MIAMI – Erik Spoelstra has either the easiest or hardest coaching job in the NBA.
Here’s why it could be the easiest: The Miami Heat coach has at least four potential Hall of Fame players in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, and perhaps the deepest bench in the league. He has Pat Riley as a mentor and an owner in Micky Arison who spends with hopes of winning.
Here’s why it could be the hardest: He knows anything less than a second straight NBA title would mean failure.
So that’s why, at this time of year, the dark circles under Spoelstra’s eyes — a byproduct of not enough sleep — tend to reappear with regularity. He takes nothing for granted, preaches at his team to do the same, and wants no part of any conversation that might mention how he could be in line to do something only seven coaches before him have done: lead a team to back-to-back NBA championships.
“There’s a lot of coaches who could coach this team,” Spoelstra said Wednesday. “I wouldn’t be as disrespectful to this profession to say anybody could. Some coaches could mess it up. I don’t want to be one of those people. We honor that by trying to make the most of this opportunity. That’s all it is.”
By now everyone in the league is probably somewhat aware of his story: Grew up around the game as the son of a longtime NBA executive Jon Spoelstra, played in college — as the point guard for Portland, he was maybe a few feet from Hank Gathers when the Loyola Marymount star collapsed in a game in 1990 and died — and became a Heat video-room staffer in 1995.
When Riley retired in 2008, Spoelstra was the choice to be his successor. And all Spoelstra has done since is win — he’s 260-134 in his five regular seasons, 38-22 in the postseason, including this year’s four-game sweep of Milwaukee in the fist round.
This year, coming off last season’s title, Spoelstra guided the Heat to a league-best and franchise-record mark of 66-16, including a 27-game winning streak that went down as the second-longest in NBA history.
“Spo has done an unbelievable job,” Orlando Coach Jacque Vaughn said. “One of the toughest things after you win one is being able to get those guys motivated and produce results year after year. You’ve got to give him credit for them going on the streak that they had, extremely impressive. He’s done a great job with the group.”
It started on the day before the first practice of training camp, when Spoelstra gathered his team and told them trying to win a second straight title will be much tougher than winning the first one.
Yes, he has tons of talent. Still, the players know they’re not winning on talent alone.
“What’s overlooked when you talk about Spo is the management of the team,” Wade said. “It’s not the coaching part of it. It’s, ‘Can you manage these egos, these personalities, without having one your damn self?’ He’s done it. Erik Spoelstra is overlooked. Coming off a championship, to come back and have the best record in the league and to do it the way we have, he’s overlooked.”
Maybe, maybe not.
Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, who knows what it’s like to win a title, then try to hold it together for another title run with largely the same roster, raved about the job Spoelstra did this season, particularly since the Heat didn’t simply rely on using the same schemes that worked for them a season ago.
“When you think of what Spo’s done, he not only won a title, he came back and changed the way they played,” Rivers said. “That takes a lot of courage. He’s young and was given a hell of a responsibility. He took it and ran with it.”
When the Heat started 9-8 in the first season of the Wade, James and Bosh era, there were whispers Spoelstra was getting fired. When the Heat lost the 2011 NBA finals, the whispers returned. And when they entered last season’s finals, again some suggested Spoelstra was coaching for his job.
Privately, Heat executives laugh at all those notions. Spoelstra said he has no desire to coach anywhere else, and the Heat seem like they wouldn’t mind keeping him for as long as he wants to stick around.
“Really, it’s one of the hardest jobs to do, to have to win,” said Riley, now the Heat president. “Erik has to win and has to perform and his team has to perform. How this team has grown over the last three years, I think this has been his finest year as a coach.”
Some of Spoelstra’s players study the game’s history closely, and are aware of the significance of things like back-to-back titles (only four franchises have done that in the last four decades) or winning four MVP awards in a five-year span (which James likely will when the league announces this year’s voting later this month).
It’s different for coaches, Spoelstra said. Personal legacy is about the last thing on his mind.
“Coaching is survival in this league,” Spoelstra said. “You’re just thinking you want to keep your current position as long as you can. With this group, that’s my attitude. I’m grateful for this opportunity with this team and I wouldn’t want to coach anywhere else or any other team. That keeps anything in perspective for me.”