The value of a coach is tough to gauge.
Take Phil Jackson for example. He won 11 titles as head coach—more than anyone else. Of course he had arguably the game’s greatest player ever, in Michael Jordan, as well as one the game’s greatest ever defensive players in Scottie Pippen, to anchor his six title teams in Chicago. Having Horace Grant and later Dennis Rodman at power forward didn’t hurt either.
As soon as that run was over, Jackson headed to Los Angeles to lead an already star-studded cast, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to another three titles. After a brief retirement, Jackson came back to a Kobe-only team that was summarily dumped in the first round of the playoffs two straight years before the team acquired Pau Gasol—netting them two more titles in the process.
What does all this mean? Even the best coaches have to have the best players to win. Jackson set himself apart though with three three-peats (two in Chicago, one in Los Angeles) and another repeat in Los Angeles—which few others can boast. Only Red Auerbach, who won eight straight titles in the 50s and 60s, and John Kundla (early 50s with Lakers) knows what it’s like to win more than two in a row.
Which brings us to our current finals matchup of head coaches in Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.
Popovich certainly has the public opinion edge in coaching having stayed the course in San Antonio since his hiring in December of 1996. His first (partial) season though was pretty forgettable going 17–47—mainly because star center David Robinson missed all but six games due to injury.
Yet the team’s misfortunes were quickly reversed as the Spurs parlayed that dreadful record into winning the draft lottery that summer and with it the rights to select the coveted Tim Duncan. Two years later the Spurs, with the “twin towers” of Duncan and Robinson, were champions.
Four years later in 2003, Duncan had won his second straight MVP and the Spurs won another title. After titles again in 2005 and 2007, despite Robinson’s retirement after the 2003 season, Popovich has kept his team near the top of the Western Conference.
This season, with Popovich wisely having the offense run through point guard Tony Parker instead of the aging Duncan, Popovich has another shot at the title—if they can get past the game’s greatest active player in LeBron James.
James’ coach Erik Spoelstra has actually taken a similar path, as both have won with talented rosters—and lost without them.
When the Heat hired Spoelstra as head coach before the 2008-09 season, Miami was a one-trick pony with Dwyane Wade being the team’s lone meal ticket. Spoelstra’s Heat went down in the playoffs each of his first two seasons until LeBron and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach and join Wade in the summer of 2010.
Now armed with the game’s best, Spoelstra was officially under the gun. Visions of former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy being dismissed early in the 2005-06 season, with a similarly talented roster, in favor of general manager Pat Riley were certainly in his sights.
But Spoelstra got the team to the finals in 2011 and then again in 2012, when they won the title with LeBron officially taking the team’s reigns from lifelong Heat star Dwyane Wade.
How history judges Popovich and Spoelstra will largely depend on the outcome of this series.
If Spoelstra’s Heat win, he’ll the join the aforementioned Auerbach, Jackson, Kundla, and Riley as well as Rudy Tomjanovich, Chuck Daly, and Bill Russell as the only coaches ever to win back-to-back and perhaps he’ll step out a bit from LeBron’s shadow as a great head coach in his own right.
Popovich has already made quite a name for himself. A fifth title would tie him with Riley and Kundla for third-most all-time.
Soon history will unravel itself, and we’ll all find out. Until then, enjoy the series.