First, appreciate that Erik Spoelstra stands these days far less rigid than when this rise among the NBA all-time leaders in coaching victories began.
He now utilizes zone defense to a staggering degree. While there still can be the occasional, as he calls them, “Hunger Games” practices, they are the exception. There is far more delegating to assistants.
But one aspect where it is particularly difficult to get the Miami Heat’s sideline leader to venture is future thought. It remains about this moment, this season, this attempt to climb back to championship success.
And yet, as the Heat attempt to right their record amid this uneven 2022-23 start, also undeniable is there also is a future to speak about, with Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro developing into an elite pick-and-roll combination, their combined $300 million-plus in extensions seemingly a bridge to the next chapter of Pat Riley’s roster makeovers.
Herro is 22, Adebayo 25.
Which brings it back to Spoelstra, who these days merely is attempting to manage the moment.
“That’s not even on my mind right now,” he says, somehow both politely and curtly. “Yes, if you’re a Heat fan, you can feel great about the future with the young talent that we have under contract and then the young, talented players that we’ve developed.
“I think we have a very good blend of veteran, experienced playoff-tested players. But also our youthful players have significant playoff experience, more so than a lot of other younger players at equivalent age. And I think that makes our team unique.”
While Spoelstra has made his youth earn their way, be it Adebayo having to wait out Hassan Whiteside for a starting role, or Herro not becoming a full-time starter until this fourth NBA season, Spoelstra says General Manager Andy Elisburg has skillful crafted a formula that addresses both present and future.
“Andy always talks about that,” Spoelstra says during a break on this four-game trip, “putting together a roster of veteran talent, guys mid-veteran in their prime, and youth that can give you energy, give you that enthusiasm in the middle of the season.
“What makes Tyler and Bam so unique is that they’re 22, 25 years old, with considerable playoff experience that makes them veteran players in my mind, playoff-veteran players, but they also have the youthful legs and youthful ambition and exuberance.”
When it comes to Adebayo’s $163 million, five-year extension signed in 2020 or the $130 million, four-year extension Herro signed in October, such decisions are handled by the highest level of the management and ownership suite.
But it is Spoelstra charged with making it work – now and then.
“And it’s getting better,” Spoelstra says of the Herro-Adebayo chemistry. “That’s what happens with younger players. As they get more experience, they get more confident and nuanced in how they can manipulate the game.
“And again, I keep pointing to the playoffs, but not only do they have considerable playoff experience, but they’ve really had impactful playoff moments that have led to winning. That’s hard to do for a young player. And that is something that we’re encouraged on, that they can continue to build on and help us win ultimately at the highest level.”
But that’s also where Spoelstra turns the conversation, the type of conversation to play out on the Heat’s schedule in coming games as they face rebuilding teams with prospects who only are about the future, prospects such as the Detroit Pistons’ Jaden Ivey on Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs’ Jeremy Sochan next weekend, and then the week after that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Jalen Williams and the Houston Rockets’ Jabari Smith, among others.
“That’s not how we’re wired as an organization,” he says of teams utilizing the present moment solely to prepare for well into the future. “We’re wired to try to compete for a title. I’m feeling extremely grateful that where we’ve been able to draft that we were able to acquire players like Tyler and Bam, where we did. Those could be empty draft picks.
“We have impactful players, winning players that we’ve been able to develop now for several years. They’re much different and much better than they were when they first got here. You can’t take that for granted.”
IN THE LANE
WHAT DEADLINE?: With most players signed in the offseason becoming trade-eligible on Dec. 15, some believe that is when the Phoenix Suns could make their long-awaited move with Jae Crowder, with the forward away from the team since the preseason awaiting a trade. Not so fast, Suns President James Jones, the former Heat forward, said of the former Heat forward. “It’s the NBA,” Jones told the Arizona Republic. “Timing, there aren’t any perfect times. There’s no window where they say, ‘Hey, all deals are done here.’ We have natural deadlines like the [February] trade deadline where we usually have a flurry of deals. But other than that, it’s just finding the right fit and we just haven’t been able to find that yet.” The Heat are among the teams linked to Crowder interest, although their trade resources are limited and not particularly appealing.
THE BIG “0″: Yes, former Heat forward P.J. Tucker finished November with seven scoreless games, averaging 2.2 shots per game over the month. But Philadelphia 76ers teammate Tobias Harris, like most Tucker teammates over the years, said the contribution transcends statistics. “I think some of the criticism is unwarranted – not some, actually most of it,” Harris told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There’s a lot of people that are box-score watchers. Box-score watchers don’t watch the NBA game and see how many touches he gets or how many open looks he gets. It’s not that many. But the guy goes out every night . . . and does a hell of a job.” As for Tucker, shooting and scoring easily can be left to others. “People that think I care, they don’t know me,” he said, having left the Heat in July in free agency. “I literally don’t care.”
EARLY IMPRESSION: To his credit, former Heat forward James Johnson has a way of making strong initial impressions. He appears doing that again amid the Indiana Pacers’ unexpected early success. Of a recent Johnson outing against the Brooklyn Nets, who cut Johnson at the end of his lone year with the team last season, Pacers coach Rick Carlisle told Forbes, “We needed some real attitude and some real force and some veteran know-how . . . he came in and he was awesome. He was great on defense, and offensively he just makes the game flow.” Of this latest NBA stop with the Pacers, Johnson said, “A lot of people [in the NBA] fake like each other. . . . I feel like we don’t have that on this team.”
PICKLE BALLERS: Former Heat center and current team executive Alonzo Mourning isn’t quite there, but pickleball yet could become a calling. Asked by CNBC about pickleball during an interview that also included former Heat center Shaquille O’Neal, Mourning said with a laugh, “I think we’ll stick with the basketball court. Don’t get me wrong, but it is more designed for an older generation.” And yet Mourning, 52, appreciates the fascination. “I had a chance to play it a couple of times,” he said “You know, so it’s pretty entertaining. You can get an incredible workout and you know, so I like it. I really do.” The sports has drawn recent investment from Kevin Durant and LeBron James, among others in the NBA.
YOU AGAIN: The referee who gave Bam Adebayo his second technical foul and, therefore, automatic ejection at the end of Wednesday night’s loss to the Boston Celtics at TD Garden was somewhat a familiar face, but not necessarily a friendly face. After referee Tony Brothers issued the first of Adebayo’s two technical fouls with 24 seconds remaining, the second came from referee Nick Buchert. Entering the weekend, Buchert was the only referee to officiate more than three Heat games this season. The Heat’s record in those four is 0-4, including a pair of losses to the Celtics (as well as losses in Sacramento and Minnesota).
28-1. Latest Heat championship odds from BetOnline. As a means of perspective, the Heat were listed at 10-1 at July’s start of free-agency, when a major offseason move was anticipated. The Heat then dropped to 20-1 at the start of the regular season, falling from there amid this sub.-500 start.