The star player-coach relationship remains one of the most enigmatic, fascinating dynamics in all the NBA. Most any head coach will tell you that building chemistry and maximizing the skill set of a super star can be one of the most challenging elements of the gig. Even the coaches who do it well don’t do it perfectly.
Those challenges extend far beyond relationships with just star players. However, it can’t be denied that a team often takes its cues from how the head coach and the alpha personalities mesh.
Sometimes the challenges go beyond X’s and O’s. It comes down to establishing trust through communication. We see it year after year as it relates to virtually all the big NBA names and their respective head coaches.
Jay Z told us “It’s a secret society, all we ask is trust”, then that line was skillfully recycled by Kendrick Lamar to remind today’s generation. That sentiment is held in high regard by the fraternity that is NBA players and coaches.
It’s something Erik Spoelstra has at times excelled at, particularly on the court.
Spoelstra on not putting LeBron back in game: "Non-verbal communication. Both of us understood, let’s let this group ride."
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 9, 2013
However, Spoelstra has also experienced struggles with some of the back of the house stuff from a communication perspective. His player relationships have ranged from perfect moments of on court maximization, to clumsy works in progress.
Pat Riley says there has to be an intervention on the relationship between Hassan Whiteside and Erik Spoelstra to get the best out of Hassan. And he will be the one doing the intervention.
— Will Manso (@WillManso) April 30, 2018
Thankfully for the Heat and Spoelstra, any gaps have been filled by arguably the most popular coach on the staff among the players, especially since David Fizdale left for bigger opportunities. Communication is the utmost strength of the man that many consider the most underrated head-coach-in-waiting throughout the entire league.
And that’s Juwan Howard.
Howard, in only a handful of seasons as NBA coach, has become the roots of the Heat coaching tree as it bears fruit in areas such as player development. He fills the spaces between the boxes on an org chart. He’s become the glue.
When the time comes for the Heat to execute succession plans, one that may entice Spoelstra off the sideline and into the front office, count me among those who think Howard is the right man to usher in the next evolution of Heat basketball as head coach.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Dan Craig. Craig is one of the best basketball minds around. But as superstar player relationships have become as important as ever in team building activities, I am in favor of a shift to the prototypical player’s coach.
Howard is a Heat player magnet; there is always a Heat player within arms reach of him when in the facility. In working so intently on building trusting relationships off the court, he organically compels them to work harder on it. Howard also seems to repel all the noise that only gets in the way. Because he’s been there. He gets it. From the perspective of lottery pick to All Star to role player and now coach.
“Having someone who has played the game and lived the NBA lifestyle,” Heat guard Rodney McGruder told Five Reasons Sports. “Someone you can relate to, who played in the league for 19 years, for so many different organizations. Anytime he speaks you listen because of that respect, because of the type of player he was and his success in the league. Anytime he talks you buy in because he’s lived it, he’s been in your shoes, he knows every situation, every predicament. You try to stay around a guy like that. His energy, the energy that he gives to prepare before a game. Even when we are working with the scout team in practice, just the energy and feedback that he gives us is big time.”
Speaking of scout teams in practice, his working sessions with Heat players often extend through media availability at shoot around and are an frequent mix of footwork and movement.
— Austin Pert (@AustinPert98) February 25, 2019
And lots of defense.
Defense is the longstanding calling card of all successful Heat teams, so defense being the specialty of Howard makes him the ideal fit going forward.
“He’s probably our biggest defensive coach.” Josh Richardson told Five Reasons Sports recently. “Any defensive adjustments that need to be made, he’ll normally pick those out and tell us about it. He’s our emotional coach. The coach that will get us going, get us back in the ball game, get us excited.”
Howard’s passion is contagious. His ability to relate to players, get them to buy in to the culture and want to be coached, is exemplified in his relationship with Heat point guard Justise Winslow.
“He’s been great. Just with me, we have of connection through Coach (John) Lucas down in Houston.” Winslow told Five Reasons Sports. “He knows the basketball environment that I grew up in and where I come from.”
Howard has the unique ability to tangibly challenge players in a genuine, healthy way. There’s an evolutionary balance that exists in how much you effectively push today’s NBA athlete.
Lesson learned from the NBA Playoffs. You Can coach your guys hard and hold them accountable if you have their trust.
