Give Spoelstra credit for taking an impossible job and finishing it

by | National Columnist
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What a dreadful coach Erik Spoelstra must be, taking his team to back-to-back NBA Finals. (AP)  
What a dreadful coach Erik Spoelstra must be, taking his team to back-to-back NBA Finals. (AP)  

There are lots of ways to view the Miami Heat as they stand on the precipice of victory, although most of them seem to be along the following lines:

"LeBron James, who is 15/128ths of the way to meeting the self-imposed burden of his now-infamous Litany of Not Enough Championships. ... " And then there's a lot of stupid droning about his legacy, and how close he is to being compared to Russell, Jordan, Chamberlain, Pettit, etc.

Which is about the time you wander outside to get your eyes re-acclimated to sunlight.

But this is about counting the egg before it's laid on behalf of the other man who has defined the Heat in these turbulent times, so let's call it The Un-Dumb-Assing of Erik Spoelstra.

A lot of people -- and yes, you're one of them -- have spent a lot of time deciding that Spoelstra is unworthy to have his picture taken with the men he coaches if/when they win the NBA title. You've said it a hundred times -- he can't coach -- and you've been wrong every time.

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Erik Spoelstra can coach. He always could. But he was handed a job by Pat Riley that was unreasonable on its first day, then he was matched against a coach in last year's Finals with more experience in Rick Carlisle, and Carlisle's team performed better than Spoelstra's.

Which of course was Spoelstra's fault, because that's how we do things in the new millennium. We presume we have more expertise than someone who has only devoted his entire adult life to mastering a craft we absorb from our couches, then we evaluate him trying to guide a team that is harder to coach than nearly any other team in recent history, and expect him to try to make his personality mesh with a team of superduperstars who answer only to themselves.

In other words, Spoelstra was asked for his first job to be one of the great coaches in the history of the sport, and stubborn hyena that he is, he chose instead to grow into the job.

That is, if you think he had a choice.

But instead, let's view Spoelstra as though he were actually like every other coach in NBA history -- you know, just for kicks.

He was given the job at age 37, early advancement by any analysis. He also looked like he was 12, which made it even harder. He was asked to follow a Hall of Famer (Pat Riley) and coach a team that had been stripped down for parts (he inherited a team that went 15-67 the year before).

This was a job not asked of Hubie Brown, or John Kundla, or Phil Jackson, or Alex Hannum, or any of the other Hall of Fame coaches who won titles early in their pro careers. They had been given Bugatti Veyrons -- well, Bill Russells and George Mikans and Michael Jordans and in Brown's case Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. Of those four, three had been coaching for years and worked in an era when players were far more compliant.

Spoelstra's job was more difficult, and made even more so when James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade, because he had to subsume his ego even more while convincing them he was still worth listening to. It is a battle he faces even now, only he doesn't have the luxury Jerry Sloan had -- to walk away.

But he has faced it, and face first at that. As a tactician, he has shown himself to be well above average, and that's according to those in the league who are considered excellent tacticians, and as a communicator, he is maybe only a step behind Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich, the two best coaches in the league right now. He is by any analysis one of the six most accomplished coaches in the league, and it doesn't matter that you think otherwise. You're still as wrong now as you were in Paragraph Five.

And here's why. Coaches win only when they have the best team, and teams are made when very good players agree that one big goal for everyone is more important than 12 little individual goals. The Heat grew up slowly by our reckoning, but they are on the verge of winning the only championship that could be won the year after they had their noses rubbed in it by Dallas. They learned, and Spoelstra learned with them.

And now, with a championship dangling before all their eyes, Spoelstra is about to get the best individual gift a coach can receive -- a nation admitting it was wrong about a coach given an extraordinarily difficult job who actually did it.

In other words, to choose a Barkleyism at random, he will no longer be considered a dumbass by dumbasses. Hey, it may not be Coach of the Year, but the only guys who ever won that go from 27 wins to 44 and get knocked out in the second round. Erik Spoelstra was never afforded that luxury.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area (CSNBayArea.com).

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