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A Crying Shame: Why Erik Spoelstra Must Go

Erik Spoelstra - NBA head coach of the 2011 Miami Heat“Off with his head!”

If the NBA was Alice in Wonderland, Erik Spoelstra would be Alice and Miami Heat fans across the country would be the Queen (does that make Pat Riley the Mad Hatter?). Such is the state of the world for the beleaguered 40-year-old Miami Heat head coach. Yesterday, my colleague and fellow Chasing23.com editor NBA Realist posited that the Heat’s major issues revolve around the lack of defined roles for its superstars – suggesting that Lebron take a back seat to Wade, and Chris Bosh act more like a power forward. I agree with him, and this all makes sense, except for one thing. Who’s going to deliver the message?

Probably not the coach who ratted them out as a bunch of crybabies.

Or even the coach whose players don’t mind bumping him around a little bit.

The fact is, Erik Spoelstra is a bright, young NBA head coach with a promising future. There is no doubt in this author’s mind he has what it takes to be a success in this league. Unfortunately, for this Miami Heat team, that success is unlikely to occur at this point in their evolution. First, let’s clear up what I believe is NOT Spoelstra’s fault.

* The Miami Heat’s lackluster performances in big games this year: There are those that bring up that one of the reasons that “Spo must go” is that the Heat have an abysmal record against top competition. I don’t buy this. The Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks, and Magic all have nucleuses (nucleii?) that have played together for several years. This advantage cannot be overstated, especially in the first 60 games that the new Heat Big Three have played together. It’s tough to expect this team, with any coach, to achieve the level of cohesion that the other contenders have molded over the course of battles waged during the past decade.

* The Heat’s poor crunchtime shooting: The next most common thing that Spo-haters say: “the Heat don’t run intelligent plays during crunchtime.” Seriously? Have you ever watched Phil Jackson’s Lakers? Their last 24 seconds typically goes like this. Kobe dribbles the ball until there are 10 seconds left. Pau rolls up to the top of the key to set a screen. Kobe chooses whether or not to use the screen, and either way, fires up a 20 footer at the buzzer. Does this make Phil Jackson a genius? Certainly not. And neither does putting the ball in Lebron’s hands and letting him barrel his way to the basket make Spoelstra an idiot. This is the NBA – and this is how 24 second offenses are run. The Heat just happen to be in a statistically odd period of clutch time performance. Trust me, Lebron and Wade won’t go 1-14 in crunchtime again.

* The Heat have underperformed vs. expectations — ok, maybe this is true is you were Jeff Van Gundy and have a tendency to say outrageous things to draw attention to yourself. The fact is however, the Heat are the no. 3 seed in the East. on a pace to win 56 games, and have the 2nd largest points per game differential in the NBA (behind the Spurs) – and this is AFTER losing 4 games in a row. Doesn’t sound like the worst season in the world to me — especially for a team where practically every team member is new. The bottom line is, the Heat season can only truly be labeled a failure if they do not reach the Eastern Conference Finals. And right now, if I was a betting man, I bet they get past the no. 6 seed (hello, New York!) and Chicago.

So — why then, must Erik Spoelstra go?

The first two reasons are interrelated: lack of presence and lack of team identity. With regards to lack of presence, this really is about the theory that it is not as important that a head coach be the best Xs and Os person on the team, but rather must act like a head coach. They must be believable, and inspire confidence in their team. This is very similar to a business environment. Most senior level executives don’t need to understand the nuts and bolts of the businesses they lead, BUT, they must instill belief in their employees that they are the right leader at the right time. A look at the NBA champions over the last 30 years reveals a who’s who of NBA coaches that were larger than life presences: Pat Riley, Chuck Daley, Phil Jackson, and Rudy T to name a few.  Correlated with having great presence, is a strong team identity. The 80s Lakers were about Showtime, The 80s Pistons centered around suffocating defense. And Phil’s Bulls and Lakers ran the triangle offense at an extremely high efficiency rate. All of these team took on the identity of their coaches. The question for this year’s Heat is: what is their identity? The answer: they don’t have one. Spoelstra doesn’t have the leverage organizationally to influence the trades and player acquisitions that the Heat make in a way that fits his philosophy (assuming he has one). And at this point in his career, Spoelstra hasn’t established the presence to lead these all-time greats — his presence more closely resembling Kurt Rambis or Wes Unseld (two coaches with an extreme lack of presence), than Phil Jackson or Larry Brown.

