Symphony No.9 in C Major
At the dawn of the season, young coach Erik Spoelstra walked into his first Heat practice as coach of the newly formed Big Three with an encyclopedia worth of X and Os, ready to implement the diagrams his anxious basketball genius assembled on sleepless nights since the announcement of The Decision. Shortly after breaking a sweat, he tossed it all away, certain of the absurdity in puppeteering the agile stars in front of him, allowing them creative freedom while only maintaining a focused defensive philosophy.
It worked, somewhat.
Expectations were set high by all, but the regular season can be deemed a success considering the public and player’s vitriol, the constant target on their backs, and the difficulty in blending three franchise players together seamlessly. The young coach had survived the long and winding road of 82 unscathed.
The regular season, however, is merely the preparation for the second season.
The playoffs are considered the battlegrounds for the veteran master minds -- the experienced orchestrators of ball movement, misdirection, anecdotes, motivation, history, aptly paced timeouts, psychology. The ones with the kind of wits necessary in a best-of-7 war, where luck can possibly decide a game or two, but not overcome four calculated battle plans (sorry Sacramento -- or dubious referee calls).
We’re only entering the second round of the playoffs and we’ve already seen coaching masterpieces from the likes Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and Doc Rivers – the wise elders. We are sure to bear witness to countless more as they continue on their path the championship.
How will the "young" coach Spoelstra fare? Does he have the resume, or the savvy to pull it off? Will the offensive freedom given to his stars come back to haunt him? Does he have the age and experience to outwit the elders?
Knowledge in Youth is Wisdom in Age
Yes, there’s more to winning championships than a good coach, just ask the Sixers. It takes a combination of talented players, chemistry, a little luck and a mighty General to keep it all in check. I use the “General” because of the similar perception to a sports coach of a well-seasoned individual, collector of accolades, tenured veteran. (The average age of generals in the US Army is 51)
Consider the history of NBA Champions from the last 20 years:
|2009-10||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||64||4-3||Boston Celtics||Doc Rivers||48|
|2008-09||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||63||4-1||Orlando Magic||Stan Van Gundy||49|
|2007-08||Boston Celtics||Doc Rivers||46||4-2||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||62|
|2006-07||San Antonio Spurs||Greg Popovich||58||4-0||Cleveland Cavaliers||Mike Brown||37|
|2005-06||Miami Heat||Pat Riley||61||4-2||Dallas Mavericks||Avery Johnson||41|
|2004-05||San Antonio Spurs||Greg Popovich||56||4-3||Detroit Pistons||Larry Brown||64|
|2003-04||Detroit Pistons||Larry Brown||63||4-1||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||58|
|2002-03||San Antonio Spurs||Greg Popovich||54||4-2||New Jersey Nets||Byron Scott||42|
|2001-02||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||56||4-0||New Jersey Nets||Byron Scott||41|
|2000-01||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||55||4-1||Philadelphia 76ers||Larry Brown||60|
|1999-00||Los Angeles Lakers||Phil Jackson||54||4-2||Indiana Pacers||Larry Bird||43|
|1998-99||San Antonio Spurs||Greg Popovich||50||4-1||New York Knicks||Jeff Van Gundy||37|
|1997-98||Chicago Bulls||Phil Jackson||62||4-2||Utah Jazz||Jerry Sloan||56|
|1996-97||Chicago Bulls||Phil Jackson||51||4-2||Utah Jazz||Jerry Sloan||55|
|1995-96||Chicago Bulls||Phil Jackson||50||4-2||Seattle SuperSonics||George Karl||45|
|1994-95||Houston Rockets||Rudy Tomjanovich||46||4-0||Orlando Magic||Brian Hill||47|
|1993-94||Houston Rockets||Rudy Tomjanovich||45||4-3||New York Knicks||Pat Riley||49|
|1992-93||Chicago Bulls||Phil Jackson||47||4-2||Phoenix Suns||Paul Westphal||42|
|1991-92||Chicago Bulls||Phil Jackson||46||4-2||Portland Trail Blazers||Rick Adelman||45|
|1990-91||Chicago Bulls||Phil Jackson||45||4-1||Los Angeles Lakers||Mike Dunleavy||37|
|Average Age||53.6||Average Age||47.9|
Detroit Pistons 1988-89, 1989-90 – Chuck Daly, age 58 / 59
Los Angeles Lakers 1981-1982, 1984-85, 1986-87, 1987-88 – Pat Riley, age 37 /40 / 41 / 42
Boston Celtics 1983-84, 1985-86 – KC Jones, age 52 / 54
- Championship coaches are on average older than their runner-up counterparts. Not a compelling difference at first thought, but 5.5 years can be significant when put in perspective. How much wiser are you today, than 6 years ago?
- Just 7 coaches have been responsible for the last 20 NBA championships. Phil Jackson has won more than half these last two decades with eleven, starting at age 45. I guess he’s kind of a big deal.
- All but one championship roster has had at least one of the top players of all-time: Shaq, Duncan, Kareem, Hakeem, Garnett, Jordan, Kobe, etc. The only beautiful anomaly goes to the 04’ Pistons, who encompassed the epitome of all that is pure in basketball to defeat the heavily favorited Lakers.
- Notables: Pat Riley - current Miami Heat GM and mentor to coach Spoelstra - won his first championship with the talent-loaded Lakers at age 37, 3 years younger than Spoelstra’s current age.
- Phil Jackson was in his second year as a coach when he first won a championship with the Bulls. He had inherited the team from Doug Collins.
- Tomjanovich was in his 3rd year when he won a championship, as was Popovich, as is Spoelstra this season.
- Mike Dunleavy once reached the NBA Finals. We’ve collectively chosen to ignore it, but the records show so. He inherited the talented but then aging Lakers team and replaced Pat Riley in LA, ultimately losing to the rising Bulls.
The data isn’t ultimately conclusive in any way, as age itself does not solely determine a coach’s persona. Experience in the NBA as a player (Riley, Rivers, Phil, etc), as an assistant coach (almost all), coaching in other leagues (Phil Jackson was once a coach in Puerto Rico), and life experience (Riley was drafted in the NBA and the NFL in the same year, amongst other things – Rivers is the nephew of a former NBA player, etc) can all mold the generals into majestic leaders of their troops.
The Modern Age
Spoelstra has evolved in the new generation of numbers in statistics, starting as a video coordinator for the Heat in 1995 and as assistant coach since 1997. He took the reins in 2008, and now commands one of the most potent rosters ever assembled. He is young with high potential, his 16 years with an organization that prides itself in loyalty are highly valued, but all eyes are on him to perform.
With the same opportunity as Riley in his youth, the Heat coach has a chance to create a legacy for himself and the organization. A clash with Doc Rivers’ Celtics will be the toughest test yet, one where if there is total collapse, it might just kindly remove him from the historical books.
All signs from the offices have pointed towards faith in the coach, as all fans should as well. But his contract was not renewed (leaving options open) and Miami cannot afford to wait for the guidance to the Promised Land. Hope he’s the one that can take us there.
The weight of the world is on his shoulders.
Good luck, coach.