Pat Riley believes Erik Spoelstra ‘absolutely’ deserves consideration for Coach of the Year

MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra’s head coaching resume is impressive.

In Spoelstra’s previous eight seasons as an NBA head coach — all with the Heat — his team finished with a losing record just once, as Miami recorded a 37-45 record in the 2014-15 season. That’s also the only season the Heat have missed the playoffs under Spoelstra, as he led Miami to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances from 2011 to 2014 with NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.

But despite Spoelstra’s consistent success, he’s never won the NBA Coach of the Year award. But that could change at the end of this season, as the 46-year-old Spoelstra is seen as one of the front-runners for the award with the Heat digging themselves out of an 11-30 hole to enter the playoff race.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat follows the play during the first half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 3, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

One thing is for sure, Spoelstra has team president Pat Riley’s endorsement.

“It’s not surprising to me,” the 71-year-old Riley said of Spoelstra’s success, speaking Thursday night at the organization’s annual “A Family Affair” gala at AmericanAirlines Arena. “Everybody likes to sort of compartmentalize a coach’s career. The man has won two world championships. He’s been in more big, big games with a different team. There’s always challenges when you have great teams that are supposed to win. Everybody thinks that’s an easy ride. It may even be more of a difficult ride with all the things going on behind the scenes and dealing with superstars. And then there’s this kind of challenge in which I think he’s handled with great experience and by staying the course.”

This season’s Heat team full of expiring contracts, developmental projects and NBA journeymen has presented Spoelstra with a different challenge than he’s faced in the past. It’s definitely different than when he coached the Heat’s Big Three teams that featured a loaded roster led by future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

“He should be the Coach of the Year. He’s a phenomenal coach,” Goran Dragic said of Spoelstra. “Nobody expected us to bounce back like we did and especially in the beginning of the season, he put the system in that everybody was comfortable with. He brings the best out of each guy. I think that’s really important for the ball club and for the players too because we feel comfortable and we would do everything for him.”

Since starting the season with an 11-30 record, the Heat (31-34) have won 20 of 24 games to pull within a half game of the playoffs entering Thurday’s slate of games. Since Jan. 17, the Heat have the NBA’s best record at 20-4, just ahead of the second-place Spurs, which are at 19-4.

“The prognosticators and a lot of people who judge, they could have judged very harshly at 11-30,” Riley said. “But we have a great base of young players that have performed and gained experience and we have a lot of flexibility going into the future. What this year was about, going back to the summer, signing five or six free agents — Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed — players of that nature, we wanted to see who would emerge and we have seen who has emerged. They have dedicated themselves to the process and to working hard. And most of all they’ve been in lockstep with Erik Spoelstra and the coaching staff.”

Spoelstra and the Heat have had to overcome more than just a slow start this season. 14 Heat players (including Chris Bosh) have combined to miss an NBA-high 270 games due to injuries this season.

The Heat have also played nine former D-League players while depending on undrafted rookie Rodney McGruder to start at small forward for most of the season.

“He has become his own man,” Riley said of Spoelstra. “He stands on his own two feet and regardless of what I might have done 40 years ago or 10 years go, he’s doing what he believes is right in today’s game. He’s really grown as a coach in his own way. I think it’s perfect for this game — especially this contemporary game.”

Despite the Heat’s incredible turnaround, they may need to finish with a winning record for Spoelstra to win the award.

Only three coaches in NBA history have been named the Coach of the Year with a record that was .500 or below. Doc Rivers was the last one to do it when he earned the honor after leading the Magic to a 41-41 record and finishing one game short of the playoffs in 2000.

“Erik has done a great job and whatever comes his way will comes his way,” Riley said. “He’s a lot like me. The first time I got my Coach of the Year award I was embarrassed to go and get it because I got it with a team behind me of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, etc. That residual reward will come to [Spoelstra]. The ones that he has that are more important to him are the ones that he’s wearing on his fingers.

“So, he deserves all the credit that he’s getting right now but he’s not liking it. He just wants to keep working and get this thing to where it should get to before you start patting people on the back and then sometime in April something might go the other way. Let’s finish the job and that’s what he’s about.”

[Heat have started to win a lot of close games — thank Dion Waiters for that]

[Add Wayne Ellington to list of players who have benefited from Heat’s strength and conditioning program]

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