NBA players pick Erik Spoelstra over other legends as coach they’d most like to play for

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Rhona Wise-USA TODAY Sports

Erik Spoelstra continues to navigate the Miami Heat through one of his most trying seasons as their head coach, and players around the NBA have noticed his efforts as they have voted him the one coach they would most want to play for in the league.

“Just the Heat culture — they’re always competing,” one Spoelstra voter said. “They’re always trying to find a way (to win). I feel like they’re always taking guys that fit their system, and that makes them play very good.”

The 53-year-old, now in is 16th season as head coach of the Heat, was named by 20.3 percent of the respondents — a tad more than one out of every five — in an anonymous player poll conducted by The Athletic.

Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, last year’s winner, was a close second, followed by Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors in third place, which is where Spoelstra landed last year.

New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was a runaway winner as the head coach players would least like to play for, garnering almost half of the votes at 46.8 percent. Interestingly, Knicks star Josh Hart was a vocal supporter of Spoelstra in this year’s poll after working with him at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where Spoelstra was an assistant coach for Team USA.

“Spo, hands down,” Hart said. “Quote me on that one. F—— love Spo.”

After coaching the Heat to the 2023 NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed – only the second such seed to ever reach the Finals – Spoelstra guided Miami through an injury-riddled 2023-24 NBA campaign. Despite needing to use a franchise-record 35 different starting lineups during the regular season, the Heat managed to finish 46-36 but had to again go through the play-in round to make it into the NBA Playoffs.

Now that they’re there, the injury bug just won’t go away. The Heat are facing the top-seeded Boston Celtics without star Jimmy Butler, who is out for multiple weeks after injuring his knee in the play-in round against the Philadelphia 76ers. Terry Rozier also remains sidelined with a neck injury sustained late in the regular season, and though Spoelstra has called him day-to-day, he is likely out week-to-week.

Miami lost Game 1 to Boston 114-94 on Sunday. Game 2 of the series is set for Wednesday at TD Garden.

If Spoelstra can somehow orchestrate another upset of the Celtics and get his team moving toward yet another appearance in the NBA Finals, it could go down as the best head coaching performance of his career.

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Mike is a veteran journalist who has covered the NBA for almost three decades. His introduction to the business included the legendary Heat-Knicks rivalry from the 1990s.