Erik Spoelstra's (top) winning percentage in the playoffs (.639) ranks third all-time behind only Phil Jackson and Paul Westhead. (Issac Baldizon/Getty Images)
The list of surefire future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers in the 2013 Finals matchup between the Heat and Spurs is absurdly long: Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili, Chris Bosh, Erik Spoelstra.
Wait, 42-year-old Erik Spoelstra? Seriously?
Yes, according to ESPN commentator and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, who said on a Finals conference call Tuesday that he believes the Heat's young coach is destined for Springfield.
"Erik is still in the phase where he gets more blame for their losses than credit for their wins, but he's going to the Hall of Fame," Van Gundy said. "He's that good. His even‑keel demeanor, his humility, I think helps him really get the most out of his best players and you know, it's fun to watch his teams, fun to watch [Popovich's] teams. I just love the grace and humility both teams play with."
Van Gundy sees Spoelstra's postseason success over the last three seasons as only one part of his résumé.
"Erik to me has never gotten in his short time, the credit that he deserves, particularly those first two years [2008-09 and 2009-10] that he took over," Van Gundy said. "He's taken over in a pretty down period in Miami Heat basketball, and with [Udonis] Haslem and Wade, Wade obviously being his best player, but the cornerstone of Haslem, that they were able to win as much as they did the first two years showed his true greatness in coaching. And then how he's done these last three years, now being in the Finals three consecutive years, and actually delivering more than ever could have been expected with James. To reach three consecutive Finals is an incredible feat."
Is Van Gundy nuts in totally over-hyping Spoelstra or is he merely way ahead of the curve in giving the Heat coach his historical due?
The latter seems more accurate, although declaring any NBA coach is "going to the Hall of Fame" is a massive statement, if only because so few have actually made it there. Of the 88 inducted coaches (including the 2013 crop), less than one-quarter are recognized primarily for their work in the NBA. The short list of purely NBA coaching inductees is a who's who list of giants: Red Auerbach, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, Jack Ramsay, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan and Lenny Wilkins, among them. Longevity and championships, as you would expect, are the two top qualities among the coaches who made the cut.
Five seasons in, Spoelstra is simply out of his depth from a longevity standpoint. Everyone -- even Van Gundy -- can surely agree that this conversation is happening way too early. But his success to date definitely has him heading toward exclusive company.
His .660 winning percentage ranks sixth among coaches with at least five years of experience and his playoff winning percentage of .639 currently ranks third behind only Jackson and Paul Westhead. Should the Heat prevail over the Spurs, Spoelstra would become one of just 13 coaches to win at least two titles. What's more, should the Heat win this year and next season, Spoelstra would become one of just six coaches to win at least three titles. Those six include five current Hall of Famers (Jackson, Auerbach, John Kundla, Riley and Daly) plus Popovich, who is surely destined for Springfield. It doesn't get any better than that.
Big picture, Spoelstra's youth arguably helps his Hall of Fame chances. It's crazy to even type this, but he could legitimately coach for 25 more years. His 260 career regular-season wins currently place him tied for No. 69 all-time. Hypothetically speaking, if he were to go .500 over the next 25 years, coaching until he's 67 (Jackson's current age), he would be one of just three coaches (along with Don Nelson and Wilkens) to crack the 1,250 wins mark. The point here isn't to predict that he will be able to stay employed and passionate about coaching for that long, but merely to point out that his ceiling is essentially limitless thanks to his immense success early in his career.
Some might argue that James looms over this conversation as a double-edged sword. The best player of his generation, James has the capacity to single-handedly make Spoelstra's teams championship contenders while also possessing the potential to overshadow his coach's contributions to their shared success. That said, guiding legends to titles worked out pretty well for Auerbach, Jackson and Riley when it came time to induct them.
The best analogy for 2013 Spoelstra might actually be 2005 Tony Parker. At just 22, Parker had two championships to his name with another decade-plus of basketball ahead of him. He hadn't yet made an All-Star team and he was still, for all intents and purposes, firmly in Tim Duncan's shadow. Eight years later, Parker has delivered on that early success, erasing any doubts and questions about his own place in history by winning another title, winning a Finals MVP and making five All-Star teams and three All-NBA teams.
"It's really hard to go to the Finals, to win a championship, and for me personally, I was 21 when I won my first one, and you think it's easy and you're going to go back every year," Parker said, after the Spurs eliminated the Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals. "In 2007 we won our third one in five years, and you think it's going to keep coming, and I'm 25, and six years goes by, and every year it gets tougher and tougher. ... If we go all the way [this year] it'll definitely be my favorite because it gets harder and harder."
That nonstop fight is what will face Spoelstra over the next decade (or two). This much is for sure: The uber-focused Spoelstra is the last person on Earth to spend a second of thought gauging his historical track. Consider his response when he was asked immediately after Monday's Game 7 victory whether he had thought ahead to a matchup with the Spurs.
"When you're in such a competitive series like this, you are so fully immersed, that it's such a beautiful place to be, a Game 7," he said. "It's one of those few times in competitive team sports you're not thinking about tomorrow, you're not thinking about the previous games, you're not thinking about what possibly may happen, you're not thinking about the reward. All you're thinking about is the desperation of that moment. That's a great place to live. It probably hit me right about then, and it was the "Oh" type moment. We have to get our act together in the next 48 hours of doing our diligence."
A guy who is so consumed by the task at hand that he isn't thinking 48 hours ahead surely isn't going to ponder what life will be like in 25 years, or what life will be like when he no longer has No. 6 to design systems around. Keep making progress, continue winning, and the recognition will take care of itself, the mantra goes.
Sure, this conversation is happening way too early, but it was going to happen sooner or later, especially if James continues to dominate the next 12 months as he's dominated the last 12 months. Rarely do we see stars reach such peaks, and usually when it happens the key figures around them are rewarded, too.
Speaking of recognition, The Point Forward suggested
that Spoelstra deserve consideration for a coaching position with USA Basketball. With assistant coaches Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan both departing, the timing would seem to be perfect, assuming Spoelstra is interested. A gold medal or two would look great on a Hall of Fame biography, right?