Monday, May 23, 2022
In Appreciation of Erik Spoelstra
Coaching in the NBA can be a nebulous thing to evaluate. In any given season, only about a quarter of the league realistically has a shot to win a title if the cards fall right. A coach could have Pat Riley's tenacity, Nick Nurse's ability to scheme for an opponent, Erik Spoelstra's penchant for maximizing talent, and Phil Jackson's motivational nous, but top out at 35 wins with Oklahoma City's current roster.
It would be easy to judge all-time great coaches by a couple simple metrics: wins and championships. But that's a bit imperfect when you realize that four of the top 10 coaches in wins had no championships in their head coaching career, and four had career records under .500 in the playoffs.
Evaluating things like how a coach develops talent up and down the roster and how he puts a team in a position to win aren't as easy to do with counting stats like wins and rings. But it's in these areas that I think Spoelstra stands apart from his generational peers and is better than any coach not named Gregg Popovich this century.
Of course, Spoelstra has those traditional credentials, too, in the form of two championships and five Finals appearances. Only 14 coaches in the history of the league have won multiple titles, and he's one of them. And yet, I think his best coaching has come after the four consecutive Finals trips he made with the Heat while having LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in tow during the first decade of his head coaching career.
(That's not to discount what Spoelstra pulled off with the Big Three. While he had the best collection of superstar talent those seasons, the type of basketball those teams played was arguably as influential in enabling the small-ball, pace-and-space, and three-point trends as what the Warriors did later in the decade.)
I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable NBA follower as far as rosters go. I didn't know who Max Strus was before this season, and you probably didn't either. Now, he's a 40%+ three-point shooter starting playoff games for the team with best regular-season record in the East.
But under Spoelstra, that kind of player development from undrafted to key contributor is commonplace. Duncan Robinson (whose minutes Strus took), Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones, Jr., Tyler Johnson, and Rodney McGruder all come to mind as players in the recent past who went from undrafted to at least role players for the Heat. Several of those players who departed the Heat never came close to duplicating their outputs under Spoelstra.
And it's not just undrafted players that Spoelstra continues to get the most out of nearly a decade and a half into coaching the same team. Jimmy Butler continues to make his case as the most under-appreciated two-way superstar in the game, and his playoff campaign this year could go down as one for the ages should Miami get back to the Finals.
As of writing time (before Game 3 against the Celtics), Butler is averaging 29.8 points per game on 54% shooting with 7.6 rebounds per game, more than 5 assists, and more than 2 steals per game. No one is ever going to confuse him with the top three-point shooting wings in the league — which is one of the reasons I think he's under-appreciated — but Butler is shooting a respectable 34.7% from deep these playoffs with about one out of every five shots attempted from the floor being a three.
For argument's sake, let's say Miami gets by Boston in the East. Given Game 2's result with Marcus Smart and Al Horford back in the lineup, I'm not sure Miami can score enough on Boston. But if these playoffs have taught us anything, it's that series can shift pretty quickly.
Let's also say that Golden State does what Phoenix couldn't do — finish off Dallas.
A Heat/Warriors Finals almost certainly wouldn't be all about the coaches. There would be the Warriors core trying to win a fourth ring. Butler trying to win his first. A battle of great, modern defenses. But a series between Spoelstra and Steve Kerr on the sidelines would be a first and would feature the two of the three most decorated coaches of the modern NBA.