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Best coach in NBA who has never won Coach of the Year back in conference finals

At the start of every NBA season, when asked to make preseason predictions for individual awards, out of reflex, I type ‘Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat.’

He is the best coach in the league. And definitely the best coach in the league never to have won Coach of the Year.

He’s proving it in the playoffs with the eighth-seeded Miami Heat reaching the Eastern Conference finals where they will play Boston for a trip to the NBA Finals for the third time in four seasons.

As a play-in team, they lost to Atlanta and had to beat Chicago just to make the playoffs and then for just the sixth time in NBA history, the No. 8 seed beat a No. 1 seed − Miami stopped Milwaukee in five games.

The Heat dispatched No. 5 seed New York in the conference semifinals and became just the second No. 8 seed to reach the conference finals. When New York did it in 1999, it was a lockout-shortened, 50-game season.

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Once a Spoelstra-led Heat squad gains an ounce of momentum, they become dangerous. That’s what has happened in the postseason.

The team that didn’t shoot so well in the regular season is starting to make shots. The defense is always going to be there with Spoelstra, and Jimmy Butler in the playoffs is always a difficult player to beat.

The NBA is a players’ league, but it requires a fantastic coach to do what Spoelstra has done as often as he has done it. He accomplishes a lot with a lot and a lot with a little.

Spoelstra reminds me of what football coach Bum Phillips once said about Alabama’s Bear Bryant, and paraphrasing here: He can take his and beat yours and take yours and beat his. Spoelstra can beat you with his players, no matter who they are. Take me, my editor, and three fans in the arena wearing Heat jerseys and he will win a game.

I spent the past three weeks canvassing the league and asking team insiders (executives, scouts, coaches) what makes Spoelstra so good.

Excellent communicator. Has players who buy into in his offensive and defensive philosophies. Smart. Works hard, a product of many things but including his days as a low-level video coordinator. Strong coaching staff. Adapts to the personnel on the roster instead of forcing styles and has an extensive playbook to meet different needs. He challenges players and strives for accountability. Has unwavering support from the front office. Has confidence in whom he decides to play and that translates.

In the 2022-23 GM survey, 52% of responding execs voted Spoelstra the best coach in the league, second-best at in-game adjustments, third-best at managing/motivating players and the coach with the best defensive schemes.

Against Milwaukee, he put Bam Adebayo in the point forward role, to help draw Milwaukee’s ace paint defender Brook Lopez away from the basket. It helped Miami’s ability to get to the rim and collapse the defense. Spoelstra listens, too. After drawing up a last-second play that wasn’t for Jimmy Butler, Butler asked Spoelstra to make the play for him. Butler made the shot that forced overtime in Game 5, leading to Miami’s series-clinching victory.

The second-longest tenured coach with the same team, Spoelstra, 52, has the fifth-most playoff coaching victories (104) − behind Doc Rivers (111), Gregg Popovich (169), Pat Riley (171) and Phil Jackson (229) and has won 60.5% of playoff games. He is No. 20 on the all-time regular-season coaching victories list with 704. He will pass John MacLeod next season, and depending on how long he wants to coach, he’ll keep moving ahead of Nate McMillan, Gene Shue, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jack Ramsay over the next five seasons.

Spoelstra took over for Riley in 2008, and Spoelstra never let Riley’s legacy overwhelm him. In 15 seasons under Spoelstra, the Heat have missed the playoffs just three times. They reached the Finals five times and won two championships.

At some point, he should have won Coach of the Year, perhaps during the seasons Miami won 58, 46 (of 66 in a lockout season), 66 and 54 games and two titles in 2012 and 2013 with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It wasn’t easy coaching those three, in part because of the big personalities and in part because Spoelstra asked them to change their games for the benefit of the team. Uncomfortable at times, James improved under Spoelstra, became a more efficient player and had a couple of his all-time best seasons with Miami.

When the NBA announced its 75 all-time greatest players during the 2021-22 season, it also revealed its 15 all-time greatest coaches. Spoelstra was on the list.

‘There’s this narrative that Spo is not great,’ James said during the 2020 NBA Finals. ‘The narrative is that he doesn’t get a lot of respect, which he should. He prepares his team every single night. If you watch the Miami Heat, no matter who’s on the floor, they’re going to play Heat culture. They’re going to play hard. They’re going to play together. That’s what he’s always been about.’

‘He prepares like it’s his last time ever coaching again every game, and I know that. You guys always said, ‘Well, you have LeBron, you have D-Wade, you have Bosh, any coach can do it.’

‘No, any coach can’t do it.’

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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