Erik Spoelstra cements a place in NBA history after fifth Finals trip

Erik Spoelstra’s climbing of the ranks highlights not only his talent, but what the NBA needs to work on — diversity and equal opportunity.

Erik Spoelstra began with the team in 1995 as a video coordinator. Spoelstra has coached NBA greats such as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Jimmy Butler.

Keith Allison

Erik Spoelstra began with the team in 1995 as a video coordinator. Spoelstra has coached NBA greats such as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Jimmy Butler.

When Pat Riley, “one of the greatest minds the game has ever had,” hand-picked his successor for the Miami Heat, he made sure the next head coach was someone who embodied the culture of the organization, a prodigy of himself — and that was Erik Spoelstra. Riley made him head coach in 2008, and became the first Asian-American head coach in the history of the NBA. 

Spoelstra began with the team as a video coordinator in 1995. Although he lacked editing skills, his immense love of basketball drove him to adapt to whatever challenge in order to be close to the sport.

For two years he looked at footage full time, “breaking down game tapes, evaluating players and opponents and figuring out strategic plays.” It wasn’t long before his strong analytical ability caught the attention of coach Riley. Spoelstra was promoted to assistant coach/video coordinator in 1997, then to assistant coach/advance scout in 1999 and assistant coach/director of scouting in 2001. 

Since then, Spoelstra has become the second longest-tenured head coach in the NBA, and for good reason. Spoelstra has led the Heat to five finals trips as head coach, two of which he won, and recently led Miami to the 2020 finals — even when nobody believed they could win the Eastern conference. His strong work ethic paired with a commitment to always doing what’s best for the team has allowed the Heat to embrace change and be flexible with their approach towards the game. 

Spoelstra’s a coach that leads by example, which is why he is well-respected among his players. According to Bam Adebayo, he’s a coach that wants the players to develop, and expands their game beyond their position, morphing them into what they want to be thus reinventing the players entirely. 

Although Spoelstra has gained respect within the NBA community, his success as a head coach has been undermined by the media, which credit the Heat’s championship wins in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons to star players like Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. However, in 2020, Spoelstra proved he was “the hands-on common denominator,” according to Michael Pina in his article for GQ. Spoelstra essentially led a “rookie team” starring Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Kelly Olynyk, to successfully assist all-star player Jimmy Butler after starters Bam Adebayo and Gorin Dragic suffered injuries during game 1 of the finals. Despite injuries to Adebayo and Dragic, Spoelstra and his players pushed forward and rejected a finals sweep by the Los Angeles Lakers. 

“Spoelstra’s daily influence helped shape a team with no players who made first or second team All-NBA into NBA finalists. Things coming full circle: Miami started player empowerment, and now they defy it,” Pina said. 

Spoelstra’s experience as a video coordinator seems to have played a role in his success. His in-depth understanding of each player’s strengths and weaknesses has led to player development. Many could consider his role as a video coordinator a disadvantage, yet it was an opportunity Spoelstra capitalized on. Spoesltra worked his way up to not only become head coach, but one of the best in the league. His legacy is still being written. As one of the youngest head coaches in the league and coming off an incredible season the Heat will be a force to be reckoned with in 2021. 

Spoelstra’s success, along with his unorthodox coaching background, is a clear example of the possibilities that remain in the NBA as well as highlights that the NBA has a long way to go in order to achieve diverse coaching staffs and equal opportunity to climb the coaching ranks. 

Among the 30 head coaches in the NBA only seven of them are people of color; besides Spoelstra who is of filipino descent, in company within the same position are five who are Black, and one who is Hispanic, according to The New York Times.  

Spoelstra made history as the first Asian-American head coach in NBA history, and 12 years later, he’s still the only one in the league. So, as the Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder search to fill their head coach position for the 2020-2021 season, shouldn’t they venture out and seek talent among people of color? There’s plenty of undiscovered talent, and who knows, Spoelstra’s future prodigy may be among those who the NBA continuously overlooks.