Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was an assistant coach under then head coach and current Heat president Pat Riley back in 2006, as Riley led a veteran Heat crew to that franchise's first championship. That outfit, led by Dwyane Wade in just his third season but featuring a veteran supporting cast, became somewhat notorious for its significant drop off following the title — a first round sweep in 2007 followed by a dismantling and trip to the lottery in 2008.
Spoelstra, in comparing that year's Finals defense with the title defense currently being hashed out by the newest crew, thinks things might be a tad different this time around. It appears as if Miami's Big Three — who were introduced to the town via a massive and embarrassing party two years ago — are taking this defense a little more seriously. From the Sun-Sentinel:
"This year has been different than it was in 2006, when we won that title," Spoelstra said of what has been a six-week whirlwind since finishing off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals. "It seemed as if that celebration lasted all the way up 'til training camp."
Which sort of makes sense.
Shaquille O'Neal wasn't the Heat's best player in 2006 (he was Miami's third-leading scorer in the Finals, even), but he did curb his weight and injury issues long enough to be a significant factor in what turned out to be his fourth and final NBA championship. Following that? Yeah, Shaq took it easy for a while following, before he was traded to Phoenix in early 2008.
Antoine Walker? Played smart, sound basketball in the later rounds of the playoffs that year. Sort of let things fall apart after that.
Jason Williams? Dude was a year removed from walking around in public wearing a "Ho Depot" t-shirt, fighting with a columnist in the locker room, and acting petulant enough for Hubie Brown to walk away from coaching. So, yes, he probably may have enjoyed himself quite a bit following a tumultuous 2005 leading to a title-winning 2006.
Michael Doleac? Oh, I don't even NEED to tell you about Michael Doleac.
Spoelstra was speaking to the Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman from Singapore, talking from a media session layover before heading to the Philippines (Spoelstra's family has Filipino roots) for a series of basketball clinics. A busman's holiday, to be sure, and one that Spoelstra (long one of the hardest workers in the NBA, even before taking to the top of the Miami bench) is no doubt enjoying in what he calls "a 12-month job for everybody."
This is why Spoelstra, at least on record, has no qualms with LeBron James sweating buckets in London as he works toward a gold medal with Team USA. It's all part of the 12-month program, to coach Spo. From the Sun-Sentinel:
"I know there's a lot of conjecture out there about whether NBA teams want their players playing in the Olympics or the World Championships. I think it's great. Competition is always great. The opportunity to play for your country is great.
"The risk of injury will always be there in any sport, no matter what you do. It can happen in training or in the official games, in competition. But all the other benefits of the Olympics and being part of something so special, I think outweigh and transcend any risk."
It's hard to disagree with that. Though we're mindful of Michael Jordan retiring in his prime the year following his whirlwind tour as NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist, a player as unique as LeBron James can only get better with more and more reps. More games, more completion, more chances to figure out life as some sort of Jordan-Magic Johnson-Karl Malone beastly hybrid. James, shockingly, is still figuring his game out.
And with Heat stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh declining their Olympic participation in order to recover from injuries, it isn't as if the Heat's Big Three are shouldering a massive minutes load. Nah, leave that to the Oklahoma City Thunder — the Finals runner-up has its four biggest players working in this tournament, as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka (with Spain) will all see significant Olympic action.
You also get the feeling that, while Miami enjoyed its champagne burn and deserved title, that this crew wants to sustain that feeling in a way that doesn't feature the hair of the dog. James and company deserved the criticism they took in for the embarrassment of The Decision and unsteady play during the 2011 Finals, but the shoddy play and resulting martyrdom gave the Heat something to learn from on the court and something to rally around off of it. That's not going to go away any time soon. There might be a Dexter Pittman on this team, but there sure aren't any Antoine Walkers.
This is a long way of saying that, come fall and regardless of the work put in during spring and summer, the Heat will be ready.
Their coach will demand as much.