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Opinion: Heat’s Erik Spoelstra would never say this, but he’s under-rated as one of NBA’s best coaches

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra answers questions about LeBron James, Pat Riley, Heat culture, Jimmy Butler and competition.

Spoelstra, however, doesn’t answer many questions about himself as a coaching genius, and that’s by design. He made it clear a long time ago the story wouldn’t be about him. He’s not going to do many sit-down interviews and celebrate himself.

But you should know this: he is one of the NBA’s best coaches, right there with San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“The leadership aspect is evident in that he’s very humble and deferential to credit – to ownership, (Pat) Riley, the players,” ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s a very strong leader. You have to be incredibly demanding to get a team to play the way he does with that type of concentration, energy and commitment to doing the hard things, which they do on a nightly basis.”

We know basic biographical details about Spoelstra. He is married, has two sons, including one who was born in December. His dad, Jon Spoelstra, was an ABA and NBA executive, and his mother, Elisa Celino, is Filipino. When asked questions from reporters in the Philippines, Spoelstra begins his answer with a Filipino greeting of kinship and respect. 

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra reacts against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the 2020 NBA Finals. (Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

His grandfather, Watson, wrote about sports for the Detroit News for nearly 30 years and was president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1968.

Spoelstra, who turns 50 next month, played college basketball at Portland and started his NBA career in the Heat video room.

If you listen to Spoelstra long enough, you know his basketball philosophy on position-less basketball (“None of the positions really matter anymore”), competition and hard work (“Our guys love competition and love the challenge. We are here for a purpose. We never expected this to be easy”) and Heat culture ("That ain't for everybody. Some people can walk through those hallways and maybe get intimidated by that legacy and our expectations”).

His modest public-facing style is a reason Van Gundy thinks Spoelstra could have a two-decade run as coach with one team, like Jerry Sloan had with the Utah Jazz or Popovich with the Spurs.

In 12 seasons as Heat coach, he is 567-392 in the regular season and 84-53 in the playoffs with two championships.

“To me, he’s a sure-fire Hall of Fame coach,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think there’s any disputing that.”

Just listen to Lakers star LeBron James, who played four seasons with Miami under Spoelstra.

“There's this narrative that Spo is not great, and the narrative that he doesn't get a lot of respect, which he should,” James said. "He prepares his team every single night. If you watch the Miami Heat, no matter who's on the floor, they're going to play Heat culture. They're going to play hard. They're going to play together. That's what he's always been about.”

What Spoelstra has done with the Heat in difficult circumstances this postseason is phenomenal. His coaching chops have been on display. In each round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the fifth-seeded Heat toppled a better seed: No. 4 Indiana, No. 1 Milwaukee and No. 3 Boston. Swept the Pacers, bounced Giannis Antetokounmpo and denied Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.

That the Heat took a game from the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals without injured Heat starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic is a basketball marvel. He makes adjustments between games and in-games and has found a way to neutralize James and Anthony Davis in stretches.

“They have great toughness, high care factor on the defensive end, and they always trust the pass,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It's just a physical, tough-minded brand of basketball with their culture, with Coach Spo's teams.”

Had Dragic and Adebayo been healthy, it might be a 2-2 series instead of a 3-1 Lakers lead. Spoelstra isn’t deterred.

“Recalibrate, get back to work on Thursday,” he said. “I know our group's going to be ready.”

During the playoffs, you hear how much respect James has for Spoelstra, who is credited with pushing him out of his comfort zone in Miami and making him even better.

“I'm not going to sit up here and act like I don't know what Spo is all about, because he's damned good, if not great,” James said. “Probably is great, because his preparation. He prepares like it's his last time ever coaching again every game, and I know that.”

Spoelstra has never won coach of the year, and he probably should have at least once. But he suffered in voting because he was expected to win with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It was taken for granted how difficult it is to blend superstars and force them to play different roles.

“It's unfortunate that he hasn't gotten his respect. … You guys always said, 'Well, you have LeBron, you have D-Wade, you have Bosh, any coach can do it,' " James said. "No, any coach can't do it. If any coach could do it, then there would be a lot more champions in this league. There would be a lot more successful coaches.”

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