Erik Spoelstra didn’t win the NBA’s Coach of the Year award in 2013 when the Miami Heat won 27 consecutive games, finished with the league’s best record at 66-16 and won its third NBA title. He finished second in the voting to Denver’s George Karl.
A year later, when the Heat posted the second-best record in the East and made its fourth consecutive trip to the Finals, Spoelstra didn’t receive a single vote for the coach of the year award.
It’s safe to say at least one NBA coach is in Spoelstra’s corner this season: Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy, whom Spoelstra served under as an assistant in Miami for 2 1/2 seasons, said the Heat’s coach, 46, has done the best job of any coach in the league this season.
“I’ve said it for years, but because I worked with him I'm biased and nobody writes it; but there’s not a better coach in the league than Erik,” Van Gundy told Pistons beat writers on Friday before the Heat (24-30) pulled to within a game of Detroit (25-29) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by stretching the league’s longest winning streak this season to 13 games with a win in Brooklyn.
“People discounted him because he had LeBron and [Dwyane] Wade and [Chris] Bosh,” Van Gundy continued. “Gregg Popovich is one of the best ever, Phil Jackson. But nobody goes to four straight finals. Nobody. He did. Those other great teams have not. But even before he had those guys, he had ’em in the playoffs. And now look what he’s doing in Miami.”
There have only been three coaches in NBA history to win the league’s top coaching honor with a record that was .500 or below. The last was Doc Rivers, who led the Orlando Magic to a 41-41 record and finished one game shy of making the playoffs in 2000. That Magic team started four undrafted players: Darrell Armstrong, John Amaechi, Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace.
This Heat team, which has had players combine to miss a league-leading 222 games entering Saturday’s game against the 76ers, has one undrafted player starting in rookie Rodney McGruder, a former D-League center in Hassan Whiteside, who has blossomed under Spoelstra’s leadership, and two other undrafted players who play significant roles in the rotation in Tyler Johnson and Okaro White.
“I think what Miami has shown is the value of those guys, who are good players and are in a situation where they have to prove something,” Van Gundy said. “Erik’s done a great job of getting those guys to play to their strengths and implementing a system that really works for them. Certainly, in my mind, and there's a lot of ‘em going on — but certainly in mind, it’s the best coaching job that’s gone on this year.”
The Heat lost 12-time All-Star Wade in the off-season and then learned shortly before the start of camp 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh had failed another physical because of blood clots. Justise Winslow, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, was then lost for the season to a shoulder injury in January, while second round pick Josh Richardson has missed 26 games with a variety of injuries.
“It's interesting to see how they’ve transformed,” Van Gundy said. “Because they started the year as a young team and they were going to try and develop these young guys.
“And they’ve got a few young guys playing, but they’re really being carried by [Goran] Dragic, who’s having a great year, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Whiteside. The young guys still play some, Okaro White, Tyler Johnson and Rodney McGruder, but they’re really being carried by guys who are sort of veteran, journey-man guys.”
Dion Waiters missed his third consecutive game with a sprained left ankle Saturday night, but said he will definitely play when the Heat returns home to host the Orlando Magic on Monday night.
Waiters said he had an X-ray performed on the ankle and results were negative. He said he doesn't expect the three-game absence to mess up his rhythm.
”It’s only been three games,” said Waiters, who averaged 20.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and shot percent from three-point range in the first 11 games of the Heat's win streak. “You stay locked in. You still do what you normally do. I’m still getting shots up and stuff like that.”