As part of the league’s first ever Filipino Heritage Week, NBA Philippines recently held a roundtable with Miami Heat Head Coach, Filipino-American Erik Spoelstra. In the first of a two-part series, “Spo” talks about his team’s resurgence in the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture and his relationship with close friend and now the Memphis Grizzlies’ top tactician David Fizdale.
NBA Philippines: Can you tell us about this hot streak your team has been on? What has been the difference from the first half of the season? (as of writing, the Miami Heat are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot with the Detroit Pistons)
Erik Spoelstra: Yeah, it’s been a very enjoyable group to coach. We’ve been through a lot this year. I don’t know if it necessarily compares to any other team but reality is, we’ve had a lot of changes in our organization for the last three years. It’s been a transition from the championship teams. We’ve got to deal with a lot of adversity, but this group has been really committed. Even when we were 11-30, I liked the progress that the team was making. I liked the approach and attitude; nobody was feeling sorry for ourselves, and we just continue to work at it.
It didn’t guarantee anything because we see this kind of run we’re going on or that it would happen, I’m not sure if we did but we just approached every single day grateful that we have another opportunity to have this team together. We like the group. The players enjoy coming to work every single day and we want to give ourselves the best chance in the second half of the season. So just from a teaching standpoint, I think it’s been a great lesson for young teams, college teams, high school teams of any sport that if you really stick to the process and not just focus on the result, rather focus on every day in trying to get better, things can happen for you and it can be incremental, methodical improvements. It doesn’t necessarily have to be overnight improvements. There hasn’t been an “a-ha!” moment with this team. There hasn’t been a moment we felt like, “okay, it changed today! “ It has been very slow, incremental improvement, and that has been a joy to be a part of.
NBA PH: How tough was it to lose your longtime assistant coach, David Fizdale and can you talk about the great work he’s been doing with the Memphis Grizzlies?
ES: I’m glad you mentioned that. First of all, he’s got a great basketball mind; one of the best basketball teachers that I’ve been around. I think a lot of you in that room have been fortunate enough to see him when we’ve been able to go over there and do clinics and you just see, when he’s in a gym, that’s a special thing to observe. And it can be kids, it can be pros, it could be amateurs, you can just put coach Fiz in a basketball gym, in that kind of setting, when he teaches, he can make complex things seem pretty easy, and that’s a great skill.
But yes, it was a big loss for me. I mean, for the first two or three months, I felt like I lost an arm (chuckles). That’s how much I leaned on Coach Fiz and still is one of my closest friends. That doesn’t happen much in this business where you’re able to grow as young professionals, friends and having the opportunity to coach and work together for an extended period of time. Things change so fast in this league, and unfortunately for coaching staffs, it can be very quick. Two or three years, for example, all of a sudden, organizations are changing coaches and then you’re in a different city, different coaching staff. Fiz and I started together basically in the video room, almost 20 years ago. Then when I had the opportunity to become the head coach here, he was the first person I called. He was working for that time, the Atlanta Hawks so I wanted to bring him back into the fold. We had nine years together working with those great championship teams and doing it with one of your best friends, it really makes those moments even more special.
But we’re thrilled for him over there. He’s in a dogfight right now in the Western Conference. He had a big win last night and helped us out by beating Milwaukee who we’re fighting with in for a playoff spot, so it was a double win last night.
NBA PH: As mentioned earlier, you are in a tight battle for that final playoff spot. How will your team be able to overcome the hump?
ES: I think the temptation right now would be to obsess about the standings and what the other teams are doing. The discipline right now for all of us, because we are fans and we do watch games like last night, and we’re rooting for teams like Memphis to beat Milwaukee because we’re going in such a head to head battle with these teams in the East but our process has to remain the same. We have to focus on us continuing to try to play our brand of basketball, to commit defensively which requires a great deal of effort, energy, and discipline as a basketball team. I like the way our offense is trending right now; more guys are involved and players are starting to get more confident, starting to share the ball more as a habit. We have to focus on those things right now and not the end goal of the playoffs. It will take care of itself. I know it is a cliché, but it will if we just continue to focus on playing our best brand of basketball.