“This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative, and bring fresh new ideas. That’s what we feel we are getting with Erik Spoelstra. He’s a man that was born to coach,” said Pat Riley in 2008. From one man that was born to coach to maybe the greatest basketball coaching mind of all time, the similarities are there to see. Erik Spoelstra recently picked up his 300th win (314 career wins at time of this post) so the question arises…How good of a coach is Erik Spoelstra? We’re here to explore that for you and show you how the two compare. This discussion now also further legitamizes as Spoelstra is on the verge of his 3rd straight NBA championship, a feat only Jackson has done, in recent memory.
Off the court, the two couldn’t be more different. Phil Jackson was born in Deer Lodge, Montana in 1945; Spoelstra in Evansville, Illinois in 1970 to a Filipino-American family. Spoelstra was born in Illinois, moved to Buffalo at a young age, and eventually spent most of his young life in Portland, Oregon, while Jackson spent his first 22 years in Montana and North Dakota. Spoelstra lived and breathed basketball, while Jackson grew up in a household that encouraged him to become a minister.
Both stayed close to home to play college basketball, with Jackson receiving a scholarship to North Dakota, and Spoelstra at Portland University. Jackson was a multi-sport athlete who received a lot of interest from professional baseball scouts, before accepting his basketball scholarship to North Dakota, where they lost to Walt Frazier’s Southern Illinois team two years in a row in the NCAA Division II Final Four. Spoelstra started at point guard all four years at Portland, where he was named the West Coast Conference freshman of the year in 1989 before going onto see his name at the top of many statistical categories for the Pilots. Spoelstra’s playing career came to an end after a short professional playing career in Germany with Tus Herten, while Jackson’s continued for 15 more years as a part of the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets. Jackson was named to the NBA all-rookie team in 1968, and won two championships with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973. Jackson’s career stats include 6.7 PPG, 4.3 APG, and just over one rebound per game.
Both men worked internationally before coming back to the NBA and into assistant coaching positions. Jackson retired from playing after the 1980 season and first coached the Albany Patroons of the CBA, guiding them to their first CBA championship in 1984. Jackson went on to accept head coaching positions in Puerto Rico’s national superior basketball league, the BSN, where he coached the Piratas de Quebradillas and the Gallitos de Isabela. Jackson was regularly on the lookout for an NBA opening and eventually got his start with the Chicago Bulls in 1987 under head coach Doug Collins. Phil Jackson came to the Bulls first as an assistant coach and was named head coach just two seasons later in 1989.
Spoelstra started his professional coaching career in 1993 in Germany as a player and assistant coach with Tus Herten. His first head-coaching job came with their youth program, essentially coaching Tus Herten’s U-18 or AAU team. After the conclusion of the 1995 German season, the Miami Heat offered him a position on their staff, while Tus Herten also offered him a 2-year contract to stay. Spoelstra took the Heat’s offer, and as they say, the rest is history. His first order of business was a position as video coordinator for the Heat, where a shake up with the coaching staff did not guarantee him a job, as Pat Riley would have been able to bring in his own video person, but decided to go with Spoelstra. He was promoted to video coordinator/assistant coach in 1998, then to assistant coach/advanced scout in 1999, and later became the Heat’s director of scouting in 2001, along with his assistant coaching duties. Spoelstra is credited with the improvement of Dwyane Wade’s jump shot, and was hand-selected by Pat Riley to replace him after his retirement at the conclusion of the 2007-08 NBA season. Spoelstra was named the head coach in April of 2008, becoming the first Asian-American coach in the four major sports in the United States.
Less than 5 years into each man’s head coaching career, they found themselves with superstar players and a championship or two. In both cases, the men rocketed to NBA Finals appearances, Jackson winning his in the second year (1991-92), Spoelstra in his fourth (2011-12). There are multiple reason’s for their success, between their players and the teams they inherited or brought together, their coaching philosophies and offensive strategies, and a little luck as well. Phil Jackson and his success is fairly unprecedented with his six NBA titles in a 7-year span, while Spoelstra looks for his third-straight, a year after becoming the 8th head coach to lead his team to two in a row, and the first since…Phil Jackson (2008-2010 Lakers).
Here’s the strange fact, both went 16-7 in the playoffs in their two-peat years, Jackson with the Lakers, and Spoelstra most recently with the Heat. Each man also lost in the NBA Finals the year before reeling off their two consecutive championships, going 14-7 in the playoffs up to their elimination. It’s been a career of streaks for both coaches, which is the success in a short period of time, but on multiple occasions. Jackson won 3, 3, 3, & 2 championships in a row on different occasions, while at one point winning 6 titles in a row as a coach; three from 1995-98 with the Bulls and late MJ, and three from 1999-2002 with the Lakers after taking a year off in-between, vowing he would never coach again, but that’s not the point. Spoelstra hopes to equal the success of Jackson and is in the right place to do so.
