He's No Gregg Popovich, but Erik Spoelstra Deserves More Love
Since the Spurs destroyed the Heat in the NBA Finals, there's been a lot of talk about who deserves the blame. One of the main targets for this finger pointing has been Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Those who claim that the Heat's loss in the NBA Finals was Coach Spo's fault point to the fact that he was outcoached by Gregg Popovich, which he admittedly was. To these people, however, I have two words: so what? You know who else has been outcoached by Gregg Popovich in the past? Everyone. Every single coach in the league.
Popovich was the NBA Coach of the Year this season, the third time he was won this award (which is absurdly low given what he's done). There's certainly no shame in being outcoached by the best in the business, especially considering how bad the Heat supporting cast was this season, as Bryan Mears explains here.
Since being named head coach in 2008, Spoelstra's success has constantly been in question. Spo, a long time protege of Heat president Pat Riley, has seen his accomplishments diminished because many feel like he is simply a figurehead and Riley basically coaches the team from behind the scenes. Riley built this team, and the best player in the world, LeBron James, runs the show on the court. But someone has to coach this team, right?
With that said, I'm not here to argue that the Heat head coach is the best in the league, or even one of the top three. All I'm trying to say is that Spo deserves more credit for the Heat's success while he has been leading them. Here are a few reasons why.
Life Before Lebron
Spoelstra was named head coach of the Miami Heat on April 28, 2008, 801 days and two full NBA seasons before LeBron announced his decision to take his talents to South Beach. In his first two seasons as an NBA head coach, both without the talents of LeBron at his disposal, Coach Spo led the Heat to 90 wins, a 54.9% win percentage and two playoff appearances. Not bad.
Although these accomplishments are by no means mind-blowing, they become much more impressive when you look at the roster Spo was working with. Outside of Dwyane Wade, the Heat were pretty much devoid of top level talent.
The most frequently used lineup for the 2008-2009 Miami Heat consisted of Wade, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and a rookie Mario Chalmers, with guys like Michael Beasley, Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon contributing major minutes as well. Wade dominated the ball with a usage percentage of 36.2%, leading the team in points (30.2), assists (7.5), efficiency rating (30.4) and minutes (38.2) per game.
After Wade there was a huge drop off in points, assists, usage percentage and PER. Beasley was second in scoring (13.9), PER (17.2) and usage percentage (27.7%), while the next leading assist man was Chalmers at 4.9. To put things in perspective, both Beasley and Chalmers were on this year's Heat roster. Beasley could barely get on the floor for the Heat this postseason, and Chalmers was quite possibly the worst player on the Heat that saw substantial minutes in this year's playoffs. They were two of the Heat's few best players in 2008-2009.
Spo still managed to coach that team to the playoffs.
The team was constructed similarly in 2009-2010, with the addition of some middling veterans such as Carlos Arroyo, Quentin Richardson and Rafer Alston. Again, Wade dominated the stat sheet for the Heat, with significant drop off in most categories.
The criticism of Spoelstra from 2008-2010 was that the Heat only won four total playoff games, failing to advance past the first round in either series. Yes, that's true, but it's hard to expect a rookie and second-year coach to lead a team deep into the playoffs with the below-average roster he was given.
What History Tells Us
Though he's only in his sixth year as head coach of the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra is currently the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA behind the aforementioned Gregg Popovich. In just six years, Spo has accomplished more than most coaches do in their entire careers.
The Heat head coach has a 314 career wins, a career winning percentage of 66% and has never had a losing season or missed the playoffs. Additionally, he has coached his team to 63 career playoff wins, a playoff winning percentage of 63.6%, four NBA Finals appearances and two NBA titles.
Only 30 coaches in NBA history have won an NBA title, and only 13 have ever won multiple championships. Of those 13 coaches, only 6 (other than Spoelstra) had this type of success within this early in their coaching careers - Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, John Kundla, Gregg Popovich, Rudy Tomjanovich and Bill Russell (who had the benefit of coaching one of the greatest players of all time...himself).
Four of these coaches have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, with Popovich a lock to be inducted upon his retirement, and Rudy T as the only one not to be bestowed this honor. This list is chalk full of some of the greatest coaches in the history of the league.
All of the coaches on this list had transcendent superstars as the focal point of their teams. Phil had Michael and Scotty, Riley had Magic and Kareem, Pop had Duncan and Robinson, Kundla had Mikan, Rudy had Hakeem and Russell had himself. None of these historically great coaches had their accomplishments diminished because their teams were built on superstars, why should Spoelstra lose credibility because his team features James and Wade?
Although he does not receive all of the credit he deserves today, I have a feeling that when it's all said and done the majority of the basketball world will view Spoelstra as a truly great coach. I just hope all the haters come around sooner rather than later.