Heat's Erik Spoelstra should be the Coach of the Year front-runner

No NBA coach has done more with less this season than Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks
Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks / Alex Slitz/GettyImages

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Rockets coach Ime Udoka walked off the court, exchanged their usual pleasantries, and met with their teams and then the media to debrief. 

“From an IQ standpoint, they kind of picked us apart,” Udoka said. “They made us think on both ends and we didn’t handle it well.”

There’s nothing but respect between Spoelstra and Udoka, who memorably battled each other for seven games in the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. Before the game, Spoelstra was complimentary of Udoka's work to transform Houston’s defense in his first year as Rockets coach. The Rockets have gone from 29th in defensive rating a year ago to fifth this season. Because of that and Houston’s 18-17 record (they won only 22 games all of last season), Udoka is among the half-dozen-or-so favorites for Coach of the Year.

But it’s the coach he went against, the one who walked off Monday night’s court the winner, who should be considered the favorite. Erik Spoelstra, two-time champion and second-longest tenured coach in the league who on Tuesday signed the richest-ever NBA coaching contract, has never won Coach of the Year. That needs to change.

That vaunted Rockets defense? Picked apart by a Heat offense missing Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin for the game and Kyle Lowry for all but 16 minutes before the team’s only point guard exited with a hand injury. The Heat had 30 assists on 41 made field goals. Lowry accounted for only one. It’s a testament to the individual growth of Miami’s personnel, but also to Spoelstra pulling the right levers at the right time.

On Monday morning before the game, Spoelstra held a quick team meeting. The Heat’s offense was in a rut, scoring just 109.8 points per 100 possessions over their last five games. Butler playing just 23 minutes of that stretch wasn’t an excuse. Spoelstra instructed his team to get back to working through the shot clock to get better shots. 

The message: Screen for your teammates, find the open guy, cut when you don’t have the ball, and be quick to shoot when you’re open. 

“It wasn’t reinventing the wheel,” Josh Richardson said. “It was just tightening the screws.”

Against a Rockets team that usually allows an average of 111.4 points per 100 possessions, the Heat scored at a rate of 125 points per 100. 

Sure, it helps that they shot nearly 42% from 3-point range and the Rockets were without ace defender Dillon Brooks, but consider Miami’s injuries and the way the team manages to morph with its available personnel, and it becomes impossible to overlook the job Spoelstra has done.

Erik Spoelstra
Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat / Rich Storry/GettyImages

Only three teams have had players miss more games due to injury than the Heat this season, according to Spotrac’s injury tracker

Among the bottom five, the Heat are the only team to have a winning record. And not just winning – the Heat have hung around fourth place in a tightly-packed Eastern Conference most of the season. 

The Heat have been without their star players for pockets of the schedule. Butler has missed 12, Bam Adebayo 10 and Tyler Herro 18. Role players have been out for stretches, including Martin (16), Haywood Highsmith (14) and Josh Richardson (nine). 

Because of this, the Heat have used 19 different starting lineups this season.

They’re the only team within the top four of their conference not to have a player crack NBA.com’s MVP tracker

Yet they keep stacking wins. 

On a recent episode of the “Locked On Heat” podcast, ESPN NBA insider Brian Windhorst told me that scouts believe the Heat are the most difficult team to prepare for because Spoelstra is always tinkering, always improving, always evolving.

“Spoelstra will have those sleeves rolled up,” Windhorst said. “No team changes from November to April like the Heat do, every single year. You talk to these scouts, typically by mid-season or so the scouts have the teams down, they know what they run. When they have to come back and re-check them, it’s sort of an easier night. Not with the Heat. They have to go in fresh in March just like they do in November because [of] Spoelstra.”

None of this should be news. Before the season, GMs overwhelmingly agreed that Spoelstra is the best coach in the NBA.

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Talk to opposing coaches, like Udoka, and all will tip their hat to Spo out of reverence or, at the very least, respect.

It’s a shame he’s never won Coach of the Year, but it’s also hard to pinpoint the exact year he got snubbed. 

When the Heat earned the No. 1 seed in the East in 2021-22 with 53 wins, Suns coach Monty Williams was named Coach of the Year – but his team won 11 more games.

The Heat got to the Finals in 2020 but were on pace for less than 50 wins during the Covid-shortened regular season, and this is a regular-season award.

Spoelstra gained a lot of respect in 2015-16 when he led the Heat to a third-place finish in the East two years after LeBron James left but, out West, Steve Kerr’s Warriors won a record 73 games.

The strongest case for Spoelstra getting snubbed was in 2012-13, when the Big Three Heat went 66-16 in a season in which they rattled off a 27-game win streak. After two somewhat clunky years, Spoelstra finally found the right buttons to push and got things clicking. Denver’s George Karl took Coach of the Year that season because he won 57 games after Carmelo Anthony left – which used to be enough of a reason to get handed the award.

Even then, Spoelstra didn’t have nearly the reputation he has now, and voters had a hard time deciphering how much of the Heat’s success was Spo and how much was Miami’s awesome talent. To be clear, they got it wrong. Those teams weirdly never received enough credit. But that’s what happened.

Coach of the Year isn’t a life-time achievement award and Spoelstra will have to earn it for the work he’s done this season. Other COY favorites such as Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault, Minnesota’s Chris Finch and Orlando’s Jamahl Mosley all deserve recognition for their jobs so far this season, but none have dealt with the same level of adversity as Spoelstra.

And there’s this: All of those teams have – inarguably – more available talent than the Heat have had this season.

That might seem weird to say given that the Heat were just in the Finals, but the Thunder have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander playing like an MVP candidate, the sensational Chet Holmgren as the favorite for Rookie of the Year and have had the luckiest run of health in the league (just 22 games missed to injury).

Minnesota is second in terms of health luck (30) and are stacked with talent, from established bigs like Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert to up-and-comers Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid.

Most similar to Spoelstra is Magic coach Jamahl Mosley, who has had to deal with his share of injuries (most recently to star forward Franz Wagner). But if we’re splitting hairs for an award here, Spoelstra’s problems give him the edge. Both the Heat and Magic have 21 wins. Whichever coach finishes with a better record will have a strong case for the award.

The Heat will need a second-half push to send Spoelstra to the front of the line. Only three coaches this century have won Coach of the Year with a similar winning percentage as the Heat have (58.3%) so far this season: Sam Mitchell in 2007 (57.3%), Tom Thibodeau in 2021 (56.9%) and Mike Brown in 2023 (58.5%). Getting to 50 wins will bolster Spoelstra’s case.

But I’m making the case now. There are a lot of good teams and good coaches across the league, but no one is doing more with less – again – than Spoelstra.