But now, it’s never been more apparent that Spoelstra deserves the credit so many in the general public aren’t willing to give him—regardless of Game 7’s outcome.
Through six games, Spoelstra has gone head-to-head with one of the league's all-time great coaches in San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. Over the past two weeks, Spoelstra and Popovich have each carefully placed their pawns, knights and queens.
And on Thursday night, one coach will have the opportunity to finally say, “Check, mate”.
With Game 7 on his home floor, Spoelstra, who began with the Miami Heat as a video coordinator in 1995, has put his team in excellent position to win their second straight title.
Sure, he may have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and oh, the greatest three-point shooter of all time in Ray Allen in his back pocket, but Popovich isn’t exactly playing with house money himself.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be making their way to Springfield in the near future. Danny Green has emerged as arguably the best in the league from beyond the arc, setting an NBA Finals record having already hit 26 threes this series.
On top of that, Popovich also holds the advantage of a considerable amount more of experience than Spoelstra when it comes to the biggest stage.
There are plenty around the league who see Spoelstra for who he is and admire what he’s been able to do with this Heat squad. Even a significant portion of the Heat’s fanbase has begun to soften its stance when it comes to criticizing their team’s head coach.
Do you view Erik Spoelstra as a good coach?
However, it’s safe to say that for every supporter of Spoelstra out there, there are two or three detractors hiding in the shadows, waiting for Miami to slip and beat their chests as they call for Spoelstra’s head.
The premise for his criticism is rather simple and centers on two particular areas of his coaching.
It’s a common (and flawed) belief that anyone can coach a team with James, Wade and Bosh to multiple titles. A majority of the time, these statements arise from fans that don’t do much more than watch the ball throughout the game.
And that’s fine. No one is asking all fans to become students of the game. Professional sports exist for the purpose of entertainment and there's nothing wrong with leaving it at that as a spectator.
What these fans tend to not understand, however, are the complex schemes, both on defense and offense, which Spoelstra has carefully designed to suit his team’s makeup.
Miami’s defense is elite because it takes tremendous effort, both mentally and physically, on a nightly basis. With two players constantly attacking the ball, everyone else on the court is responsible for upholding their roles as help defenders, while also understanding and staying true to their individual assignments.
Designing and tweaking this scheme is one thing, but instilling the discipline to consistently execute it is another.
Spoelstra has managed to do both.
When it comes to Miami’s offense, Spoelstra’s version of small ball is nothing to scoff at. Uniquely tailored to emphasize James’ strengths, while also creating comfortable environments for both Wade and Bosh, Spoelstra’s design is one of the biggest reasons why this Heat team stands where it currently does.
Not only is the design itself impressive, but it should be noted Spoelstra wasn’t exactly playing it safe when he decided Miami should take the small ball route. He knew there was the risk of failure, but he also understood the potential reward.
He believed in the system, and it’s paid off so far.
On the other side of the street, Spoelstra also gets criticism from the outside regarding his personality. To put it simply, there's a shared perception among basketball fans that he's too soft.
He doesn’t put his stars in their rightful place, they say. He’s not as brash as other coaches around the league, so he doesn’t have the knack for motivating his squad for the biggest moments.
Both of these beliefs are flawed.
As far as the respect factor goes, Spoelstra has had his moments when he’s had to step in and let his players know who’s boss. The most notable moment came last postseason, when he and Wade had a very public confrontation with tensions high in Indiana.
Also, just because a coach isn’t always the most animated on the sidelines when he’s addressing his players doesn’t mean they don’t respect him as their leader. James, Wade and Bosh have repeatedly made it known they believe in Spoelstra as a coach and trust his system.
When it comes to the motivation aspect, you can’t argue with results. Miami has won four straight elimination games and James currently stands 2-0 in Game 7s since he arrived in Miami.
He was 0-2 in Game 7s in Cleveland.
Is the inability to win consecutive games recently frustrating? Of course it is, but mindset and motivation haven’t always been Miami’s biggest issues.
Against Indiana, Wade was hardly even a shell of himself and the Pacers happened to be a nightmare matchup for Miami.
Now, against a veteran Spurs team with a championship core, the Heat simply find themselves locked into one of the best Finals series in league history. Two very good teams have been trading punches and squeezing every last ounce of juice out of this NBA season.
It doesn’t boil down to much more than that.
Both teams have made their share of mistakes. Each has had their mental lapses. Spoelstra and Popovich have both made adjustments from game to game to put their teams in the best positions possible to win.
In the end, the unfortunate truth is Spoelstra likely won’t garner the credit and respect he deserves anytime soon.
But on Thursday night, he and the Miami Heat have the opportunity to continue chipping away at the bubble of doubt that engulfs his career as a head coach.
If the Heat do manage to pull off the repeat, Spoelstra will become just the eighth coach in league history to be able to say he's led his team to two-straight championships.