The next reason is more tactical: the Heat can, and should be, better defensively. While they are no. 6 in the league in points allowed per game, they have been sporadic at best, relying more on Lebron and Wade’s energy on the defensive end vs. fundamentals. This lack of continuous effort also translates to the offensive boards, where they rank no. 23 in the league in offensive rebounding. The Heat cannot aspire to win the title until they first focus is on the defensive end (and not who is going to take the last shot). This is a team with the talent level to be in the top 3 in defense every year. As the Bulls found out this year, having a defensive-minded coach can make all the difference in the world (if you don’t believe me, ask Luol Deng).

Finally, and we all knew this was coming. Spoelstra’s days are numbered simply because the pre-ordained, logical choice waits in the wings. What basketball fan isn’t counting down the days before Pat Riley steps in as head coach? I don’t expect this change to happen this year, but it would take a act of god (or at least a trip to the Finals), for Pat Riley not to come down from the rafters and coach this Miami Heat team come this October. There are too many reasons why. Lebron’s legacy hangs in the balance (how many years can you go without winning a title?). Mickey Ariston has invested too much in this team to let it flounder because of inexperience at the top. At probably most importantly, the model has worked before — and Dwayne Wade has experienced it first hand.

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Discussion

10 Responses to “A Crying Shame: Why Erik Spoelstra Must Go”

  1. spo must go! spo must go! good article….lebron and wade don’t need a rookie coach calling them out.

    Posted by drinkinghaterade | March 8, 2011, 1:24 pm
  2. I dont believe the reasons:
    #1 The Heat are clearly a running team. The book in the NBA is slow the Heat down , ease off turnovers , and dont play the fast break game. If you do you’ll get beat.

    #2 The Heat cant be better defensively because of personnel. #6 is pretty good for a team masquerading a “defensive” front line of Dampier, Big Z, and Chris Bosh.

    #3 – Well. yea, pat riley is a shadow. I might buy that. Constantly consulting with “the coach upstairs” is a bad omen.

    The #1 reason Spo will kill himself is losing the PR battle. You cant be saying that your team is crying. And you can’t be building these excuses in the team every week “it’s a process, we’ll find a way”. Like Mike Brown before him, if he never has the cajones to call out Bron or Wade publicly he’ll fail as a coach.

    Posted by Korey | March 8, 2011, 3:18 pm
    • Korey — thanks for the comment and always appreciate different point of view. Did you watch the post game conference tonight? It seems like Lebron and Wade are peers with Spoelstra, not subordinates.

      As for the defensive side of the ball, the Heat let the Blazers shoot 50%+ tonight. Spoelstra barely touched on defense in his postgame talk. I disagree with the assessment on the talent side. Wade and Lebron are two of the best defenders in the game. Bosh isn’t bad. Mario Chalmers has always been an above average defender, starting in college at Oklahoma State.

      I do agree Spo is losing the PR battle. And his lack of presence is leading this to snowball on him right now.

      Posted by Brown Mamba | March 8, 2011, 8:41 pm
  3. Two points.

    1) I would be surprised if Rudy T, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley weren’t the best Xs and Os guys in their organizations. You cannot simply exude an air of confidence as a coach and expect players like Wade and James to buy it. As a coach you must deliver. Senior level executives who don’t understand their business are there because they rose to the level of their incompetency.

    2) Spoelstra didn’t call his team crybabies ever. It was clear in the post-game interview that he mentioned this as a way to point out how vested his team was in winning the game. When the media heard “crying” they passed all kinds of judgments. Hype like this should be downplayed.

    Hopefully someone gave those guys a hug and some ice cream, as Artest suggested.

    Posted by Clutch | March 8, 2011, 7:45 pm
    • Clutch — thanks for the read. I have to disagree here on your assessment of these coaches.

