Erik Spoelstra doesn’t like to share much about his personal life.
So I started this conversation on the eve of the Miami Heat’s season Monday afternoon by sharing that I’ve been married for 13 years, thinking it may spark the newlywed to feel a little more at ease talking about his wife.
“Thirteen years?” Spoelstra responded with a grin. “Nowadays that's like 25, 30 years.”
The same could be said for Spoelstra’s basketball marriage. The one he’s been in for nine years now are rare. Very rare.
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Since Pat Riley handpicked Spoelstra as his successor in April 2008, there have been 101 coaching changes in the league. The only coach who has remained in the same seat he was already in when Spoelstra started his career at age 37 is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
The Brooklyn Nets, meanwhile, are on their ninth different head coach since Spoelstra’s debut. The Sacramento Kings are on their eighth coach, and the Minnesota Timberwolves on their seventh.
A look at the landscape shows there are 10 coaches in their first seasons with new teams and another six entering their second season. Aside from Popovich and Spoelstra, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and Toronto’s Dwane Casey are the only other coaches in the league who have been with their respective teams at least five seasons.
Spoelstra, who turns 46 on Nov. 1, is sickened by those stats. He’s also grateful his bosses – Riley and owner Micky Arison — have given him time to grow. There’s been nearly a handful of times he thought he might get fired and knows many coaches don’t get the opportunity to survive slip-ups.
Some, like Frank Vogel, whom Spoelstra is opposing in Wednesday night’s season opener in Orlando, don’t even need to mess up to lose their jobs. Vogel, 43, compiled a 250-181 record in six seasons with the Pacers. Twice he lost to LeBron James and the Heat in a pair of thrilling Eastern Conference Finals.
Then, last season, Vogel took a revamped roster and had Indiana on the brink of knocking off No. 2 seed Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. Vogel was told he would not be retained less than a week after dropping Game 7 on the road. Pacers president Larry Bird cited the need for a new voice in Indiana’s locker room.
Down here in South Florida, Spoelstra’s voice is ultimately what Riley is leaning on most this season. Although most experts look at this Heat roster (filled with journeymen on one- and two-year contracts) as a lottery season waiting to happen, Riley doesn’t see this coaching challenge as anything tougher than what Spoelstra hasn’t already conquered before.
“This is far and away from his greatest challenge,” Riley said last month, the same day he announced the team was no longer working toward Chris Bosh’s return from blood clots. “Spo’s greatest challenge was the four years of the Big 3, putting them together, getting them to the Finals, winning championships.
“This is a challenge for him, but one I know he’s excited about. He can go to the drawing board, start moving pieces around, cultivate his own philosophy with this team and I think that's important. That's what the growth of a coach goes through. Players have a tendency to teach you new ways to approach things.”
Even though the Heat isn’t expected to make the playoffs, Spoelstra, who begins the season with 399 wins and 70 playoff wins (third most among active coaches including Doc Rivers), isn’t dumbing down Riley’s expectations. He’s embracing them like he always as.
“You can't ask me if I like this team and its chances more than another team – we’re not wired to think that way,” Spoelstra said when I asked him if he thinks this Heat team is talented enough to be a playoff team.
“After 22 years, we’re wired to get into battle with this team and give everything we have, give them the best opportunity to win and see if we can mold them and push them and serve them to a point where they can compete for a title. That's the only thing were thinking about and that's what they deserve from me as the head coach.”
Serving, though, comes a bit differently these days for Spoelstra. Burning the midnight oil or burning himself out doesn’t happen like it used to. Experience has taught him to delegate and lean more on his assistant coaches and team captains, and to save the intensity for when it’s needed.
“I've really worked at it,” Spoelstra said. “Not that the pressure has changed or that I feel it any less. I think just my ability to compartmentalize a little bit more [has improved].
“I get out a lot more on days between [games], whether is going out to dinner or going to see a movie. And I don't feel like that's taking away from my work-life balance perspective. I actually think it's helped it.”
His wife, Nikki, has played a big role in that. She not only sits next to him and dozes off late at night as Spoelstra watches HBO’s Westworld, his favorite TV show, but back in July when he was dazed by the departure of Dwyane Wade, the former Heat cheeleader snapped him out of his funk with a taste of his own medicine.
“As I was preparing for my wedding she finally said, ‘Hey, we've got a wedding to prepare for. You’ve got to get onto the next thing. You preach that all the time,’’ Spoelstra said. “I said, ‘Good point.’ ”
Spoelstra said he isn’t sure if it will ever feel right seeing Wade in a Chicago Bulls uniform. He texted him the same day he saw highlights of Wade’s first preseason game telling him “Bulls jersey? No. That's the team we dislike. You can't be wearing one of those jerseys.”
But whether he likes it or not, Spoelstra said he’s accepted what’s happened.
His goal now is to nurture what’s here.
Although all seasons are ultimately judged on wins and losses, this one will be defined by whether or not Spoelstra can help the Heat’s next crop of budding young stars develop into franchise cornerstones. If he doesn’t, Riley could put a blow torch to it all and start over.
For now, with Bosh’s career in Miami likely over, Spoelstra is leaning on 14-year veteran Udonis Haslem to help him identify those new leaders. Haslem, 36, is the Heat’s lone captain for this upcoming season. And it will stay that way, Spoelstra said, until the start of next season.
“I've probably leaned on UD more this year than even ever before,” Spoelstra said. “I think he and I are simpatico now with the leadership. He sees the vision. He sees his role in it. He sees how much he can impact it and so much of it is right in line with what I would say, but he says it in a different language with a lot more expletives and it has a lot more emphasis and it resonates a lot more than what I say.
“But I also am looking forward to developing the next set of leaders here. Not only UD, but Goran [Dragic] and Justise [Winslow] and J-Rich [Josh Richardson] and Tyler [Johnson] and Hassan [Whiteside]. Seeing each of them step a little bit more forward as a leader, a little bit more out of their comfort zone, a little bit each day, that's fun to watch. That makes this profession gratifying too.”