Miami Heat

Popovich credits Spoelstra’s longevity to having ‘respect of the players’

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra looks from the sidelines in the first quarter of an preseason NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Oct. 11, 2016.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra looks from the sidelines in the first quarter of an preseason NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Oct. 11, 2016. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

When coach Erik Spoelstra picked up his 400th career victory Wednesday night in the Heat’s season-opening victory over the Orlando Magic, he reiterated how much gratitude he has for the organization because, in his mind, “I should have been fired three or four times before this point.”

On Sunday night, the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s longest-tenured coach with the same organization, explained why he thinks Spoelstra, the league’s second-longest tenured coach with the same team, still has a job with the Heat.

“He’s been able to stick around because he’s gained the respect of the players,” said Popovich, whose 1,092 career victories rank eighth all-time. “Pat Riley knows, and players know, he’s not just knowledgeable. He’s persistent, serious. He’s mentally tough enough to demand things and get people to buy into those demands. He does it fairly, and, like I said, he does it consistently and persistently. When you have those qualities, you’re going to stick around for a long time.”

Since Riley (who ranks fourth all-time with 1,208 coaching wins), hired Spoelstra as his successor in April 2008, there have been 101 coaching changes in the league. The Brooklyn Nets have had more than any other team with nine coaching changes since Spoelstra’s debut. The Sacramento Kings, who visit AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday, Spoelstra’s 46th birthday, are on their eighth coach.

A look at the coaching landscape shows there are 10 coaches in their first seasons with new teams and another six entering their second season. Aside from Popovich and Spoelstra, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and Toronto’s Dwane Casey are the only other coaches in the league who have been with their respective teams at least five seasons.

Spoelstra is sickened by those stats. He’s also grateful his bosses — Riley and owner Micky Arison — have given him time to grow.

“I was just talking about it with Pat,” Spoelstra said after Wednesday’s win. “He was talking about how when he was with the Lakers. Pat said, ‘Four hundred? When I was already at it that many years, I was at 700 [wins].’ It keeps it in perspective.

“I have incredible gratitude that I work for this organization, that I’ve had an opportunity to coach this many games.”

FOUL ISSUES

Though only a small, two-game sample size of the regular season, the Heat entered Sunday’s game leading the league in defensive rim protection at an awfully impressive 34.5 percent (22 of 63). The next team on the list was the Denver Nuggets at 41.4 percent.

Naturally, center Hassan Whiteside, the league’s leading shot blocker a year ago, is at the center of Miami’s defensive success. Opponents were only 3 of 17 (17.6 percent, NBA-best among centers) when going at the rim with Whiteside defending through Miami’s first two games. This of course doesn’t take into account all the shots opponents decide not to take when he’s patrolling the paint.

What we learned about the Heat as it blew a 19-point lead in Friday’s loss to the Hornets is the effect Whiteside has when he’s on the bench with foul trouble. Although the Hornets had already shrunk their third-quarter deficit to 65-54 when Whiteside picked up his fourth foul trying to stop Cody Zeller going to the rim, the Heat completely fell apart after it.

Charlotte went 7 of 10 inside the paint while Miami’s $98 million center sat until the 8:51 mark in the fourth quarter. By the time Whiteside returned, the Hornets were up 81-79 and had momentum.

Miami’s offense, meanwhile, stopped moving the ball as well as it had been doing and couldn’t score in the paint at all (0 for 7) without Whiteside on the floor during that near 11-minute stretch.

“He’s already gotten much better with it,” Spoelstra said of Whiteside’s previous foul issues. “We went through that process last year. Great players will go through foul troubles sometimes, and you have to play through it. But he’s gotten much better in terms of being more disciplined or more aware against veteran players, different players to make sure he’s out on the floor.”

Whiteside only fouled out twice last season.

▪ The Sioux Falls Skyforce, Miami’s D-League affiliate, drafted five players on Sunday: Former UNLV guard Ike Nwamu; St. Bonaventure guard Marcus Posley; Minnesota guard DeAndre Mathieu; UT-San Antonio guard Ryan Bowie; and CSU-Bakersfield center Aly Ahmed.

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