— Seth Greenberg (@SethOnHoops) June 19, 2014
“He’s always pushing me to be the best player on both sides of the ball,” Winslow added. “Holding me accountable to a different and higher standard than most (other players) defensively is something that I am extremely grateful for. He wants me to be an all- defensive player. I told him that’s one of my goals for my career, to be a 1st or 2nd team All defensive player at different points of my career. He has been holding me to that standard.”
Howard seems to evoke the respect of the players in an almost intuitive fashion… likely because some of his players were his peers not so long ago.
“For me, I played with him, so I still have that relationship with him as a player,” Udonis Haslem told Five Reasons Sports. “I respect him so much, not only as a coach, but a guy who has been in the trenches with me. So, it’s like double respect. It’s the respect as a coach and it’s respect as you’ve been in the trenches with me. I know if my back is against the wall you are one of the guys I can depend on it. I still call him (Howard) Big Homie. Even though we’ve played together and had so many opportunities together I still look up to Juwan and value his opinion and everything he can bring.”
Juwan has helped Derrick Jones Jr. continue to refine his game and learn new positions to maximize his skillset.
“Coach Juwan helped me out a lot personally, because coming here I had never played the four,” Jones Jr. told Five Reasons Sports. “Switching to the four, and having to learn the pick and roll coverages with my man as the screener, he helped me fast track that a whole lot. Sitting down watching film with him, Bam, Hassan and KO. That helped me out a lot. He is just one of those people here to help. He’s here to serve you. Whatever you need he’s always going to be there to help teach you everything he learned in this game. For him to be here and devote his time to us, I’m grateful for that.”
And here’s another thing: you hear him.
Went to the Celtics game last night and sat 10 feet behind Danny Ainge, but he left at halftime before I could think of something witty about Chipotle to yell at him. Also Juwan Howard has to be the most actively involved assistant coach I've ever seen
— Tim Lawrence (@TimLawrence10) January 22, 2019
“He’s obviously a really important voice for us.” Kelly Olynyk told Five Reasons Sports. “Having played so many years in this league at a super high level. He’s been there, he’s done it, so he knows what it takes. Just trying to be there offensively and a lot of times defensively. Especially for the bigs, how to guard certain actions, pick and rolls. A constant reminder of what you’re doing and how to do it better. For us he’s all about that.”
Now let’s pivot back to the star player-coach relationship topic.
Currently such a dynamic would be classified as a luxurious, first world problem in Miami. The next superstar centerpiece for any coach to relate to in Miami is as much a mystery as Heat injury reports are these days. I mean yes there’s still Dwyane, but he is not there to make waves at this stage. Beyond Wade, no true alpha super star has been identified or acquired.
But let’s fast forward and operate under the assumption that, within the next two years, as flexibility increases and the team’s core solidifies, that the Heat find a way to nab a true alpha to lead the way. Howard sure seems like the type of coach that players around the league will want to run through walls for.
“Just his voice in the locker room, we have a lot of great coaches and they all have great backgrounds and great basketball intelligence, but he’s a legend.” Winslow said. “What he’s seen on and off the court, being a part of the Fab 5 and some of the things he had to go through.”
All of this points to the inevitably that Howard will be a highly sought-after head coach option throughout the league, maybe even by LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers as soon as this summer. Whispers are getting louder that he is the darkhorse candidate when the Lakers begin their search for a replacement for current, beleaguered, leader Luke Walton.
— Jesse Heiman (@JesseHeiman) March 27, 2019
And now Vegas is catching on:
Juwan Howard betting favorite for Lakers HC job – Five Reasons Sports Network https://t.co/VAbC7io1tZ
— Five Reasons Sports Network (@5ReasonsSports) April 2, 2019
If the Heat organizational chart is close to an unavoidable shuffle, don’t let timing get in the way of doing what’s best for the franchise going forward. Figure out what needs to happen to ensure he isn’t lured away by James.
The Heat had and then lost Juwan Howard, the player, in 1996. That ultimately worked out in the Heat’s favor, as they recovered to sign Dan Majerle, who was an ideal fit for the lineup. I’m not so sure the second time around will be as fruitful or fortunate for Miami.
The Heat should do whatever is necessary to keep him in that locker room. With the the allure of LeBron and LA on the horizon, do it now, before it’s too late.