      Pat Riley — remember, he was a *broadcaster* before he was a coach. What is he best known for is being a master motivator. However, his downside has historically been that he had a tendency to burn out players with his style of coaching.

      Phil Jackson — the real mastermind behind the triangle was Tex Winters. Phil’s strength has alway been his ability to manage superstar egos, provide the team with confidence in oppressive moments (sometimes seen by his tendency to let his team play in the regular season through spurts by the opponent), and understanding of how to push each player’s buttons in exactly the right way.

      Rudy T. — again, a coach known mainly for his motivational capabilities (yes, “never underestimate the heart of a champion”) For more on this subject, also read the following ESPN article: http://espn.go.com/page2/s/rosen/030411.html

      Chuck Daly — lastly, Chuck Daly was really a guy who carried the vision for the Bad Boys of the 80s. Not an Xs and Os coach at all, but again, someone the team rallied around. More on this see: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/jack_mccallum/05/09/chuck.daly/index.html

      In summary — of course senior executive can’t NOT understand their business. They have to understand their business at a strategic level. Equally important though is their ability to set vision and harness the right talent around them to exercise the details of the plan (i.e. the Xs and Os). This theory translates to other sports as well. Parcells and Ditka, for example, were known as “leaders of men”, not for their ability to dissect an intricate West Coast Offense.

      Posted by Brown Mamba | March 8, 2011, 8:36 pm
      • I think we’re disagreeing because we are talking two sides of the same coin.

        As I see your point (more clearly now – thanks), these coaches’ number one asset was their ability to lead more than their ability to diagram plays. This leadership is lacking in Miami, I agree, and the Heat are looking exactly like a team without vision, and now they are self-destructing.

        What I still disagree with is that these coaches you list were not experts at play-calling and designing game-plans. While I must commend you on data-mining a 2002-3 Page 2 article from ESPN discussing Rudy T and Phil Jackson, I think the writing was subjective and the writer missed two major points. The first was that he was judging Rudy T on the 2002-3 season, almost a decade after his prime and championships. Using what Rudy did with Stevie Francis, Cuttino Mobley, an aging Glen Rice, and who-is-that-other-guy-listed? as a benchmark is not exactly a fair shake. Every single one of those players went into obscurity once they left the Rockets. While it’s true he was a master motivator and instilled belief in an entire town, he also assembled a team of experts to surround Hakeem and drew up an inside-out gameplan to counter-attack opponents double-teams in the post. It took skill to do that and there’s only so much credit you can give his assistant coaches and front office.

        Phil Jackson may not have invented the triangle offense but he certainly mastered it. He does instill confidence in his star players, this is true, but he continually puts the critical players in important positions in order for his schemes to work. I would argue that he does much play-calling behind the scenes than his hands-off demeanor on the bench during games suggests. I mention this because Phil has transferred his knowledge of the playbook to Kobe and it’s clear how well-coached Kobe is now by seeing his evolution into floor general compared to the former roles of his earlier career.

        Chuck Daly, in the article you referenced, is quoted to be able to “strategize with anyone” although he himself did not refer to himself as an X’s and O’s guy and said he preferred not to diagram on the chalkboard. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to do so at a very high level.

        I don’t know too much about Riley, so I’ll concede that point.

        To summarize, I see your point that these coaches were known as great leaders and motivators first and then as game-planners somewhere farther down the list of skills. I’m simply saying that their skills as game-planners isn’t as far down the list as perhaps suggested, and just because it’s not their number one strength doesn’t mean they weren’t still much better at play-calling than the rest of the competition in the league. They were just that good.

        It seems to me the Heat are clearly lacking leadership and play-calling as you suggest. That poor coach is doomed.

        Posted by Clutch | March 9, 2011, 2:09 pm
  4. Who will listen to you now that the Heat took a 2-0 lead over the Sixers in the 1st round of the NBA Playoffs?

    You just don’t believe in what Coach Spo has termed the PROCESS. But it’s this process that made this team an OFFENSIVE and DEFENSIVE Juggernaut!

    If in case they will not get the ring this year, look out next year and the next one – they will be more and more dangerous eventually becoming the team to beat and the team of the decade!

    Posted by Dark Wader | April 19, 2011, 5:23 pm

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