Friday, February 15, 2013

Why it’s time to give Erik Spoelstra his due

Erik Spoelstra has been called a lot of different things during the past three seasons with the Miami Heat – lucky, bad, soon-to-be-fired and a lot of other names we can’t print on a family friendly site. But there’s one title that too often eludes the 42 year old head coach of  the Miami Heat – a great NBA coach, and perhaps it’s high time to start calling him one because, well, he’s pretty darn great.

It’s understandable how some view the coach as a franchise’s weak point when your on-court personnel includes one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the hardwood, a former Finals MVP and an eight-time NBA All-Star. However, Spoelstra’s done enough with rosters that range from fringe playoff contenders to an elite collection of players to justify his standing as one of the NBA’s better coaches.

Spoelstra has demonstrated versatility in his coaching, taking the reigns in 2008 and successfully integrating rookies Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley into key parts of the Heat’s rotation.

The new-look Heat turned their 18-64 record in 2008 into 42-40 in the span of a mere season, Spoelstra’s first after taking over from Pat Riley. The return of Dwyane Wade, who played an additional 28 games the following season. However, a 34 game turnaround is a remarkable feat no matter how you view it and the Heat went from bottom of the East to the fifth seed in the matter of a season. The Miami Heat are yet to miss the Playoffs under the man they call ‘Spo’, bowing out in the first round for two straight years before the Big Three stormed South Beach.

Erik Spoelstra lacks the playcalling ability of Gregg Popovich, the defensive prowess of Tom Thibodeau or the locker room control of Phil Jackson; but he’s no scrub in any element of the game. Spoelstra’s keen eye for video analysis has been a longtime strength in his coaching, and he manages to pre-plan for matches brilliantly. While his ability to make in-game adjustments down the stretch is at times questionable, he manages to ensure he enters every game with a sound plan that rarely misses anything. Spoelstra’s uncanny genius lies in the creativity between his adjustments.

While his predecessor Pat Riley was known for the subtle changes he’d do between games – moving the placement of his screens or calling a cut at slightly a different angle – Spoelstra has become inventive and uncanny in the brash line-up moves he’ll make between games. During last year’s Finals series with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Spoelstra boldly moved the undersized Chris Bosh to Center – the fourth player to start at Center for Miami’s postseason. The move allowing Shane Battier and Chris Bosh to form a pacey frontcourt that could outrun Oklahoma City’s big duo of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. The obvious drawback, of course, was the height that the Heat would sacrifice  By this stage, a move that bold was certain to make or break the series; and Erik Spoelstra came out on top as the Heat took home the title.

Phil Jackson was a coach who was lauded for his ability to make his superstars work in unison to overcome problems at point guard and at times, a lack of depth off of the bench. Jackson is still one of the hottest names in coaching and his potential return to the Lakers at the start of this season stole headlines around the league – his reputation and greatness is undeniable. Spoelstra has worked through two successive campaigns with point guards such as Carlos Arroyo, an ancient Mike Bibby, Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers; hardly the household names rival coaches Scott Brooks and Doc Rivers has had at their disposal.

Similarly, Miami’s bench is among the NBA’s worst – 28th to be precise – with their bench chipping in a mere 23 points per game which is almost half league-leading Denver’s 41.5 points off of the pine. Part of Jackson’s legacy is attributed to the record breaking 11 championships he has won, and that’s part of the reason he and Spoelstra are incomparable.

Regardless, the gap between Jackson and Spoelstra isn’t as worlds apart as some believe. Spoelstra has proven he can take bad rosters into the playoffs, and bring good rosters together to make them great. That’s not to say Spoelstra could handle an ego on the level of Kobe or Jordan like Jackson did, or he could lead a team to a championship without the best player on the planet as he’s done with LeBron James; but the time is gone to call Erik Spoelstra a bad coach in the NBA. When he takes the court to coach this Eastern All-Stars this coming weekend, you can be certain that Erik Spoelstra belongs at All-Star weekend just as much as LeBron and KD.

Check out other great articles at Saving the Skyhook.
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