Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, in Year 8, getting to know his latest challenge

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who enters his eighth season at the helm: ‘That’s the joy of being in this profession, is trying to figure out how the sum of the total can be better than the sum of the individuals.’
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who enters his eighth season at the helm: ‘That’s the joy of being in this profession, is trying to figure out how the sum of the total can be better than the sum of the individuals.’ AP

This is season six for No. 1 in Miami. It is not yet the longest Chris Bosh has been with an NBA franchise. It is, however, the longest he has played for any NBA coach. It has been such an eternity, in what Erik Spoelstra calls “the microwave society” of sports, that you would assume the two men were intimately acquainted.

Two championships. Two Finals defeats. One pothole-pockmarked 2014-15 season, for Spoelstra professionally, for Bosh physically.

What could remain a mystery after all they’ve endured and overcome?

“I think we’re just getting to know each other, really,” Bosh said Tuesday, following preparation for a season that starts Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets.

For Bosh, the progress came this summer, after Spoelstra suggested they set up some lunches. “I’m glad you said that,” Bosh recalled saying. “Let’s kind of take root in what we’re talking about. … It starts with me and you. If we’re not communicating, how can we expect everyone else to communicate?”

So they did, twice in Miami, once in Las Vegas. Let their guards down, let the jokes fly.

“Because before it was a lot tougher,” Bosh said. “Because, in the arena, it’s like, ‘Gimme the ball!’ And he’s like, ‘No!’ Know what I mean? As a player-coach, it’s always [like that]. But man to man, it’s a lot different.”

So that was different. It was another sign that Spoelstra, nearing his 45th birthday, entering his eighth season as an NBA head coach as well as a marital commitment — but still boyish enough to bounce out of the shootaround in a backward cap — is open to evolving.

Yet something about Spoelstra’s situation, strangely, feels so much the same as it always has, same as when he got the job in 2008, same as when he was blessed with Bosh and LeBron James as star complements to Dwyane Wade in 2010.

It still feels like many Heat fans don’t know him well enough.

Or rather, don’t trust him quite enough.

This is odd, in light of the victories. The 351 regular-season wins, second-most in Heat history, only 103 behind Pat Riley, who coached 291 more games with Miami. The 63 playoff wins, 29 more than Riley with Miami, while accruing the same number of losses.

This is odd, in light of the longevity. He’s now the second-longest tenured coach with his current NBA team, and will be first as soon as Gregg Popovich takes his sideline-reporter-terrorizing talents into retirement. He’s by far the longest-tenured coach of a major local team, as, since his hiring, three Miami Dolphins coaches, three Florida Panthers coaches, six Miami Marlins managers and three Miami Hurricanes football coaches have sunk into South Florida quicksand.

This is odd, in light of the backing Spoelstra has repeatedly received from bosses and the compliments he consistently gets from peers.

And yet, here many are, still, in show-me stage.

Show you can advance out of the first round without James.

Show you can get the starting lineup to sing, even with the overlapping backcourt, the underwhelming spacing and the unclear identity of the Heat’s go-to guy.

Show you can get the subs to sacrifice, so the Heat’s depth becomes devastating rather than distracting.

Show you can stagger rotations, so the most possible players can find rhythm even as you alter routines.

Show you can get this group to embrace defense as the past two Heat teams did not.

Show you can instill an identity in a team that, unlike predecessors, doesn’t yet know what it is. Or what it can do.

“I know if it’s not done right, it can look bad,” Wade said of what he expects. “And bad, as in still win games, but not the way we want to. I know if it’s done right, it can be real good. But I don’t know which one we’re going to get yet. None of us do. This 82-game season is going to show us a lot about ourselves.”

Show, again, that you can lead.




“That’s the joy of being in this profession, is trying to figure out how the sum of the total can be better than some of the individuals,” Spoelstra said. “And bringing guys together. Having them feel a sense of community where they are part of something bigger than themselves, where they want to help their teammate be better. Where they find joy in that, where they don’t want to let their teammates down. That’s always the challenge with every team, but how you get there is sometimes different.”

Sometimes, you get there on the floor, early, creatively, when no one is watching. That’s why, this summer, he asked Justise Winslow to study Wade and asked Tyler Johnson to study Goran Dragic, in order to impersonate the still-unsigned standouts in drills with Hassan Whiteside. Just to give the gifted center a sense of the team’s developing sets.

Sometimes, you get there at a table, breaking bread and barriers.

As with Bosh.

Spoelstra even did something that friends quip doesn’t come easy. Picked up the check.

“I should have had caviar,” Bosh said, smiling.

That can wait. On Wednesday night, the quest resumes, a quest they both know, to again share champagne.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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