Quick: who are the four current NBA head coaches with titles on their resumes?
Considering only six franchises have won all 15 NBA Finals this millennium — the Los Angeles Lakers (5), San Antonio Spurs (4), Miami Heat (3), Dallas Mavericks (1), Detroit Pistons (1) and Boston Celtics (1) — the list of candidates is actually pretty easy to narrow down.
Three men who guided their teams to the ultimate prize during this period are no longer sitting on the bench, at least not in the Association: Pat Riley, who is of course president of the Miami Heat, Phil Jackson, who is now president of the New York Knicks, and Larry Brown, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University.
So, who’s left?
Let’s start with the most honored and respected among this small group: Gregg Popovich. “Pop” has earned his place alongside Riley, Jackson and Red Auerbach in the pantheon of all-time great NBA coaches. Since 1996, when Popovich hired himself to coach the Spurs (he had been the team’s general manager up until that time), the Spurs have made it to six NBA Finals and have hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy five times.
Then there’s Doc Rivers, who took the Celtics into late June twice in the late 2000’s, going 1-1 against their West Coast nemesis Lakers. He’s currently coaching the Los Angeles Clippers, who under his leadership has turned into a dark horse contender in the loaded Western Conference (he is also the team’s president of basketball operations). He is also widely lauded for being perhaps the best “player’s coach” in the league.
That leaves two coaches who have won championships in this century.
Carlisle’s Mavericks beat Spoelstra’s Big Three-led Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. He has won over 600 games in 12+ seasons of coaching (which includes stints in Detroit and Indiana) and has had only one losing season. He was named Coach of the Year in 2002 when he was with the Detroit Pistons.
So that, of course, leaves Erik Spoelstra…last, but far from least.
Most Heat fans know the legend of Spo, who was hired as the team’s video coordinator in 1995 and steadily rose through the ranks over 13 seasons as a scout and assistant coach, culminating with his promotion to the top job in 2008 after Pat Riley stepped down.
He experienced moderate success in his first two seasons, winning 90 games and making it to the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 (they were eliminated in the first round both times).
The Heat’s winning percentage during that time was .717, and there were victory parades in 2012 and 2013.
But most of the Heat’s success over that four-year run has been attributed to James, Wade and Bosh, and frankly, the NBA is a player’s league, so the guys who suit up always deserve a healthy dose of credit.
Nevertheless, the importance of a head coach, and particularly that of Spoelstra between 2010 and 2014, should not be diminished. Few coaches can handle the personalities of average, journeyman — but very highly-paid — NBA players, let alone manage the egos and demands of three of the very best professional ballers in the world at the peak of their abilities. But even superstars need to be coached — just ask Pat Riley or Phil Jackson. After all, Magic Johnson never won another title after Pat Riley left L.A., and Michael Jordan had been in the league for six years and played under three different head coaches before winning his first championship with Phil Jackson.
Along those lines, when the Mavericks beat the Heat in the 2011 Finals, many observers questioned whether Riley’s young protege was the right fit for a team with sky-high expectations; that maybe Riles himself would have to come back to the sidelines to maximize their enormous potential. Some thought Spoelstra was out-coached by Carlisle in that series. But Riley stuck with Spo, who rewarded his mentor’s patience and confidence with three more Finals appearances and two titles.
Though Spoelstra has not won a Coach of the Year award yet, the only hardware that matters and truly validates an elite coach has Larry O’Brien written on it, and Spo has two of those.
And yet…Spoelstra is still not mentioned in the same breath as the other six championship-winning coaches of the last 15 years. Some analysts rate other coaches, such as Tom Thibodeau, higher than Spoelstra among current coaches even though Thibs has not won a title (he did win one as an assistant with Doc Rivers in Boston).
Frankly, Rick Carlisle goes about his business in relative obscurity, too, but at least he can hang his hat on having beaten Spoelstra’s Heat on the game’s biggest stage.
But awards, accolades and opinions aside, a hard look at the numbers confirm what should be obvious: Erik Spoelstra is a hell of a coach.
Of the seven coaches mentioned above, Spoelstra has the fourth highest career winning percentage at .634, just .002 points behind Riley. He also has the second-highest playoff winning percentage, .636, among this group (Phil Jackson-coached teams have won at a .688 clip in the postseason).
Spoelstra has more titles (2) and more appearances in the Finals (4) than Larry Brown (1 and 3, respectively).
He has as many championships as Doc Rivers and Rick Carlisle combined (2), and Spoelstra’s teams have been in the Finals four times, which is also more than Rivers’ and Carlisle’s teams combined (3).
Spoelstra is the only coach not named Jackson or Popovich to win more than one NBA Finals in the last 15 seasons.
Spo is one of three coaches since 1980 to lead his team to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Pat Riley (L.A. Lakers, 1982-85) and K.C. Jones (Celtics, 1984-87) are the other two.
Repeating as NBA champs is no easy feat: since 1980, only Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich and Erik Spoelstra have gone back-to-back. Not even Gregg Popovich has done it.
What about this season?
Though the Heat started the 2014-15 campaign as a legitimate threat in the East, injuries to their superstars and key players — including Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside — have forced fans of the team to adjust their expectations. Spoelstra has had to shuffle the starting lineup nearly three dozen times this season, and the Heat are in now a tight race just to make the playoffs.
But one could argue this has been one of Erik Spoelstra’s best coaching jobs, managing to get a mix of stars, veterans, role players and rookies to hang tough through injuries and bad luck to remain competitive for most of the season. He has been helped by some savvy personnel moves by Pat Riley, the emergence of Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade’s post-All Star break renaissance, but Spoelstra’s calm throughout a rough six months has not only helped prevent the team from spiraling out of contention, but actually overachieve and remain a team that could give any first-round opponent in the playoffs a tough series.
So, in some ways, this season ought to remind Spoelstra’s critics and doubters that he can coach up any roster, with or without superstars. Popovich, the dean of NBA coaches, recognizes his colleague’s qualities, as he told the AP recently: “It should be common knowledge by now that he’s an excellent coach. He knows what wins and loses. He’s comfortable in his own skin.”
And that pretty much sums it up.
Opinions are like…well, something — everyone has one. But facts are stubborn things. And sometimes numbers speak louder than words.
And like the PA guy at American Airlines Arena says whenever there’s two minutes left in a half: Dos!
As in two. Two rings.
Spo’s got ’em. ‘Nuff said.