Before this season began, shortly after he knew Chris Bosh would probably never play for the Miami Heat again, Pat Riley said the challenge coach Erik Spoelstra was facing this season was far from his toughest.
“His greatest challenge was the four years of the Big 3, putting them together, getting them to the Finals, winning championships,” Riley, 71, said back in late September.
Not much has changed in Riley’s eyes six months later. But the job Spoelstra, 46, has done turning this team around after its 11-30 start, the Heat’s team president said Thursday night, “absolutely” deserves consideration for the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award.
“And Andy Elisburg as an Executive of the Year,” Riley said before he got down to the tunes of Mary J. Blige at the Heat’s 11th annual “Family Affair” gala at AmericanAirlines Arena. “Because he’s the guy who signed all those guys back in August.”
The Heat, which once owned the second-worst record in the league and was 9 1/2 games back of the final playoff spot at the midway point of the season, are now 31-34 and entered the night Thursday only a half game back of both the Pistons and Bulls for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Riley, a three-time coach of the year himself, said the turnaround the team has made under Spoelstra’s guidance this season hasn’t surprised him. He said Spoelstra, who finished as the Coach of the Year runner-up in 2012 to George Karl (a season in which the Heat won 66 games and the NBA title), has been a very good coach for a long time.
“Everybody likes to sort of compartmentalize a coach’s career,” Riley said. “The man has won two world championships. He’s been in more big games with a different team. There’s always challenges when you have great teams that are supposed to win. Everybody thinks that’s an easy ride. It may even be more of a difficult ride with all the things going on behind the scenes and dealing with superstars. And then there’s this kind of challenge in which I think he's handled adjointly and with great experience and by staying the course.
“He's a lot like me. The first time I got my Coach of the Year award I was embarrassed to go and get it because I got it with a team behind me of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, etc. That residual reward will come to [Spoelstra]. The [awards] that he has that are more important to him are the ones that he's got on wearing on his fingers. So, he deserves all the credit that he’s getting right now but he’s not liking it. He just wants to keep working and get this thing to where it should get to before you start people on the back and then sometime in April something might go the other way. Let’s finish the job – that’s what he’s about.”
Other NBA coaches like Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy have already praised Spoelstra for the job he’s done this season and claimed he deserves strong consideration for the league’s top coaching award.
There have only been three coaches in NBA history to win the league’s top coaching honor with a record that was .500 or worse. 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 14 players combine to miss 270 games because of injury or illness (more than any other NBA team this season), has nine former D-League players on the roster including an undrafted rookie starter in Rodney McGruder.
Even though Spoelstra has surely by influenced by Riley and other coaches like Stan Van Gundy, whom he’s coached under, Riley said Spoelstra has developed his own style and deserves credit for it.
“I’ve had eight coaches in my life and I’ve taken from every one of them, but somewhere along the line you make your own philosophy,” Riley said. “Whatever he learned from me or from Stan [Van Gundy] or any other coaches that he may have studied, he has his become his own man with his own philosophy.
“So, there’s a lot me, a lot of Stan, a lot of other coaches in him, probably more of his father than anything else. But he has become his own man, who stands on his own two feet and regardless of what I might have done 40 years ago or 10 years go, he’s doing what he believes is right in today’s game. He’s really grown as a coach in his own way. I think [his philosophy is] perfect for this game – especially this contemporary game.
“The one thing I know and the one thing [owner] Micky [Arison] knows is wherever we are in the world, whatever we’re doing, we know that our head coach is somewhere in some city thinking basketball and winning 24/7. So we don't have to worry about it. He's done a great job and whatever comes his way will comes his way.”