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Both up close and from afar, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James marveled at how Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra managed his star and role players with relentless preparation and innovation.
“There’s this narrative that Spo is not great, and the narrative that he doesn’t get a lot of respect, which he should,” James said. “He prepares his team every single night. If you watch the Miami Heat, no matter who’s on the floor, they’re going to play Heat culture. They’re going to play hard. They’re going to play together.”
Both up close and from afar, Spoelstra admired how James will appear in nine out of the past 10 NBA Finals amid different circumstances. First, James won two out of four Finals appearances with the Heat (2012, 2013). Then, James returned to Cleveland and won once out of four times there (2016). And only one year after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006, James has led the Lakers back to the Finals for their first time in 10 years.
“It is a true testament to his greatness to be able to sustain this type of success year in, year out,” Spoelstra said. “Different uniforms. New players and new teams going after him. It’s a real testament to that commitment.”
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When the Lakers and the Heat meet in the NBA Finals at the ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex on Wednesday, how Spoelstra and James fulfill their job descriptions will play a huge factor in the outcome. After managing a resurgent star (Jimmy Butler), rising stars (Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro) and steady veterans (Andre Iguodala, Goran Dragic) to the Finals as a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, how will Spoelstra’s preparation play out against the top-seeded Lakers? After becoming what Lakers coach Frank Vogel said “is the best leader I’ve been around,” how will the 35-year-old James’ ability to delay Father Time emerge against the Heat?
However those factors play out, James adamantly disputed any notion that facing his former team will offer additional motivation to win his fourth NBA title.
“Absolutely not. It’s no extra meaning to winning a championship, no matter who you’re playing against,” James said. “It’s already hard enough to even reach the Finals, to be in this position. If you’re able to become victorious out of the Finals, it doesn’t matter who it’s against. I’m just happy that I’m here with the opportunity.”
James and Spoelstra offered nothing but respect toward each other, despite the dynamics between them both with the Heat and afterwards.
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In “The Soul of Basketball,” Miami Heat President Pat Riley told author Ian Thomsen that James asked him if he was interested in coaching the Heat at some point during James’ first year with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the 2010-11 season. Riley said he interpreted James’ question as a suggestion to replace Spoelstra after Riley had won four NBA titles with the Showtime Lakers and another with the Heat. But with Riley staying committed to Spoelstra during his two title runs with James, as well as three playoff appearances since his departure, James argued that Spoelstra deserves more credit.
“It’s been you guys that have changed the narrative or has never given Spo his respect because he had D-Wade or he had myself or he had Bosh. But a lot of coaches have talent,” James said.
“It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t gotten his respect. Every time we talked about Spo when I was there and we talked about how great he prepared us, and we talked about how great it was playing for Spo and things of that nature, you guys always said, ‘Well, you have LeBron, you have D-Wade, you have Bosh; any coach can do it.’ No, any coach can’t do it. If any coach could do it, then there would be a lot more champions in this league.”
Perhaps Spoelstra would have more NBA championships had James not left the Heat in 2014 for a return to Cleveland. But when Spoelstra learned six years ago about James’ departure, he insisted he harbored no grudges.
“I went through my own six-week reflection period that summer. But then you get back to work,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve built a lot of different teams over the years. We’ve been conditioned to move on and give everything, your heart and soul, to the next group and the next team.”
So when the Heat acquired Dragic in a mid-season trade in 2014-15 from Phoenix for Danny Granger, Justin Hamilton and two first-round picks, Spoelstra said the team promised Dragic that the team would return to the NBA Finals soon. That process was delayed amid key ailments. Bosh playing his final game in the middle of the 2015-16 season because of blood clots. After laboring with injuries in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Wade left Miami for Chicago because of the organization’s concern about spending money on an aging veteran.
But the Heat never entered the NBA lottery partly because of how Spoelstra managed Dragic as well as young talent. That aligned for the Heat to select Adebayo at No. 14 in 2017 and Herro at No. 13 in 2019. The Heat also acquired Butler last summer from Philadelphia and Iguodala before the trade deadline from Memphis.
“That’s what fuels Spo, is the disrespect that you guys give him, the basketball world,” James said. “I’m not going to sit up here and act like I don’t know what Spo is all about, because he’s damned good, if not great because his preparation. He prepares like it’s his last time ever coaching again every game.”
Spoelstra observed that James has taken the same approach.
Only two years removed from his last NBA Finals when Cleveland faced Golden State, James mused that the only thing that has changed is “I’ve got a little bit more gray in my beard.” Otherwise, the Lakers have marveled at James’ durability, playmaking, how he elevated Anthony Davis and his supporting cast and empowered Vogel. James fulfilled that role despite navigating a disrupted training camp in China, grieving over Kobe Bryant’s death in the middle of the season and adapting to the NBA campus bubble. No wonder James contended this “has probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional.”
“At this point in his career, it’s just about winning,” Spoelstra said. “And his ability to do what he does at his age is incredibly uncommon. But there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to be able to maintain that.”
Spoelstra would know. He saw it first-hand with James in Miami.
“I was still a kid and still trying to figure out who I am as a person and as a man, growing while still trying to compete for a championship every single year,” James said. “I grew, and they allowed me to grow. We pushed each other every single day. I fit perfectly in that culture because I worked just as hard as anybody else. I show up to work and I don’t leave until I feel like I was as great as I was.
“Do you always become successful at it? Are you always going to win? No, it doesn’t happen like that. But you’re able to sleep a little bit better at night when you know you’ve punched the clock.”