Legacy: the underappreciated Erik Spoelstra

One of the greatest coaches of all time in midst of another masterful season

BRANDON WILLMAN, Multimedia editor

“I don’t know how we’re going to get this done, but we’re going to go up there and get it done,” said Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat head coach, ahead of Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. 

And they got it done. With a final score of 103-84, the Heat comfortably avoided being the first team in NBA history to lose a seven-game series after taking a 3-0 series lead. Going in, it looked rough, as the team lost Game 6 at home off of a buzzer-beating tip-in from the Celtics’ Derrick White in what was truthfully a shocker to the home crowd in Miami. 

Spoelstra grew up close to Washington, as, despite being born in Evanston, Illinois, he went to high school in Beaverton, Oregon, and played college basketball at University of Portland. His first job in the NBA was with the Heat, joining as a video coordinator in 1995. 

During his time with the Pilots, he played against WSU twice, losing in December 1988 and winning in November 1989. 

In 1997, he was promoted to an assistant coaching position, where he stayed through the 2008 NBA season. As an assistant coach, he helped guide the 2006 Heat to an NBA Championship, the first ring he got in the league. 

After showing commitment to the team for a decade, Heat president Pat Riley named Spoelstra the newest head coach of the team. In the 15 seasons since, Spoelstra has a 704-491 record in the regular season, the 20th most wins of all time. 

He has also shown the ability to win games in the playoffs, as his 108 wins in the postseason are the fifth-most of any coach. He has led to Heat to six NBA Finals appearances, including 2023, and has won two Championships as head coach and is looking for his third this season. 

With Miami being the only team he has known, his dominance and longevity are another impact of his great legacy beyond just purely winning. 

He has finished in the top five of Coach of the Year voting in four seasons, including two second-place finishes. Most recently, in the 2017 season, he finished as the runner-up despite his team finishing just 41-41. That placement came from the fact that after an 11-30 start to the season, the Heat finished on a 30-11 run and just barely missed the playoffs. 

In 2021, the 75th anniversary of the NBA, current head coaches and other panel members voted on the top 15 coaches of all time. Spoelstra was one of just four active coaches on the list, pointing to the fact that whenever he chooses to retire, his spot in the Hall of Fame is nearly guaranteed. 

However, he is still coaching and the current season has been one of the most impressive of his legendary career. 

The Heat finished with a 44-38 record and seventh in the Eastern Conference, meaning they would have to play in the play-in tournament to secure their playoff spot. In the first game of the Tournament, they played the eight-seeded Hawks, a game in which they lost by 11.

After the loss, they played the Chicago Bulls for the eight-seed in the playoffs. Up until late in the fourth quarter of that game, they were behind by a few points before pulling ahead for a 102-91 win. Despite the win, things looked bleak as they matched up with the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. 

That matchup did not phase Jimmy Butler and the Heat core, who took care of business in five games. They were the first-ever play-in team to win a series and the fifth-ever team to beat a top seed as the No. 8 seed. 

After the Bucks came the No. 5 seed New York Knicks, who they took care of in six games. Then, the toughest matchup came with the No. 2 seed Boston Celtics. After shocking many to take the first two games in Boston and then eventually take a 3-0 lead, they lost the next two games by a combined 30 points. 

Teams who trailed 3-0 were 0-150 in the series prior to the Heat-Celtics matchup, and the Celtics avoided becoming the first to win by the hands of the Heat. With their trip to the Finals, they are the first play-in team to reach the Finals and only the second No. 8 seed to make it. 

If the Heat end up on top of the NBA landscape with a Finals win in 2023, it would be by far the most impressive Championship win in Spoelstra’s career and likely would rank as one of the most improbable wins in the league’s history. 

Another factor in the pure improbability is the use of undrafted players. Four players in the Heat rotation were not drafted in their respective drafts. Duncan Robinson, Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent all have had notable impacts on winning in 2023 for the team and yet no team selected them in the draft. 

With a Finals win, Spoelstra would easily rank higher on the all-time coaches list and his legacy would go from underappreciated to highly praised by fans.