Back in July, when Pat Riley was still lamenting the loss of Dwyane Wade in free agency, the Heat's president said the franchise was in the midst of working toward a contract extension with coach Erik Spoelstra, whose three-year deal was set to expire at the end of this season.
No formal announcement was ever made by the team, but upon media requests this week the Heat confirmed Spoelstra, the second-longest tenured coach in the league behind the Spurs' Gregg Popovich, had indeed been extended beyond this season sometime after Riley's press conference over the summer.
Terms of the deal – including the length – were not disclosed per team policy. But the extension should be considered a mere formality considering the way Riley and the organization feel about Spoelstra as coach.
“I would like to thank the Arison's and Pat for their continued confidence in me and my staff and are humbled in their trust in me as head coach,” Spoelstra said Friday through the team. “It has been an incredible 22 years being part of the Miami Heat family and we will look to continue our goal of winning NBA championships.”
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The Heat is in the midst of one of the roughest starts in franchise history and went into Friday’s game in Boston tied for the third-worst record in the league at 10-23 with Dallas and Phoenix.
Spoelstra has not only had to navigate through an array of injuries to key players, but also the loss of Wade and other veterans from last year’s playoff team in free agency as well as the ongoing health crisis of 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh, whom Riley said in September will likely never play for the Heat again.
Even before the Bosh news, Riley, 71, said he knew Spoelstra had “his work cut out for him” this season.
“Welcome to being an NBA coach,” Riley said back in July during the same press conference in which he addressed the departure of Wade. “It’s not always going to be easy and sometimes there are going to be other challenges. But I know one thing about him, he’s competitive and excited and knows what the challenge is.”
Hired as a video coordinator by the Heat in 1995, Spoelstra became a scout and an assistant coach under Riley, and then a key part of Stan Van Gundy's staff. He soon became Riley's protege not long after Van Gundy stepped down 21 games into the Heat's first championship season in 2005-06.
When Riley retired for good in 2008, Spoelstra was named his successor. He inherited a 15-win team and improved it by 28 games in his first year. The Heat went back to the playoffs in 2010, and then paired the Big Three of Wade, Bosh and LeBron James and made four consecutive trips to the finals, winning two titles. Riley called the four seasons of the Big Three the years Spoelstra “really earned his stripes as a head coach.”
But now, with the Heat in the midst of a rebuild, he’s working hand-in-hand with Riley to reshape the Heat’s future.
“He does love the guys that he’s already developed,” Riley said. “He’s not a developmental coach. We have a developmental program, which he works really hard at improving from within. But his philosophy as coach to me is, ‘Bring them to me and I’ll coach them.’ That’s it. That’s the way it has to be right now. He’s very involved in the process all the time. Every single player that we talk about or sign, he gives the nod because I don’t want to send him anybody that he doesn’t want.”
With a 409-264 career record, Spoelstra ranks 44th all-time in the NBA in wins. His .608 winning percentage ranks seventh among active coaches and he's one of just 13 coaches all-time to win at least two NBA titles. He trails Riley by only 45 victories for the most by a coach in Heat history.
Since Riley announced him as his successor in April 2008, there have been 101 coaching changes in the league. The Brooklyn Nets are on their ninth different head coach since Spoelstra’s debut. The Sacramento Kings are on their eighth coach, and the Minnesota Timberwolves on their seventh.
Asked Friday about being a part of a rebuild in his ninth season as coach, Spoelstra said he’s “invigorated by it.”
“It’s big ceilings with a lot of the guys,” Spoelstra said. “We’re all in the process every single day of getting this team better, developing. I’m invigorated by it regardless of what the record is, that we're able to step back with perspective and look at big picture.
“Guys are getting better. The team is getting better. We’re forming an identity that we’re getting more consistent to. We haven’t been able to close out games and I think that’s probably the most frustrating thing. But in terms of defensive principles, defending at a high rate and learning how to win, learning how to make winning plays – sometimes when you have veteran players a lot of that is understood. When you have a team like this it has to be developed. And that's an invigorating process. I feel very grateful I have an opportunity to coach a team like this.”