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.