MIAMI _ The Miami Heat’s first victory of the 2016-17 season will be the 400th in coach Erik Spoelstra’s career, one that has featured four trips to the NBA Finals and two championships.
That resume has ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy believing Spoelstra has Hall of Fame credentials and that the Heat will remain competitive this season despite the departure of Dwayne Wade and absence of Chris Bosh.
“They have a Hall of Fame coach in Erik Spoelstra and they have demonstrated time and again they can make moves and put themselves in a position to get players,” Van Gundy said this week.
It’s high praise for a coach who despite being the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA is still one of the 10 youngest. Just two other coaches – San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Dallas’ Jeff Carlisle – have even coached 400 career NBA games.
When the Heat open the season Wednesday in Orlando, it will mark the start of Spoelstra’s ninth season as a head coach. Only Popovich (entering his 21st season with the Spurs) has coached his team longer.
“It’s very tough to see that around the league,” Spoelstra, who turns 46 in one week, said in an interview with the Post. “And then you see where there is incredible support and patience. We don’t see as a coincidence that organizations like us or San Antonio are able to rework their teams through different machinations and come out of it quicker because of their continuity.”
Spoelstra counts at least four times he believes he would have been fired by another organization under the same circumstances he’s faced since replacing Pat Riley. And the hot spots all are connected to the Big Three Era.
- In 2010, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade, Spoelstra was entering his third season as a head coach. He had failed to win a playoff series in his first two years. “Putting together a team like that I could see other places making a change to get an older more experienced championship coach,” Spoelstra said.
- Then, just 17 games into the Big Three Era the Heat were 9-8 when some believed they would not lose many more than eight games the entire season.
- Miami recovered and made it to Finals … where it blew a 2-1 series lead, losing three straight to the Mavericks. If Spoelstra survived the 9-8 start, he likely would not have lasted after falling short of a championship with some other franchise.
- The Big Three delivered the next two season, winning back-to-back titles. But failing to win a third in a row in 2014, followed by James returning to Cleveland, would have made the head coach a convenient scapegoat.
“I’m in one of the most fortunate situations in the league,” Spoelstra said. “No matter what’s going on with our team I’m always able to quickly get back to a sense of gratitude. I see how unique this organization (is) and my bosses are compared to the rest of the league.”
A league in which more than half of its teams (16) have changed coaches just in the last two years, some more than once, and the Nets and Kings are on their eighth coach since Spoelstra took over in Miami.
Spoelstra’s long career in Miami has everything to do with his link to Riley, whose 22-year run with the organization coincides with owner Micky Arison taking over in 1995.
Arison’s first move was to lure Riley from New York late that summer as head coach and president. That same year, Spoelstra started with the Heat as a video coordinator. Five years later Spoelstra was promoted to an advance scout and soon he was on the bench as an assistant coach. Later, it became apparent Spoelstra was being groomed to one day to succeed Riley as head coach.
Riley likely saw a lot of himself in Spoelstra. Riley was 36 when he was handed the Lakers’ reigns. Spoelstra was 37. Neither had any head coaching experience at any level.
Spoelstra worked under Riley and Stan Van Gundy as an assistant. He likened those years to earning his Master’s degree in coaching.
One of Spoelstra’s assignments when he became the lead assistant was to handle the scouting reports for all 82 regular season games and the playoffs. “A beast,” he says.
But it was Riley’s way and it became a Heat way.
“You did three times the work (most team split it among three coaches) plus the preseason and the playoffs, preparing for a series for a demanding detailed coach,” Spoelstra said.
“That was an invaluable experience. Game planning and preparing. Doing game after game after game instead of a third of the season. That’s worth its price in gold for me.”
Riley continues to have unwavering faith in Spoelstra, especially to lead his team though another rebuilding phase. With Wade’s stunning decision to part Miami after 13 seasons and Bosh’s recurring blood clot issues forcing the end of his Miami career, the decision was to make center Hassan Whiteside the face of the franchise, give Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson more responsibility and hope established players like Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters and Udonis Haslem can help guide Miami through a transition year.
“Coach’s attitude and my attitude is we want to win,” Riley said. “We’re rebuilding now. We’re not re-tweaking like we did with the Big Three or re-tooling like right after LeBron left.
“We expect to put very competitive high energy, every athletic team on the court.”
Still, Riley says Spoelstra’s biggest coaching challenge was trying to meet the astronomical expectations that came with coaching James, Wade and Bosh, and not attempting to squeeze victories out of a team that was put together on the fly this summer.
As for Spoelstra. …
“Each year is a different challenge,” he said. “You’re normally not given an opportunity to coach different teams at the same place but we’ve been able to coach up-and-coming teams, championship-ready-now teams and a teams like this that we don’t know how to define it.
“That’s exciting, that’s fun. But Game 1, when we get to Orlando, I won’t feel any less of a challenge.”