NBA’s youngest coach makes technology part of the team

After 13 years on the staff of the Miami Heat, including the last seven years as director of scouting, Erik Spoelstra was elevated in April to head coach by team President Pat Riley. At 37, Spoelstra is the NBA’s youngest head coach. His task is to restore the Heat, which had the league’s worst record (15-67) two years after winning the NBA title in 2006. Spoelstra, the son of longtime sports business executive Jon Spoelstra, makes his regular-season coaching debut Oct. 29 in New York against the Knicks. He spoke with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh just before the Heat left for a series of preseason games in Europe.

Favorite vacation spot: Maui
Favorite music: U2
Favorite book: “Atlas Shrugged”
Favorite author: John Maxwell. He writes leadership books.
Last book read: “Blink”
Favorite Web sites: I read HoopsHype religiously every day. It consolidates all the articles from different NBA cities.
Favorite movies: “Gladiator” is at the top of the list with “Remember the Titans” and “Fletch.”
Sports movies: A toss-up between “The Natural” and “Hoosiers.”
Pet peeve: It’s tough to deal with people who don’t tell the truth.
Regrets: That I didn’t take the opportunity to play in the Philippines after college.
Greatest competitor: Alonzo Mourning, for so many years and for so many different reasons. To compete and fight back from his kidney disease is truly inspiring.
Earliest basketball memory: Shooting basketballs with my grandpa on a little makeshift hoop in my room. I must have been 5 or 6 years old, and he taught me how to play
Favorite quote: It’s something my dad gave me and I’ve used it with the Heat so many different times: “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. You should autograph your work with excellence.”

Pat Riley is still in the picture, as team president. He came back once before and relieved Stan Van Gundy on the bench. Do you feel any pressure to show immediate improvement?
Spoelstra: No, we don’t have a time limit on what we’re doing. The great thing about working for Pat and the Heat is that we are always going to be a championship organization. So, every move I make, every decision on the basketball side, is with that in mind. That is the carrot. We tasted it two years ago and we are all very excited about the opportunity to try to build this thing back up to that level.

What has been the most difficult part about the transition from assistant to head coach?
Spoelstra: So far, there hasn’t been a major transition. I’m sure that will come once we start playing games. One of the biggest things would be the fact that I’m noticed and approached more often on the street. When I go out to eat or to a movie, people come up and want to talk basketball.

Spoelstra learned from Pat Riley (left) before
taking over coaching duties from him.

Back in April, in the Sun-Sentinel, Riley said he was embarrassed that the payroll for last season “left his team paying an $8 [million] luxury tax.” He said, “I really don’t want that to happen again.” Of you, he said, “We want to give him as many assets as we can. We also want to create a financial model that’s going to be economically sane.” Where are you with that financial model?
Spoelstra: Right now, we’re under the tax. That’s where our owner, Micky Arison, wants to be. Last year was really an aberration. We normally are running our operation below the tax, and we think it can be done. That’s the challenge that you have on that side, and that’s what Pat will be dealing with. I’ll have some input [on] building the team and trying to get the pieces without going over the tax.

Dwyane Wade looked very strong at the Olympics. Has there been any piggyback benefit to that success?
Spoelstra: Absolutely. We’ve had a better commitment from guys coming in this summer and getting ready for the season earlier than we’ve had in so many years. Virtually everybody on our roster has been here for the last five or six weeks. And many of them attribute that to saying, “Hey, Dwyane has been working out since May. We’ve seen him on TV and the level he’s playing at. We have to get our game ready.”

You have been on the Heat staff for 13 years and director of scouting for the last seven years. Tell me about the evolution of NBA scouting and how it has changed. You have a few more tools to work with now.
Spoelstra: Right, and it’s getting more competitive each year. When I scouted, it was probably one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had. I must have spent 20 to 25 nights a month out on the road for two years. Basically, you just trail each team and write up a scouting report on what they do and send it back to the team so that it’s prepared. You have no contact really other than the reports you’re sending.

Sounds like a solitary life.
Spoelstra: It’s a pretty lonely existence out there. It’s a very important job, but it’s also one where there’s a little bit of a disconnect. … One of the most beneficial parts of the job for me personally was the fact that you almost become a part of the team you’re following. I’d see a team maybe three or four times in a row. After I’d see them, watch film on them, do the stats and write up a report, by the time I’d sent it back to our coaches, it was almost as if I knew that team better than I knew our team.

Was it a valuable learning experience for you?
Spoelstra: The beauty of it was that after two seasons doing that, I really got to learn so many different coaching philosophies, learned different ways of doing things, different offensive and defensive schemes and ways of communicating and coaching and teaching players. I really thought it was a fantastic learning experience.

I read where you said, “Basketball has now become a science — a game of statistical probabilities and of floor strategies.” You also talked about analyzing opponents and beating them at their own style of play.
Spoelstra: I’ve actually developed over the years part of our proprietary software, a statistical database. A lot of that is just to try to dig out any kinds of trends on other players and teams. It’s also how we evaluate our team. There’s been a lot of debate on whether you rely on stats too much. But we’ve always tried to be one of the more proactive teams in terms of technology. 

How have you used technology with the players?
Spoelstra: I’m planning on putting our playbook (which in the past was 300 pages) in a notebook. The players will have to flip through it. … I’m also going to put that on an iTouch. You know that all these new guys coming into the league now are techno/gadget guys. They want the latest and greatest toy. We figure it’s another way to communicate with them and get more information to them. So, I’m putting our video playbook on there, diagrams of our plays, motivational quotes, articles that we’ve seen on our players, on players from other sports and even on people with interesting lives that we can relate to.

It seems like a long way from the days of Red Auerbach.
Spoelstra: Yeah, I guess. But even with all that we’re doing with technology, it’s still the game that’s being played, five-on-five, between those four lines.

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