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Are NBA Fans Still Short-Changing Erik Spoelstra as an Elite Head Coach?

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Are NBA Fans Still Short-Changing Erik Spoelstra as an Elite Head Coach?
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The sad reality is that Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will never truly get the respect that he deserves.

It's unfortunate, really. After all, Spoelstra is a self-made man whose meteoric rise all but epitomizes the American dream. But the lack of credit that he'll receive for leading the current iteration of the Heat is an unfavorable by-product of the situation.

The prevailing thought in the minds of plenty of basketball fans is that Spoelstra is supposed to win. With the best player in the world (LeBron James) and two other All-Stars (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) at his beck and call, Spoelstra is a failure in some people's eyes every year he doesn't bring a title back to South Beach.

Those types of expectations come with the territory. Phil Jackson's accomplishments are discounted to this day, and all he did was win more championships than any man in the history of professional basketball. It doesn't matter that others coached the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant duos to far less success than Jackson did: With that type of talent at your disposal, there's little room for excuses.

Much like Jackson, Spoelstra is extremely skilled at managing egos. Somehow, he took three star players—three men who were each the alpha dog on their respective teams—and convinced each of them that sacrificing a bit of themselves was necessary for the greater good.

It took a while for the trio to buy in—the 9-8 start in Year One had more than a few pundits predicting the return of Pat Riley to the sideline—but once they did, the Miami Heat became the most dominant team in all of professional sports.

Back in Cleveland, James was a fantastically gifted player who could do whatever he wanted to on a basketball court and was widely considered the game's premier talent. Three years later, the narrative on James hasn't changed all that much, but there is one noticeable difference: Thanks to Spoelstra, he's much more efficient now than ever before.

These days, James has cut down on the long jumpers and has focused on taking more high-percentage shots. As a result, his shooting percentage is at an all-time high, and both his field-goal and three-point percentages have steadily increased in each of his three seasons in Miami.

The average Player Efficiency Rating in the NBA is 15.00—over the past two seasons, James's PER has been more than double that.

James isn't the only one who has benefited under Spoelstra's tutelage: Wade (who is enjoying something of a career resurgence) and Bosh are also shooting better from the field this season than they ever have before, and the Heat as a team have made nearly half of their field-goal attempts this year.

To many, Spoelstra will never be much more than a glorified video coordinator who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Those same people will ignore the fact that Spoelstra has been a member of the Heat coaching staff since 1997 and was named the team's director of scouting in 2001.

As he has made his way up the Miami hierarchy, Spoelstra has always made it a point to emphasize the fundamentals of the game. After Wade's rookie year, the 23-year-old guard worked with Spoelstra to smooth out the rough spots in his shooting form. The following season, Wade earned Second Team All-NBA honors as he averaged 24.1 points and 6.8 assists per game (compared to just 16.2 PPG and 4.5 APG as a rookie).

Spoelstra stresses ball security more than most coaches, and he knows that smarter, deliberate possessions will ultimately lead to better (and more) scoring opportunities.

"If we force turnovers and win the turnover game," said Spoelstra in an interview with Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com, "that's the most important thing."

In reality, the most important thing is winning basketball games, and Spoelstra has the third-highest winning percentage among active coaches (Tom Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich are first and second, respectively). And while Spoelstra may never receive the adoration that is bestowed upon the elite head coaches in the NBA, the jewelry on his hands will ultimately speak for itself.

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