Erik Spoelstra has accomplished quite a bit since taking over as head coach of the Miami Heat in 2008. He has won nearly 400 regular-season games, 63 playoff games, and two championships. He led the Heat to four straight NBA finals appearances. He has coached an All-Star team. He is the second-longest tenured coach in the league, behind only San Antonio's Greg Popovich. And as the cherry on top, he is engaged to a former Heat dancer. Good run, huh?
But there is one thing Spoelstra has yet to accomplish as coach of the Miami Heat. He has never won Coach of the Year. That should change soon. Spoelstra has been the best coach in the NBA this season, when you consider everything the Heat has been through.
The Heat sits at 40-29, just a half-game behind the Atlanta Hawks, who occupy the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Heat's confidence — coming off the best win of the season, a 122-101 ass-whooping of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — is at a post-Heatles-era high. The team has turned itself from a feeling-sorry-for-itself pretender to a trendy-dark-horse-contender for the Eastern Conference crown.
With about a dozen games left in the season, the NBA lacks any clearcut leader for Coach of the Year. At one point, the Celtics' Brad Stevens may have been the hot candidate, but the Celtics have faded fast as of late. Steve Kerr can't be considered after missing a huge chunk of the Warriors' season due to a back injury. Greg Popovich has a loaded team full of on-the-court coaches — not exactly the hardest job he's ever had — and a similar situation that many observers pointed to being the reason Spoelstra never won the award from 2010-2014. Ex-Gators coach Billy Donovan has done little to change the Thunder from what it was before he arrived.
Spoelstra's biggest competition is likely to come the Charlotte Hornets' Steve Clifford, who has his team overachieving at 39-30, good for sixth in the East. Clifford's resumé will look a lot better, or a lot worse, depending upon the final dozen games left this season.
Nobody in the East wants to see the Miami Heat in the playoffs, which would have been an absurd thing to say even a few weeks ago. So much has changed, and the road to every one of those changes leads back to Spoelstra and his staff. The things that he and his assistants have overcome to have the Heat playing the brand of basketball it's playing right now would have broken a less experienced group.
The Heat could have folded when it lost Chris Bosh for the season last month. Instead, the team has gone 11-5 while he's dealing with his second bout of blood clots in two years. The Heat lost arguably its best player for the second straight year to the same nonbasketball-related health scare, yet the team has somehow emerged more dynamic and better. If that were all you could say about the job Coach Spoelstra has done this year, that would be saying a lot.
The Heat's depth could have become a huge issue when the once-relied-upon bench players Gerald Green and Josh McRoberts proved to be unreliable. Or when the team traded three other bench players (Chris Anderson, James Ennis, and Mario Chalmers) for practically nothing. Or when Tyler Johnson was down for multiple months due to a shoulder injury. Or when Beno Udrih was lost for the year, and later waived, after his own injury.
There were games where the Heat dressed nine men. Instead, the Heat has not only replaced the old bench crew but also done so in large part with arguably the best rookie duo in the NBA in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. Richardson's emergence, especially, is anything but luck. Spoelstra detailed this week Richardson's journey, the hard work he has put in with the rookie, and how the Heat culture isn't for everyone. Since the All-Star break, Richardson is the best three-point shooter in the NBA. That's real life.
The Heat locker room could have been divided when Hassan Whiteside — a seven-foot beast of a center almost any team in the NBA would drool to take the opening tip — was asked to start coming off the bench in favor of an aging yet steadier Amar'e Stoudamire. His ability to finesse the situation and make Whiteside understand that putting the betterment of the team ahead of his own pursuit for literal hundereds of millions of dollars awaiting him this offseason in free agency was the right thing to do, has been borderline miraculous.
It's the sort of situation that would get most teams talked about on ESPN for all the wrong reasons. Instead, Spoelstra has once again proven he is a master of managing strong personalities. Whiteside hasn't just accepted his new role; he has thrived in it. It's the best thing that ever happened to his career, and it has made the Heat bench borderline-unfair.
Miami could have easily hit bumpy waters when Goran Dragic and Luol Deng looked like shells of their former selves throughout half the season. Both seemed a step slow. Both seemed to be failing when asked to do something or play a style of game that wasn't the best fit for them. Both could have made a stink about it.
So Spoelstra, in the middle of a season, changed all of that.
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Spoelstra amazingly not only turned Dragic's and Deng's seasons around but also transformed them into players who look like All-Stars. While other coaches are hellbent on putting players into their triangle or rectangle, Spoelstra adapted on the fly and transformed the Heat from one of the slowest and worst three-point-shooting teams in the league to the exact opposite. Miami is now a team that runs with a pace that LeBron said Saturday night may give the Cavs trouble in the future.
All of this and more has happened in only a few weeks. The Heat has gone from a broken pretender to a legitimate contender in the East. Dealing with all of these issues yet thriving is a big reason the team was able to lure Joe Johnson to Miami.
The Heat has saved a season that could have been so easily lost. It's a credit to the job that Spoelstra and his staff have done. It's been an all-time job by an all-time coach, whether some fans want to appreciate it or not.
And it's about time he gets that NBA Coach of the Year award because of it.