Whether it’s LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, or Kobe Bryant, each man has had his hands full with celebrity athletes, many times in the prime of their career and in that best-in-the-NBA conversation. For Jackson it was a guy named Michael Jordan in Chicago, then some players names O’Neal and Bryant in Los Angeles, eventually making sure all three got what they needed and played to their full potential. It has been said that Jackson was the Zen master and a calming influence on all players, including the big names. He was never too high or too low and was always in the right state of mind for basketball, and that’s what his players enjoyed. Spoelstra is a little different in managing his superstars, giving them free reign throughout the basketball operation of the team. Spoelstra’s genius comes in the form of getting the two stars to work together, something that Phil never really mastered between Kobe and Shaq. When LeBron joined the Miami Heat after the 2010 season it was still Dwyane Wade’s team, since Wade had been drafted there 7 years earlier and played his entire career with the team. Spoelstra got the two to agree that one of them had to drive the car and one had to be in the passenger seat. Spoelstra had thought it should be Wade and had various meeting after the 2010-11 season with the stars, basically telling them what he needed from them to make the team work. He designed his offense around the best player in the game, LeBron James and that was that, because with the success they have had, the problems seem to go away. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
One has the triangle, one has his own ‘pace and space’ offense, but which is better and how did they come to rely so heavily on something that was just a phase according to some? Phil’s offense was not his own, but designed in the 40’s and later perfected by the Zen master with the Chicago Bulls, while Spoelstra designed his around a do-it-all player with the ability to drive and kick out to shooters placed strategically around the perimeter, with athletes across the floor. The triangle is essentially Miami’s ‘space,’ just without the pace, basing the offense on the same principle once the ball gets into the teeth of the defense down low. The triangle offense was once never seen in the NBA, then the most popular offense in the game, much like what Spoelstra designed and has been tweaked by many teams across the league following the Heat’s Finals loss to the Mavs in 2011.
Between the years of 1991-2011, the triangle offense was responsible for 11 of the 20 NBA titles, all won by Phil Jackson coached teams in Chicago and LA. The triangle offense is exactly what it says, using three offensive players to form a triangle with their ball movement and spacing. The triangle offense in Chicago featured Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen running the offense, while the second Chicago three-peat featured Dennis Rodman in the post as well. So, technically, each coach used the offense that allowed their best players to be their best players. It sounds dumb, but not a lot of teams can say this. As the offense flows, the triangle offense flows with it, and if one side of the triangle cannot be completed or is shut down by the defense, the ball can easily be swung to the weak-side and started all over again. The triangle is perhaps the only offensive set any casual NBA fan can identify by name, despite the fact that no one outside of Phil Jackson’s coaching sphere can describe how it works with any clarity. The big deal with the triangle is that the ball goes into the big man in the post, and he can choose to go to work on offense, or kick out to a variety of different players. One option he could kick out to a small forward who can take a three or use his athleticism to get inside, while the other option is to kick to a guard to take a three or set up the triangle again, either on the same or the weak side. Here’s a few diagrams of the offensive set-up and where players start the offense at:
Spoelstra’s offense is based on one player using his specific skill set to define how the offense plays. You’ll notice that the Heat rarely ever use this space and pace offense if LeBron is not on the floor, and often go to a pick-an-roll set when he’s on the bench. LeBron has said that the offense has grown and evolved over the last three years, saying, “We’re at a record pace, assists are high, efficiency is high, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, we’re doing it all.” The thing with Erik Spoelstra’s offense is that every player on the floor, or at least 4 of the 5 when LeBron is on the court, have the ability to take and make a high volume of three-point shots. After all, threes are worth more than twos. The key to the offense is the small-ball that the Miami Heat play. By removing the traditional big man, the interior clears up, and the defense is stretched to its limit trying to defend and close out on as well as help on every player on the floor, if things are running smoothly. Just when you think you have every player accounted for and set up on defense, the Heat can hit you with the pace aspect, running this offense with deadly precision at a quick pace; players cutting and getting to their spots on the floor so when LeBron decides to use his cutting ability, the plays are there to be made for him, all up-tempo. Be sure to credit Erik Spoelstra, the architect who realized where the team’s strengths lie and created a pace-and-space system that maximized everyone’s abilities. Here is a video that killed the Spurs in the finals, with the space and pace of the Miami offense:
I won’t say that Spoelstra is the second coming of Phil Jackson, but he isn’t off to a bad start. As the numbers sit right now, there obviously isn’t a real argument, as Phil is undoubtedly better with more titles, over 1,000 wins, and a higher win percentage through four times as many games. But it’s the projections of what Spoelstra can do that really give this idea value. Where will Spoelstra’s career head? Each man had the superstar players, but is he a winner because of Wade and James? Stay tuned.