When teams create new positions for coaching specialists who are essentially gurus at their crafts - as the Marlins, Dolphins and Heat have done in the past year - there’s an outside expectation of immediate results.
Truth is, there’s no magic wand that can somehow dramatically improve the Marlins’ pitching, the Heat’s three-point shooting or the Dolphins’ pass-rush.
But the three hires – especially the Heat and Marlins hires - have paid dividends with several players.
Examining how each of the three team’s well-regarded “special” hires fared:
• When Erik Spoelstra hired Rob Fodor, who was an instructor at Spoelstra’s youth basketball academy, as the first shooting coach in Heat history, Spoelstra called him “as talented as anybody I've ever seen in that space, a really unique basketball mind.”
Fodor’s guidance, in concert with the other Heat assistants, has helped appreciably during a season in which James Johnson and Wayne Ellington easily set career records for three-pointers made and Dion Waiters has shot by far his highest percentage ever on threes (39.4).
“Rob’s always available at 4 a.m., 3 a.m., 1 a.m., 12; he’s always willing to help you get better,” Johnson said, noting he called Fodor after midnight a couple times in August.
“We built a foundation with my shot. Now we always have something to go back to if it’s falling off. He makes sure everything is always the same. I can’t give away all his secrets, but as soon as he put one of those secrets on me, we just go from there.”
Dragic, who’s shooting 40.9 percent on threes (compared with 36.2 in his career), said Fodor made a subtle but important adjustment with him before the season.
“We changed my mechanics to have the ball closer to my body when I release it so the ball is not away from my body,” Dragic said. “At the beginning, it felt strange. But now it's normal. It definitely helped. The shot is faster. The guy cannot reach as much.”
Miami entered this past weekend ranked 15th in field-goal percentage and 12th in three-point percentage at 36.5, well ahead of last season when the Heat ranked 27th at 33.6 on threes.
What’s more, the Heat has established a franchise record for threes in a season. It’s important to note that Johnson and others also credit the other assistants for offensive growth, including Octavio De La Grana.
Johnson, shooting a career-best 34.3 percent on threes, had never made more than 22 threes in a season. He has 86 this season.
He said there’s value in hiring a shooting coach “not only because it helped me but because everybody needs somebody who knows their shot enough to help them get back to the basics if it’s off, or go back to the foundation.
He’s one of those guys that can see somebody’s jumper and immediately know what’s wrong. And it feels better right away for the person shooting. After that, it’s all about drilling and staying consistent.”
Ellington, as pure a shooter as there is on the Heat’s roster, has topped 100 threes for the first time in a season (he’s at 142) and said of Fodor: “It’s been good to have him around. When I feel I could be making some shots that I’m missing, we’ll always sit down and talk about it. Or he will show me something on film. I’ll be able to adjust quickly.
“It always helps to have someone who can help you tweak something very small if need be. We’ll look at minor things, things he feels like can help me. Like getting a little lower coming off screens.”
Fodor worked months with Justise Winslow, tinkering with the mechanics on his jumper, but it’s too early to tell the longterm impact because of Winslow’s wrist and shoulder injuries that limited him to 18 games (He was 7 for 35 on threes this season.)
• The Dolphins last year hired Jim Washburn as a pass rush specialist after a distinguished career including 17 years of NFL coaching experience, mostly as a defensive line coach, and extensive college coaching.
But Miami’s pass rush – aside from Cam Wake - was disappointing, with the 33 sacks tied for 19th in the league.
Jordan Phillips, whose development was a priority, had just half a sack after two as a rookie and didn’t develop as a pass rusher.
Washburn quietly left the team after the season, by his choice. Andre Carter became the team’s new assistant defensive line, without the pass rush title.
Washburn’s “mindset and how he goes about teaching [was] unconventional,” practice squad defensive lineman Julius Warmsley said. “He wants you to attack continuously and get off the ball like it’s a pass every down.”
Great concept, in theory; it certainly has worked under defensive coordinator Manny Diaz at UM. But the approach has had questionable results with the Dolphins, with Miami’s run defense ranking 30th.
• The Marlins were so enamored with hiring Jim Benedict as a roving pitching guru that they traded a solid starting pitching prospect, Trevor Williams, to the Pirates in November 2015 as compensation for allowing him to join the Marlins.
It was a stiff price; Williams was 10-6 with a 2.42 ERA last season, then went 1-1 in seven games for Pittsburgh.
Benedict, who is authorized to counsel any pitcher he wants in the organization, couldn’t elevate a few pitchers who regressed, including Andrew Cashner (a disaster after his trade from San Diego; now injured with Texas) and Justin Nicolino (whose ERA rose from 4.01 in 2015 to 4.99 in 2016).
But the well-regarded Benedict was among several Marlins officials who extracted more from Kyle Barraclough (led National League relievers in strikeouts last season) and Adam Conley (8-6, 3.85). Pitching coach Juan Nieves also deserves some of the credit with those two and others.
Benedict has been polarizing inside his organization. The front office loves him, believing he can turn around struggling pitchers, and seek his evaluation before making personnel moves. Benedict’s input was heeded in the decision to sign pitcher Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke, who both had success in Pittsburgh when Benedict worked there.
But some members of the coaching staff weren’t happy with his involvement last offseason, according to someone directly involved. And one player questioned Benedict’s instructions to him during spring training last year.