Greg Cote

This Heat season was Spoelstra's biggest challenge — and maybe his greatest triumph

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra gestures as the Miami Heat host the Los Angeles Clippers at the AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra gestures as the Miami Heat host the Los Angeles Clippers at the AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

Thirty-one seconds of silence filled the crowded room from the moment Erik Spoelstra took his seat behind the microphone until finally he spoke. He hadn’t been waiting for a reporter to ask a question. He’d been gathering himself so his voice might not break when at last his emotions poured forth.

He’d be talking about hurt and pride and love. About the pain of falling just short. About the admiration for his players’ stubborn climb. And about a bond that made this Miami Heat season — this team — the one he might think of first when someday he writes the book on his NBA career.

Spoelstra has been head coach of two championship teams, enjoyed the star power of the Big 3 era, seen the prime of Dwyane Wade, eyewitnessed the mighty talents of LeBron James — and yet it was this star-shy little .500 team that narrowly missed the playoffs that somehow embedded itself deepest in this coach’s heart.

“I don’t know if I ever felt this way about a team before,” were the first words Spoelstra said the night this strangest of seasons had ended. “I don’t know if I ever wanted something more for a team.”

This was the year of one of the greatest turnarounds in sports history, when a team embarrassed by an 11-30 record at midseason flipped that to go 30-11 from that point. No team had ever finished .500 after being 19 games below. Heck, no team had ever done that from more than 12 games below.

This was the season that made a 41-41 record feel triumphant, filling Heat fans accustomed to much better with such pride that a standing ovation swept over the players Wednesday as the season’s final game ended.

This also was the season that minted the man they call “Spo” as elite, verifying his coaching expertise for all the skeptics who scoffed that anybody could have won with the Big 3, right?

Miami has gilded the Hall of Fame careers of Don Shula and Pat Riley.

It may be time to state that Spoelstra might just be as good at his job as anybody who has ever coached in South Florida.

It’s also time for NBA writers to reward Spoelstra with his first Coach of the Year award. Not only for showing an 11-30 team how to win big, but for doing so despite Heat players missing a combined 328 games with injuries, most in the NBA. Miami also had nobody in the league’s top 30 in individual scoring, but Spoelstra used his bench so expertly the Heat led the league with eight players averaging in double figures.

“I think it’s historical, the job he did this season,” Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga told us. “The whole thing about coaching is getting your team to buy into your vision. The leader has to sell that vision. In this case, it was not just the philosophy or the X’s and O’s, it was really the number of adjustments in personnel. The greatest transformation I’ve seen. He did an amazing job.”

Detroit Pistons and former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, to Bleacher Report last month: “Erik’s done a great job of getting those guys to play to their strengths and implementing a system that really works for them. Certainly, in my mind, it’s the best coaching job that’s gone on this year.”

I received a cynical email from a reader in Coral Gables named Bob (I’ll spare his last name) after a column praising the Heat, saying this team had fallen short, but not failed. He wrote:

“Used to have the five-time UM national champs. Used to have multiple World Series winner. Have the only undefeated NFL team. Used to have perennial college baseball super team. Now, .500 brings headlines!!!”

Bob doesn’t get it.

It isn’t always all about the bottom line. Seasons and teams cannot always be judged just by the win total.

More than 20 years later, the 1996 Florida Panthers have a special place in our sporting heart. They got swept in the Stanley Cup Finals. No matter. They were a mostly rag-tag bunch of overachievers that, with a flurry of rubber rats, grew into folklore.

I think a basketball team that turned 11-30 to 30-11 might also have earned such a niche.

Appreciate what Spoelstra entered this season with.

Dwyane Wade departing for Chicago and Chris Bosh not being cleared medically meant this was the first Heat season in 23 years, since 1993, in which Miami had zero players on its active 15-man roster who had ever appeared in an All-Star game. It was the first time since 2002 (before Wade) and the first time in Spoelstra’s nine seasons that the Heat was bereft of an established superstar.

It was Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and a bunch of spare parts, players either unproven or recycled. Guys like James Johnson and Dion Waiters.

(Larrañaga noted that Johnson this year “went from overweight to great shape, from a guy other teams gave up on to a key member of a very, very good 30-11 team.”)

“We came together as strangers,” Spoelstra said. “A bunch of disparate parts. Guys that have bounced around, been in different places.”

Riley said before the season his concern was “whether or not all the parts fit together.”

At 11-30, it was a jigsaw puzzle full of missing or ill-fitting pieces. That was before it became a piece of art, before everything began to dovetail, before a team with no All-Stars became a collective force under the ministrations of a 46-year-old coach who never stopped believing.

The Heat likes to talk a lot about its “culture.” We just saw what that meant. Culture is being 11-30 and having a locker room that doesn’t quit. It is being 11-30 and having a front office that isn’t thinking of tanking for the draft lottery. It is being 11-30 and having a coaching staff up until 4 a.m. plotting how to get better.

The team sank to that low after losing four in a row on the road. It was a point at which most teams would have mentally quit. “The narrative was out there that we should be tanking,” Spoelstra said.

Instead, this team found its epiphany.

“We looked ourselves in the mirror at that point,” Whiteside recalled in the locker room Wednesday. “We started going so hard in practices. Everything jelled. I think that’s when we became a family.”

“We started to get closer,” Spoelstra said.

The impetus was the coach himself, who kept believing in his guys even at 11-30.

“One of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” Rodney McGruder said. “So in tune with us on and off the court.”

Udonis Haslem, team captain and respected 14-year veteran, a man Spoelstra calls “the last samurai,” said: “This is probably, in my opinion, the best coaching job that Spo has done.”

It isn’t always the won-lost record that defines the job a coach has done, and neither is it always the champion that wins your heart.

A record of 41-41 might be the epitome of average, but this Heat season was anything but. It was Spoelstra’s greatest challenge, and, just maybe, his greatest personal triumph.

“I gained so much from this team,” he said. “I was honored to be around them. It was so beautiful ...”