HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The list of current coaches with an NBA championship on their resume is a short one.
Half of that crew will be working the sidelines tonight in Boston, where Erik Spoelstra‘s streaking Miami Heat (22 straight wins and counting) will take on Doc Rivers and his never-say-die Celtics at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Have two coaches anywhere done a better job this season, under their own set of unique circumstances?
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No one questions the coaching abilities or prowess of Rivers, whose ability to manage egos, inspire and scheme with the best of them has pushed him to the top of the coaching heap. Rivers is either right next to (or right behind) San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and ahead of Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle (the fourth member of the championship coaching short list).
The Celtics are 16-6 since All-Star point guard and catalyst Rajon Rondo went down with a season-ending ACL injury. While others were ready to write the Celtics off, Rivers warned that his team should not be dismissed so easily. And he was right, bolstering his credibility as one of the best of the very best in his field.
Of the four coaches on that short list, Spoelstra is the only one that wouldn’t garner any first place votes for Coach of the Year. For whatever reason, he seems to be the only lacking universal respect. And it makes no sense, given all that he’s accomplished in such a short period of time. His teams before LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces averaged 45 wins a season, respectable for any coach, let alone a first-time one.
It’s extremely difficult to coach superstars and what has always been a superstar-driven league. Spoelstra had a rocky start, from the infamous shoulder to the chest James laid on him two years ago to the back-and-forth with Wade to his time spent on the hot seat the summer after the Heat fell to Carlisle’s Mavericks in The Finals loss two years ago.
Plenty of folks were calling for Heat boss Pat Riley to come down from the luxury suite and replace his protegé throughout the course of his first two seasons with the Big 3.
Spoelstra, to his credit, persevered through it all, holding steady to his beliefs in the advanced metrics he studies relentlessly and the respect and admiration of his entire locker room. He’s a coach who knows who he is and understands exactly what he brings to the mix for a team made up of so many different ingredients.
ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame Lakers point guard Magic Johnson has nothing but praise for the job Spoelstra has done.
“The Heat have been awesome on defense and on offense,” Johnson said on the air last week. “Coach Spoelstra is pulling out all the stops making sure this team is focused and ready. He should probably be Coach of the Year. And then, when I think about the time of the year they are doing it, it’s the right time. They are really getting ready for playoff basketball and they sent a message to everybody. They beat the Knicks when they had to beat the Knicks. They just beat the Pacers when they had to beat the Pacers.”
They’ve beaten everyone in their path when they had to recently. This 22-game win streak is the culmination of a process Spoelstra studies tirelessly, a complex grind that makes perfect sense to a man completely immersed in its mechanics.
“We have been managing our games very intelligently,” Spoelstra said. “Last month, we were very proactive in getting our guys rest. They have been doing their jobs in keeping their bodies ready and we are not forgetting about our preparation. We want to continue to get better. Guys are playing career low minutes and we are fortunate for that.”
Spoelstra has not only become a master at managing his superstars, he’s learned how to cultivate roles and personalities up and down the roster. That’s critical for any team set on the complete domination we’ve seen from the Heat.
“There are guys that are not even breaking the rotation right now that are proven and have to be in the right mindset, which they do,” Spoelstra said. “But when you put together a veteran team like this, you must have the right guys. If you don’t and guys are unhappy with the roles then your versatility and your depth doesn’t mean anything.”
The Heat have all the ingredients needed to chase whatever history they desire. They have the superstar talent, the depth, the versatility and understanding of what’s at stake every night as well as the bigger picture.
They also an elite coach in Spoelstra to go along with all that.
Sooner or later, someone will actually give him credit, too.
Because to date there are only two coaches in this current Big 3 era to see the process through all the way to The Finals and into that championship parade.
Like I said, these elite lists tend to be short … only Doc Rivers and Erik Spoelstra make the cut on this one.