If someone had told people in basketball circles in the 2008-09 offseason that Erik Spoelstra would be the Miami Heat’s all-time leader in coaching wins, that person would’ve raised a lot of eyebrows.
No way that a 37-year-old tasked to become a head coach for the first time — and following in the footsteps of a larger-than-life personality such as Pat Riley at that — would eventually replace Riley as the most successful coach in team history.
And yet, thanks primarily to Spoelstra’s widely recognized tirelessness as a student of the game, here we are. Fifteen games into his 10th season calling the shots from the Heat bench, he now has 455 wins, one more than Riley, and counting.
In an article written by Couper Moorhead on NBA.com outlining Spoelstra’s top coaching moments, one theme emerges — in his own right, Spoelstra has been an innovator.
Moorhead mentions how Spoelstra helped to develop the individual games of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to get them to play symbiotically, and how he took the concept of “pace and space” offense and made it a formula for winning championships.
The article also highlights Spoelstra’s adaptability, for example, how it was necessary to play Shane Battier as a 3-point swishing power forward in a small forward’s body and, as evidenced in his current defensive schemes, how he “let his roster dictate the style (of play).”
In April 2008, when Riley announced he was stepping down as head coach and that Spoelstra would be next in line, he shared to the media a glowing assessment of his protégé, calling him “a man that was born to coach.”
“I believe Erik Spoelstra is one of the most talented young coaches to come around in a long time,” Riley said at the time.
“This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative and bring fresh new ideas. That’s what we feel we are getting with Erik Spoelstra.”
Riley’s belief in Spoelstra never wavered, even during the early stages of James and “the Big 3” era, when there was a clamor for Riley to return to coaching and let somebody with experience managing superstars handle the team.
But Riley stuck to his guy, a trust that resulted in 4 finals appearances and two championships.
Now, add to that the distinction of surpassing a Hall-of-Famer in Riley to hold the Heat record for most coaching wins and remaining the second-longest tenured coach only behind the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich.
“(Spoelstra and Riley) still preach defense, Miami Heat culture, their principles are still the same,” said Udonis Haslem, who has played 15 seasons for the Heat under both.
“Obviously Spo added some things offensively, some things he wants to do with the way the game is today. But overall, values and principles, defensively, everything is still the same.”
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