MIAMI — He has taken his team to two NBA Finals, winning one. He’s the East coach for the All-Star Game on Sunday in Houston.
So what can Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra do to finally get his due?
“When you’re on a team with LeBron (James), Dwyane (Wade) and Chris (Bosh), people think it’s just a matter of unlocking the gym and taking the ball out of the closet and letting magic happen,’’ said Heat forward Shane Battier. “I don’t think he’ll ever get the true credit just because people will always say, ‘It was LeBron. It was Dwyane.’
“Unless he wins (11 titles) like the Zen Master (Phil Jackson), I don’t know if he ever will get the credit outside this locker room. That’s just the way our culture is today and the way the media is today.’’
Well, there are people outside the Heat locker room apparently giving Spoelstra plenty of credit. They are the NBA’s other coaches.
“I think definitely he doesn’t get his due,’’ Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said of Spoelstra while referring to the media. “The coaches know how good he is. It’s you guys that have struggled with knowing what’s going on.’’
Through it all, though, Spoelstra claims he couldn’t care less. Sure, he wants the respect of his peers but Spoelstra hardly is known as one who bangs the drum for publicity.
Spoelstra initially hardly expressed jubilation about possibly coaching in the All-Star Game. But berths go to the coaches of the teams with the best record in each conference and, obviously, Spoelstra wanted his Heat (36-14) to have the top mark possible.
“I like that,’’ Spoelstra said of not often getting his due from the outside. “That’s part of my personality. I like going under the radar. I really couldn’t care less how I’m judged out there. I’ve been hired to coach the team and to get a result. I want to please my superiors. Certainly, I would like to have the respect of my peers. But other than that, I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about if I’m getting accolades or respect from people outside.’’
If anybody claims Spoelstra didn’t earn his spot as Heat coach, they would be greatly mistaken. He toiled for 13 years as a video coordinator, scout and assistant coach for Miami before being named to the position in 2008 by Pat Riley, who had stepped aside as coach to serve exclusively as team president.
Riley always had been impressed with Spoelstra’s work ethic. To illustrate that ethic, the Heat tweeted a photo from a Feb. 3 team Super Bowl gathering in Toronto in which Spoelstra was studying video of a future opponent during the game.
Spoelstra went a solid 43-39 in his first Miami season of 2008-09 and 47-35 in his second year when Wade was the team’s only star. Then he was thrust into the national spotlight when the Heat added James and Bosh in the summer of 2010.
So what happened when Spoelstra steered the Heat to a 58-24 mark in the first season with the Big Three and the No. 2 seed in the East? He was the only one of the 12 coaches whose teams had playoff seeds of No. 6 or better to not get a single vote for Coach of the Year.
Spoelstra did take the Heat to the 2011 NBA Finals but incurred some criticism when they lost 4-2 to Dallas. Miami bounced back to go 46-20 last season and defeat Oklahoma City 4-1 to win the championship but it wasn’t as if Spoelstra was getting heaps of praise from the outside.
“I wouldn’t want to be in his position,’’ said Wade, who has had Spoelstra either as an assistant or head coach throughout his 10-year career. “It’s tough to be coach of a team with this kind of talent and to keep everybody on the same page and everyone happy. And he has a very tough job. A lot of people look at it and say, ‘Well, anybody can win with those guys.’ But it’s not that easy. That’s why Phil Jackson is the greatest coach of all time because he was able to make that talent work.’’
Spoelstra is 10 championships behind Jackson. But Spoelstra is only 42, so he at least has time to catch Jackson, who won his first title at 45, if that’s what it might take to get his due.
One guy, though, who lavishes praise upon Spoelstra now is Stan Van Gundy, who in 2005 became the first Miami boss to coach in an All-Star Game and was the only one prior to Spoelstra. Van Gundy, fired last year as Orlando’s coach, had Spoelstra as an assistant in Miami and has closely followed his career.
“I don’t think he’s gotten enough credit,’’ Van Gundy said of what the coach has done in Miami. “People look at their talent and discount the job that he has done. I don’t think there’s a better coach now in the NBA. It’s time for him to get his due.’’
Asked to clarify, Van Gundy didn’t say Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA. But he said there are five or six guys at the top and Spoelstra is one.
“I think he’s a good friend,’’ Spoelstra, who is 230-132 in his five Heat seasons, cracked when told what Van Gundy had said. “Stan I go way back. Thanks, Stan. That’s what makes him awesome.’’
Spoelstra supporters point to how he helped keep the Heat afloat during the playoffs last season. They became the first NBA team to fall behind in three series before winning a title.
The Heat were down 2-1 to Indiana before winning a key Game 4 on the road and eventually claiming the Eastern Conference semifinal 4-2. They were down 3-2 to Boston in the Eastern finals before surviving with two straight victories. And they trailed the Thunder 1-0 in the Finals 1-0 before winning four straight.
“He did an unbelievable job of guiding his team through some rough spots,’’ D’Antoni said.
Spoelstra has had success with the Heat while not being afraid to change his approach. During his first year with the Big Three and for most of his second season, he used a traditional center even though it hampered the Heat offensively.
Spoelstra in last June’s Finals moved Bosh, who had been the starting power forward, to center. Spoelstra, who says he plays “position-less’’ ball with the Heat, has continued to utilize that strategy this season even though Bosh hasn’t always been enthralled with playing center.
“It takes a lot of strength and character to be able to handle the (talent-laden Heat),” Battier said of Spoelstra’s coaching. “He looks at his team’s performance from an objective standpoint. What’s real and what works. . . . That’s the most difficult thing to do as a coach is put your players in positions to use their talents to the best of their abilities. It’s a skill not all coaches have.’’
James, for instance, hasn’t always liked playing power forward. But Spoelstra uses him plenty in that role because he knows the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James can overpower foes inside.
James has become more versatile under Spoelstra. Going inside and out, he’s now playing the best ball of his career.
“Without Spo, we’re not in the position that we’ve been in the last three years,’’ said James, vying this season to win his second straight MVP award and fourth in his career. “Spo spearheads (the Heat’s recent success). He puts us in position offensively; he challenges us defensively. And, as players, we try to go out and execute that. But it starts with him, and then it trickles down to everybody else. Everybody is always fascinated with what the players do, but you got have a captain of the ship to kind of set up everything, and he’s great.’’
As for Spoelstra, not always getting his due, a guy who knows a bit about that says it might not be all that bad.
“I know how that is,’’ said Bosh, often regarded as the third wheel on the Heat despite being an eight-time All-Star. “After all is said and done, you look at the body of work and then everybody will make their opinions (about Spoelstra). You’re always a lot better after you’re done or further down the line. So I think right now it’s good for him (not getting a lot of recognition) to keep that hunger. It keeps that fire going, and you use it as fuel.’’
Spoelstra always can see the path taking by another coach who didn’t earn immediate respect.
“Gregg Popovich probably didn’t get his due,’’ Portland coach Terry Stotts said about the San Antonio coach who won his first crown in 1999 with the star-studded duo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. “It took a while before people recognized him, and he was doing a great job before that.’’
Popovich now has four titles and is truly a legend. Popovich will be the West coach in the All-Star Game and just might be Spoelstra’s foe in the Finals this June.