Why Erik Spoelstra is one of the greatest NBA coaches

Published May 2, 2021, 3:00 PMJon Carlos Rodriguez

Erik Spoelstra has come a long way from being the Miami Heat's video coordinator over two decades ago to earning his 600th career win in his 13th year as head coach.

Erik Spoelstra claimed his 600th career win Thursday against the Spurs.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the greatest coaches of all time.

That statement is not controversial and is in no way a hot take. It’s just a fact by now. A couple of days ago, Coach Spo reached another milestone to back up that fact. 

How he did it was pretty simple. In Heat Culture parlance, it was just another game. Spoelstra’s gritty, scrappy Heat went on a 17-0 run in the second half and hung on to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 116-111. The win gave the Heat additional cushion in what is about to be a turbulent Eastern Conference play-in tournament.

In the bigger picture though, it was Spoelstra’s 600th win as head coach of the Heat, making him only the sixth NBA head coach to have won 600 games with a single franchise.

How he got there, from zero wins to 600, that’s some journey.

The story is the stuff of legends: joining the Heat staff as a video coordinator in 1995, impressing Pat Riley with his sharp wit, climbing the ranks behind the scenes, before getting handpicked by Riley himself as his successor.

Inexperienced and virtually unknown in basketball circles, Spoelstra, whose mother is Filipino, became the first Asian American head coach in the NBA. His first season as head coach resulted in turning a 15-67 Heat team to a playoff team that lost in seven games in the first round. For a rookie head coach, that’s a huge step-up. To prove that it’s no beginner’s luck, Spo took the Heat to the playoffs again the following year.

But more than the wins that piled up early on, it was Spoelstra’s character, resiliency, and egoless approach to the game that made him special. Sure, having a core of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh early on in your career would give anyone the quiet confidence to take on the world. But Spoelstra handled both winning and failing at that early stage of his coaching career, at the biggest stage of the game, with such grace.

Before Heat Culture was even used as a hashtag and printed on merch, Spo was tirelessly planting the seeds, developing relationships, discovering talents, and building a system that’s top of the class. Five NBA finals trips and two rings later, the culture is future-proof, and Spo is still out here doing it gracefully.

“It is humbling,” Spoelstra said at the press conference after his 600th win, which he said he hadn’t realized if not for Udonis Haslem mentioning it to him.

It’s fitting that win No. 600 came at the expense of Gregg Popovich, who has 1,308 wins with the Spur and is in many ways a hero to Spo. The two have had their intense battles when they still both had their legendary Big 3s, and now all they have is the utmost respect for each other.
Their last matchup was the 37th time the two coaches met. Save for UD, the rosters on both sides have been altered many times during the course of battle. What has remained constant is the culture that the two coaches have established on their respective sides of the fence. 

Spoelstra is only in his 13th season (compared to Pop’s 25th), and all signs point to Spo remaining to be this constant figure in the league for many years. Until he’s old and gray, he’ll be that calming presence on the Heat bench, pushing players to the brink of greatness (think Jimmy Butler’s iconic Game 5 finals photo), before letting them grow on their own.

There’s a sense of safety when thinking about how Spo operates. You can easily spot it when Miami is dominating, and every drawn play has the Erik Spoelstra stamp all over it. But, oddly, you can also feel it in every Miami loss. As if that, too, was drawn up by Spo, as a part of his bigger strategy in guiding his players to become the best people. 

That’s why he’s one of the greats.