It’s the season for long-term commitments, and Erik Spoelstra and Nick Arison each made life-altering ones on Saturday, in Miami and Santa Barbara, California, respectively, each marrying his long-time sweetheart. Yet their shared NBA team, the one that Spoelstra coaches and Arison manages along with Micky Arison, Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg from the front office, has taken a short-term turn of late — at least in terms of pledges made to players on the Miami Heat roster.
And so — now that the 2016-17 roster appears complete with the signing of the talented yet turbulent Dion Waiters to the last financial vehicle — it is Spoelstra., more than anyone, who faces the most difficult assignment once this offseason of personal and professional change finally concludes.
“Erik has been through this before his first two years after I retired,” Riley said July 16. “He had playoff teams but obviously they weren’t championship teams. I thought he did a hell of a job at that time of starting his coaching career with teams that were competitive and also playoff teams.”
Spoelstra went 90-74 with those two teams, with the 2009-10 squad more instructive. The Heat won 47 games that season with virtually the entire roster — other than mercurial prospect Michael Beasley — on expiring contracts, and the organization clearly looking over the players’ heads toward the possibility of a 2010 free agency bonanza. That was an unenviable scenario for a coach, trying to compel individuals to consider the collective first.
That team was surprisingly connected, and reasonably successful.
That team, however, had a much different makeup than the current one. It still had two champions in their primes at its core, in Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, to aid Spoelstra in the indoctrination of others. Two of the players in the top-five in minutes, Quentin Richardson and Jermaine O’Neal, came with 22 years of experience and a mature understanding of the basketball business.
Well, who is left to set an example?
Maybe not Chris Bosh, depending on his health.
Not Luol Deng or Amar’e Stoudemire or Joe Johnson, all professional in their preparation.
Just Udonis Haslem, the most exemplary advocate for Heat culture. But his playing time isn’t what it was, and these teammates aren’t the ones he’s known, so it may be harder for him to wield a hammer.
Meanwhile, the Heat has 11 players, among the 18 currently signed, who do not control their contractual status for the 2017-18 season. That includes Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, both of whom the team will retain. But it doesn’t include Waiters, who is likely to waive his option and become free as well.
How does Spoelstra make everyone buy in, to find what he might call “purity of purpose,” with so many individual agendas? We’ll see. The Waiters agreement is the most interesting of all. There’s no question that, in this inflated market, the modest deal is a worthy gamble. The former No. 4 overall pick was projected to get one of those outsized, outlandish contracts that some NBA franchises would almost instantly regret. Instead, he got a make-good deal. That’s good, except that he might feel compelled to pad his scoring numbers for bigger salary numbers.
Somehow, Spoelstra and his staff — which has already lost two members, including master communicator David Fizdale — need to get Waiters to stay within the team concept while getting the newly-wealthy Hassan Whiteside to stay within it on defense. All while getting James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Wayne Ellington to accept specific roles while they naturally eye future paydays.
I covered Waiters in Cleveland for half of the 2014-15 season before he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Cavaliers teammates privately cheered the trade, calling it “addition by subtraction,” so much so that J.R. Smith was considered a more reliable option. You thought Mario Chalmers had irrational confidence? Wait until you experience Waiters. He told Syracuse teammates to call him “Kobe Wade,” declared himself part of the best backcourt in the NBA while coming off a 33-win season, and called for the ball incessantly, unsuccessfully and comically while playing with the Cavaliers’ Big 3.
So why try with him? He’s just 24, and did make a positive playoff contribution for Oklahoma City. No one says he’s a bad guy, just that he needs to mature. It’s especially redeeming the way he’s never forgotten his rough Philadelphia roots — he’s lost three cousins, a close friend and a brother to violence. He’s always returned, staying in close touch with his first-grade teacher, and recently donating money to rebuild the playground where he began to grow his game.
The Heat is doing its own rebuilding now — rebuilding with few trusted veterans on the roster, too much position duplication, and plenty of players who wouldn’t be blamed for playing for themselves. Erik Spoelstra will need his hard hat.