MIAMI -- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra finally could celebrate.
He didn’t win the 2012-13 NBA Coach of the Year award.
As Spoelstra walked to the lectern to do his normal morning news conference before Game 2 against the Chicago Bulls, he was informed by a team official that Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl was voted for that honor. Spoelstra, as his bright smile showed during his press conference, couldn’t have been happier with the news.
“I congratulate George Karl," Spoelstra told reporters while fighting through a chuckle. "I know he didn't want to win it either, no disrespect.”
This is the paradox of the coach of the year award. Privately over the past several weeks, Spoelstra was hoping he wouldn’t win it. Out of respect to the league, he kept quiet about his dread that he might.
But he didn’t hide his relief on Wednesday.
“I was probably more pleased this morning than George Karl,” Spoelstra said.
Why the cheering for second place?
Spoelstra has been well-informed about the dubious track record of coach of the year award winners. For many coaches, the award is shortly followed by a pink slip. Before this season, four of the past seven recipients were rewarded by being fired within two years of winning the award, including Mike Brown in Cleveland, Byron Scott in New Orleans and Sam Mitchell in Toronto.
More importantly, it’s been a decade since a coach of the year winner won the championship in the same season (Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003). For the coaching fraternity, Spoelstra said there’s a certain stigma attached to winning the award.
"I'm not very superstitious, but all coaches, I think, understand [the stigma of] that award. It's not quite as definitive as the Sports Illustrated [cover] jinx, but it's pretty close."
The buzz for Spoelstra’s candidacy peaked when the Heat rambled off 27 consecutive wins -- the second-longest such streak in NBA history -- during a time in which the league usually suffers its yearly March doldrums. But the Heat’s streak attracted national attention even in the midst of the NCAA tournament and baseball spring training. And by proxy of being head coach, Spoelstra gained more recognition himself.
The voting wasn’t very close, however. Spoelstra received 24 first-place votes and 190 points overall, less than half of Karl’s 62 first-place votes and 404 points overall. New York’s Mike Woodson, San Antonio’s Popovich and Indiana’s Frank Vogel rounded out the top five.
When Spoelstra took over for Pat Riley as the head coach of the Miami Heat in April 2008 at the ripe old age of 37, he did not have the experience of many of his colleagues, nor a proven track record of ego management. After all, he never played in the NBA, nor did he have any head coaching experience beyond Summer League.
But for many observers this season, Spoelstra demonstrated enormous growth in his ability to lead a group of superstar egos during the Heat’s 27-game win streak. Sure, many coaches would love to have the talent that Spoelstra had at his disposal, but the expectations that come along with that talent can be a burden as well. Want hard evidence of the double-edged sword of star power? Look no further than the turmoil in LakerLand.
No, Spoelstra never received a single vote last season for coach of the year despite implementing a “pace-and-space” offense that ultimately led to him hoisting 2011-12 Larry O’Brien trophy. His 190 votes this season might indicate some overdue recognition for his work last season when he opened up the offense and largely did away with conventional positions, an idea he picked up from Chip Kelly, who was coaching the Oregon Ducks football team at the time.
In some ways, his finest work to date probably came not this season, but in the playoffs last season when Chris Bosh went down for several weeks with an abdominal strain. At the time, Spoelstra pushed for the Heat to “go small” and replaced him in the lineup with Shane Battier while others in the organization wanted to go in the opposite direction and get bigger up front. It was controversial then, but Spoelstra’s unpopular convictions were ultimately rewarded. Spoelstra put Battier in the starting lineup and the rest is history.
That’s not to say that the Heat didn’t improve this season under Spoelstra’s watch. The Heat won a franchise-record 66 games in the regular season while boasting the most efficient offense in the league, scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions.
Furthermore, the Heat’s performance in crunch time this season ranks among the best we’ve seen in recent history. Spoelstra’s team went a baffling 32-8 (.800) in games where the Heat were within five points in the final five minutes of the game. For perspective, the 2010-11 Heat were just 22-20 in such games.
Spoelstra believes that his job performance should be appraised at the end of the playoffs, not at the beginning. Ultimately, Spoelstra still has work to do in the playoffs, while Karl lost in the first round.
“I kind of knew Spoelstra wouldn’t [win coach of the year], because people expect us to be the team that we are,” Dwyane Wade said. “But the good thing about it is that he don’t care.”