September 25, 2020

Erik Spoelstra Is the Most Underrated Coach in the NBA

Erik Spoelstra has been underrated his entire career. 

The one-time Miami Heat video coordinator has been doubted ever since he took over as Heat coach in 2008 and turned the Big 3 Heatles into NBA champions. While evaluating coaches is an inexact science, sure, it's clear Spo checks all the boxes as an elite coach with a proven track record, but, for some reason, he isn't mentioned among the greatest current coaches in the league like Greg Popovich, Steve Kerr or Brad Stevens. Maybe he should be. Here's why.

He's Got The Resumé

The coaching industry has a faster turnover rate than the White House administration. In a high-pressure, results-orientated business, patience is not a ubiquitous commodity. But Spoelstra and the Heat have both proven to have that quality. Spoelstra started his career grinding in the video room as the Heat’s video coordinator in 1995. In a league where many coaches are former players, it’s extremely difficult to work your way up to the top job. Spoelstra’s ascension under the Godfather Pat Riley speaks volumes about Spoelstra's work ethic and the Heat's ability to identify talent. In Spo's first two seasons, Miami was respectable, winning an average of 45 games while making the playoffs.

Little did he know that the spotlight on him was about to get a lot brighter. In the summer of 2010, LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach. Expectations skyrocketed, chemistry had to be cultivated and egos needed to be massaged. Not every coach is up for that job. In fact, most NBA coaches only have one kind of serve. Some are great at player development, some specialize in relationships, some are hardcore X’s and O’s. It's uncommon for a coach to possess all of those skills, but Spoelstra has proven he's a rare breed. 

Spoelstra is the second longest-tenured coach in the league after the immortal Popovich. In 12 years with the Heat, Spoelstra has won 59% of the games he's coached. During the Big 3 Era, Spoelstra battled through a rocky start to help lead the team to the Finals in all four years James was in Miami, winning two rings. Since LeBron left, Spo has continued to develop the Heat’s hard-working, no-nonsense culture, and unearthed some diamonds in the rough. Josh Richardson, the 40th pick in the 2015 draft, became the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade in the offseason because Spo and his staff developed Richardson to be a fantastic defender and capable ball-handler. 

This season alone, Spoelstra oversaw the development of two undrafted players in Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, who were starters most of the season and have turned into contributors in the playoffs. The Heat coach has also empowered the white-hot rookie Tyler Herro to take on a huge role in the playoffs. Herro, a 20-year-old rookie, is averaging 16.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists in the playoffs after dropping a career-high 37 points — the most ever by a rookie in the Conference Finals — against the Celtics in Game 4. He has scored in double digits every single game off the bench, a remarkable feat of consistency at an age where ups and downs are common.

Adjustments and Lineups

A huge part of coaching is choosing the right lineups to put players in positions to succeed. In Miami’s last seven playoff appearances under Spoelstra, his most-used lineup outscored its opponents in six of those years. That proves that come crunch time, Spo knew which combination of players needed to be on the floor together to give his team the best chance to win.

It’s the same story this year. Coming into the bubble, the Heat had a rock-solid starting lineup that was demolishing opponents statistically. The five-man combo of Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn had played almost 500 regular-season minutes and outscored opponents by over 13 points per 100 possessions. It was working, but what did Spoelstra do come playoff time? He removed Leonard from the rotation, which was a bold move at the time. Leonard's a proven veteran who rebounds and plays good defense at the rim, and yet Spo yanked him because he's not stubborn. Spoelstra was willing to make an adjustment early in the postseason, and it's paid off for his team. 

Leonard's inability to defend on the perimeter and consistently hit shots from deep made him dispensable. 

Time and time again, coaches will keep a player who shouldn’t be out until it bites them, and they find themselves behind in a series. Not many coaches have the foresight and confidence to scrap a successful lineup, but in doing so, Spoelstra discovered an even more lethal grouping. By moving Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder into the starting lineup, Miami got faster and more explosive. The lineup of Dragic, Crowder, Butler, Adebayo and Herro is pounding opponents in the playoffs by 29 points per 100 possessions.

What Did His Players Have To Say?

Putting players in a position to win is the easiest way to have players buy-in to your system and culture. And it appears that Spoelstra has earned his players' trust. Here's what two Heat legends told ESPN about playing under Spo:

LeBron James: “Spo has been great. The one thing he did is when we were struggling in November he weathered the storm. He kept us at bay and understanding that it is going to take a lot of dedication, it’s going to take a lot of commitment, and a lot of unselfishness. He kept a level head, he always stayed the course. As players that play for him, we respected that. At that point, we tried to give back to him by going out and playing great basketball.”

Dwyane Wade: “He’s even keeled, he never gets too hot or too low. Even on this win streak he’s been on us. That’s what he preached to us, to always be hungry and move on to the next day. We’ve got a great leader and he’s helped us to be where we are.”

Through the highs of championships to the lows of tenure with the Heat, Spoelstra has been fantastic. Now, give the man his flowers.

Photo: Getty Images