- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Understandably, Erik Spoelstra believes he's the last person who would feel comfortable analyzing just how strong of a case he's making for NBA coach of the year.
“I'm probably the wrong guy,” Spoelstra said. “That is clearly the last thing I think about. And I say that with no disrespect. If that helped anybody win a title ... I would find it more interesting. But I don't think it correlates.”
But the record speaks for itself.
And on Tuesday night, even in defeat, the effort his short-handed Miami Heat displayed for a second straight game without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade available spoke volumes about the job Spoelstra has done this season.
Coaching James and Wade -- a three-time MVP and a two-time champion, respectively -- will never be viewed as a burden. But when a coach has two of the top five players in the league on his roster, it tends to block the view of those who lack the vision to look beyond the obvious.
Spoelstra shouldn't need the last two games the Heat played to bolster his résumé among the best coaching performances this season. But they certainly won't hurt.
With James and Wade resting nagging injuries, the Heat went into San Antonio on Sunday and knocked off the best team in the Western Conference. On Tuesday, with James and Wade watching from the bench, the Heat pushed the current hottest team in the league to the brink and absorbed a 50-point effort from Carmelo Anthony before fading late and falling at home, 102-90, to the New York Knicks.
Between those two games, Spoelstra on Sunday was named the Eastern Conference's top coach for the second consecutive month. Over the past two months, Spoelstra coached the East All-Stars, guided the Heat on the second-longest winning streak in NBA history at 27 games, has Miami positioned with the best record in the league and has developed a system that is producing career-best numbers from James, Wade and Chris Bosh on offense this season.
Spoelstra will continue to be overshadowed by James and Wade, which means he'll find it difficult to get much credit outside of his own franchise for the job he's done to keep the defending champions functioning at a high level.
“There are some nights when he probably feels like he's still got something to prove,” said Heat co-captain and forward Udonis Haslem, who has been in Miami since 2003, when Spoelstra was an assistant on Pat Riley's staff. “With LeBron and D-Wade being out -- we all would rather have them playing, obviously -- but I guess it's been a chance for all of us to step up a little more. Him, too.”
Bosh admits he's a bit biased. But he believes there are two clear front-runners for coach of the year honors this season.
“I think the only candidates should be (Spoelstra) and George Karl,” Bosh said of the longtime Denver coach who recently led the Nuggets on a 15-game winning streak that coincided with Miami's 27 consecutive victories. “Both guys have done great jobs. I'm not one to hang my hat on awards, so it's kind of tough saying that, because for a while, if you got coach of the year, it didn't mean anything. They were still getting you out of there (fired). He's not worried about that. He's just coaching his team.”
It almost seems silly to think that it was just a couple of March Madnesses ago when Riley, the Heat's president of basketball operations, spoke to a reporter in New York while attending the Big East Tournament and defended his coach amid rumors that Spoelstra could be dismissed.
“Write it off,” Riley told the (Newark) Star-Ledger in March of 2011 as the Heat were on a five-game losing streak. “That ain't going to happen. We're in a rough time right now. We'll get through it.”
Since then, the Heat have gotten through plenty of trials and tribulations along with intense scrutiny and criticism from league peers and national analysts. They've reached the NBA Finals twice, avenging a 2011 loss to Dallas with a five-game series win against Oklahoma City last summer.
And this might just be their most dominant season yet. There's no debating whether James, Wade and Bosh are the big-engine parts that make this Heat machine run. But Spoelstra ensures those pieces calibrate.
“He continues to reinvent himself every year,” Haslem said. “After we went to the Finals (in 2011), he could have said, 'We got all the way to the Finals, but we just didn't get it done. Let's come back and do the same thing next year. I'll be the same guy I was.' But he reinvented himself. And with that, he made us reinvent ourselves as a team.”
Spoelstra spent the offseason after losing to Dallas in the Finals meeting with successful and influential coaches from just about every sport, including some who managed egos of high-profile players and others who perfected strategies.
Haslem explained the difference he saw in Spoelstra.
"And after winning it all last year, he could have went to the Bahamas and said, 'I've got the team, I've got the guys. Let's do it the same way and make it happen again.'" Haslem said. “Once again, we came into the season this year and he challenges us to get better. He challenges LeBron to get better. He challenged (Bosh) and D-Wade to get better, too, and with that, he steps his game up as well.”
Spoelstra was reluctant Tuesday to explain some of the ways he's grown personally as a coach. But he did say he constantly tweaks, evaluates and reevaluates. There's a never-satisfied aspect to his approach. There's always more and better ways James can be used. Players who have spent their entire careers playing one position now play three.
It ranges from Ray Allen playing point guard to Bosh at center. Initial resistance has given way to eager acceptance.
“I think our coaching staff in general, we stay uncomfortable,” Spoelstra said. “You're in a constant state of uncomfortableness. And we look at the way the league has changed. It's changed dramatically in the last six, seven, eight years. But our team, we look at the way we played two years ago to the way we are now, it's kind of tough looking at that old film. We ask our players to have a growth mindset, to continue to try to reinvent ourselves.”
Spoelstra has led the way by creating the environment. Haslem said the biggest factor in Spoelstra's evolution from his first season as coach in 2008 after taking over for Riley to now is his unique way of communicating his message.
“His office door is always open and he invites us in to speak,” Haslem said. “It's kind of funny, but he enjoys confrontation. Not in a bad way. But he understands it's sincere, it's passionate and that we all want to win. Sometimes in the family, brothers bump heads, but we all want the same result in the end. So he doesn't mind a little bit of disagreement, when emotions get raised a little bit. Nothing in a disrespectful way. Nothing challenging him as coach, but ways to get it on the right path and together.”
If anything, Haslem said Spoelstra doesn't get enough credit for bringing three marquee players together and having two sacrifice -- sometimes to the point that it hurts.
“We got the talent,” Haslem said. “The hard part is getting everybody to buy in every day, and we're doing that.”
The rough beginnings have smoothed out. And it's allowed Spoelstra to hit his stride as a coach this season.
“You have to listen to the guy that's calling the shots,” Bosh said. “I've always been an all-in guy, where if you feel we're a better team doing it this way, then I'll do it. I just don't want a failing system. Being able to communicate, that was something we were all tiptoeing around at first. We were just tiptoeing in the locker room instead of telling guys how we feel. Sometimes you just have to step to the plate and say this is what we're going to do. It's attempts and failures. It just takes some time.”
Time should change the perspective on Spoelstra. Two years ago, he didn't get a single vote for coach of the year and was thought to be on the proverbial hot seat.
Now, there might not be a hotter coach in the league.
“You can't get caught up in highs and lows and try to change peoples' (perspective),” Spoelstra said. “That's not my job. I've been hired to produce a result. And that fills up the majority of my free time.”
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