Why another Heat championship would cement Erik Spoelstra's place in NBA history

Winning another championship would separate Erik Spoelstra from every other coach in the NBA.
Miami Heat v Phoenix Suns
Miami Heat v Phoenix Suns / Christian Petersen/GettyImages

When Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra steps foot on Kaseya Center’s hardwood Wednesday night, he may be reminded of what just transpired there: A demoralizing defeat to the Wizards – a lottery-bound laughingstock – which slid the Heat back from sixth to eighth in the East. It was Miami’s third straight loss and third in the last five games.

If Spoelstra feels overwhelmed by the task of ascending from the eighth seed to the NBA Finals, then he should flick his eyes over to Wednesday night’s opponent: The Denver Nuggets. The team that prevented the Heat from becoming the first eighth seed to hoist a Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. 

Last year's miraculous NBA Finals run might've strengthened Spoelstra’s legacy but, if he truly wants to cement himself in NBA lore, he must lead the Heat to the 2024 NBA championship. 

For starters, it proves he can win a ring without a top-10 MVP candidate. This would make him the only head coach not named Gregg Popovich to do so since 1991. Even if Jimmy Butler enters “Playoff Jimmy” mode, his name won't appear on MVP ballots when they are due at the end of the regular season. He’s 31st in scoring (21.7 points per game), 45th in assists (5.5) and outside of the top-50 in rebounds (4.9).

Lacking a bona fide star is only one of several problems Spoelstra must solve. Power forward Bam Adebayo has experienced an untimely slump. In recent losses to the Mavericks, Thunder and Wizards, Adebayo averaged 11.7 points on 35% shooting. 

His struggles could stem from marksmen Tyler Herro’s foot injury. Given the Heat’s 1-3 record against playoff contenders since he’s gone down, his absence is missed. There’s a growing feeling that Herro could’ve helped the Heat keep pace against elite offensive weapons like the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Mavericks’ Luka Doncic and the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 

Without Herro’s 20 points per game, Spoelstra’s title hopes partially hinge upon the Heat’s only notable recent acquisitions: 2023 first-round pick Jaime Jaquez Jr. and trade deadline addition Terry Rozier. 

Jaquez should be an NBA Rookie of the Year finalist and scored 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting in the loss to the Thunder last Friday. Rozier, meanwhile, scored 27 points in the game before and has  averaged 18 points on 48% shooting (39% on 3s), 6 assists (to 1.9 turnovers), 4.4 rebounds and 1 steal in seven games since he returned from a knee sprain. 

But by relying upon first-year members like Jaquez and Rozier, Spoelstra is once again expected to do more with less. 

The same can’t be said for his contemporaries. 

The Milwaukee Bucks added Damian Lillard, the Celtics added Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday and in 2022, the Cavaliers added Donovan Mitchell. Go figure they’re the top three teams in the East.

Meanwhile, the Heat have failed to acquire a superstar to pair with Jimmy Butler since Butler arrived in 2019. It hasn't been for a lack of trying. They contemplated trades for Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal, Mitchell and Lillard, but haven't gotten a deal of that magnitude done.

When the Heat traded for Rozier – a 20-point scorer for the Charlotte Hornets – they traded a protected 2027 first-round pick and the heart of their last notable trade: Kyle Lowry. Mind you, that was in 2021 and Lowry was more rotation strengthener than difference maker. 

Although they re-signed Butler and Duncan Robinson to mega deals that summer, the front office’s lack of aggression now makes it difficult for Spoelstra to win his third ring. The lack of star power could be the reason why the Heat are 3-17 against teams with a top-10 point differential. 

Spoelstra might’ve just inked an eight-year, $120 million extension, but few could blame him for feeling upset. Everything about this current Heat squad screams “win now.” The 34-year-old Butler has a shrinking championship window. The team has shown a willingness to sacrifice future first-round draft picks. There are tradable assets like Herro. And yet, here Spoelstra is, fighting to make his sixth straight playoff appearance and third finals appearance in five years.  

But there’s a positive in all this. 

If Spoelstra can overcome these obstacles and win a championship, then he will be universally regarded as the NBA’s second-greatest active head coach behind Popovich. It would make his three rings greater than Steve Kerr's four with the Warriors because he would have done something that few coaches have ever done before winning a championship: Start anew.

If anyone understands how difficult it is to start anew it’s Popovich. Since Tony Parker and Manú Ginobili left the Spurs in 2018, he’s made the playoffs just once (and they were bounced in the first round).

Spoelstra’s path to doing what Popovich hasn’t – and what Kerr may never do – starts with beating the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night. Not just to curb the losing streak or distance himself from that crushing 2023 NBA Finals defeat, but to remind himself and his team this season can end in plumes of cigar smoke, champagne-soaked retinas and a shifted narrative. 

But Spoelstra can't afford to get wrapped up in things like legacy or even the riggers of another postseason run. The defending champs are in town and there are 18 more games that can help bolster the Heat's title chances.

There’s no time to waste. Not when there’s history to be made. 

“This is a harrowing ride," Spoelstra said Sunday, "and our group has the right intentions."