NBA: Is Erik Spoelstra Coach of Miami Heat's Future?

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NBA: Is Erik Spoelstra Coach of Miami Heat's Future?
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Is Spoelstra the right coach for the Heat?

The Heat won their 50th game last night against Doug Collins's Philadelphia 76ers, but I saw a lot that alarmed me.  It's obvious that we are going to have Eric Spoelstra as head coach for the rest of the season and through the postseason, but I have to wonder—is Spoelstra the coach that will take the Heat to the championships they need to fulfill expectations?  I don't think so.

Some things to consider:

The most obvious is the Heat's overall regular season performance.  The Heat are on pace to win 57 games.  It might even get a little higher than that, since the rest of the Heat's schedule is relatively light.  But obviously, given that the Heat have the best small forward, the best 2-guard (yes, better than Kobe at this point), and arguably the best third option in the NBA (whatever you want to say about Bosh, what team's No. 3 guy has been better? not many), given all that, what should the expectation have been? 

I would say mid-60s in wins and tops in the Eastern conference.  They'll end up at least five wins short of that and probably finish third in the conference (unless Boston keeps blowing games).

It will be said that Miami is top heavy, and that in fact its personnel is not as great as it appears.  I don't know—Pat Riley went out and got the role players who have a track record of making three-point shots.  That's the big thing when you have two superstars, because other players are going to have wide-open looks. 

The problem is that, for much of the year, those role guys haven't hit the shots.  I think that's something that coaching can address.  All those guys should be shooting three or four hundred shots a day in practice and doing a number of catch-and-shoot drills—but are they?

I have to ask myself, what would Doug Collins have done with this team?  What about Popovich, Rivers or Thibodeau?  What about Byron Scott, for that matter?  I think any of them would have gotten more wins.

Spoelstra seems to be a child of the therapy culture, because he has talked endlessly about going through a process.  Can you imagine Popovich talking like that?  What process?  In 2008, Doc Rivers coached an equally new Celtics team to 67 wins and a championship.  Looking at it from a macro-level, I think it's safe to say Spoelstra has come up short.

But let's look at some of the micro-level details.

The Heat have had their moments of greatness and their disappointing moments.  Are there any patterns?  I think so.  The Heat struggle at beginnings of games, in spite of their having all of the big three on the court at the same time.  They do not do well coming out of the half.  They do not do well after timeouts.  They do not do well in the last couple of minutes of games. 

What is the common denominator in all of those situations?  They are the times when coaches can and should have their biggest impact on the game.  Teams try to follow their coaches' directions coming out of the locker room, or out of timeouts, and those are the situations when the Heat look inept.

When do the Heat do better?  Basically, when LeBron or Wade start to assert themselves and change the game by their sheer athleticism.  And that has very little to do with coaching—that's straight playground stuff.  It's a credit to LeBron and Wade that they're that good; it's not a credit to Spoelstra.

It's the same with the Heat's defense, if you ask me.  They rank fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, but when do they defend well?  Again, when LeBron and Wade start to exert their athleticism, getting steals out on the wing, making amazing blocks underneath and just making fantastic plays all over the place. 

But the Heat's overall defensive scheme?  It's full of holes.  Often, when other teams are scoring on the Heat, it's because the Heat are missing assignments, rotations break down, and somebody gets left open underneath for an easy bucket.  How much does that happen on a Doc Rivers or Tom Thibodeau team?  Not often.

What else?  The Heat have a penchant for turnovers at times, and what's particularly alarming is the kind of turnovers committed.  Most often, they happen not when a player is trying to make a spectacular play, but when a guy is simply passing off.  The Heat do that so casually, and opponents take advantage of it for several picks a game.  That's team discipline—and that's coaching.

The Heat can have trouble on the boards.  I DVR all their games, and I often rewind when they give up an offensive rebound.  The opponent's shot goes up, and every player on the Heat turns and ball-watches.  No one finds an opponent to seal off from the basket.  An opposing player will then glide unobstructed to the rim and get a putback. 

That's team discipline, and that's coaching.  I once heard Spoelstra saying during a timeout, "Come on guys, we need to rebound better." That's like a football coach sending in a play for his offense, "Score a touchdown," with no instructions on how to do it.

Spoelstra is consistently out-coached.  Last night we heard the familiar refrain—Doug Collins has high praise for Spoelstra and says he is one of the most talented young coaches, a rising star, etc., etc. 

If I were an NBA coach, I'd praise Spoestra too.  "Oh yeah, Miami should definitely keep Spoelstra, he's great, and getting better all the time!"  Privately I'd be thinking, well, at least that's something we've got on the Heat.

Boston is its big four plus Rivers; San Antonio is its big three plus Popovich.  Miami, I unfortunately have to conclude, is its big three minus Spoelstra.  That is, the team's success is in spite of its coach. 

I'd love a championship this year, but honestly, I'm not sanguine about the possibility as long as Spoelstra is coach.  I think the Heat will eventually win multiple titles when they get a coach who knows what he's doing (again, imagine them in the playoffs directed by a Collins or a Popovich), but it's hard for me to see it happening under their current coach. 

What do you all think?

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