey for Spoelstra and his HEAT. But for this coach, each day begins just as the one before it ended.
Quiet confidence, zealous preparation, and now, experience-boldened and battle-tested strength.
While the world was watching James become a star, the man who helped him become a champion, the man who spearheaded that effort, he has largely been ignored.
At the end of the day, though, Spoelstra is fine with that.
Determined, his HEAT continue their march toward their three-peat and their mention among the sport’s dynasties, and they do so with a common goal in mind. They do so led by two of the greatest talents the game has ever seen.
And they continue onward, led by the man who was quietly there since the beginning, enduring sleepless nights along the way.
His name is Erik Spoelstra, and he’s worthy of your respect.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.