What the Heat's inconsistency says about Erik Spoelstra

6/11/13 in NBA   |   droth   |   127 respect

After the 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Mavericks, many fans, including myself, were wondering who this Spoelstra fella was anyway and why Pat Riley couldn't just hop on the bench for a couple years, get LeBron a few rings, and re-retire from coaching.  People said that a monkey could take the Heat to the Finals and Spoelstra was just Pat Riley's puppet.

Jun 9, 2013; Miami, FL, USA;  Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra reacts during the second quarter of game two of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportsFast forward a couple of years, and the consensus is that Spoelstra is a very good coach.  When your team wins a championship and then pulls off 27 in a row the following season, that can happen.  I am now firmly in the "Spoelsta is a good coach" camp but I still don't know if he's elite.

All we know is what we see on the floor, which has been confusing.  We see incredible body movement from Heat players and creativity that few other coaches match.  Just in the last game, the decision to run low Chalmers-James pick and rolls was a sign of very good coaching.

But we also see the so-called "on and off switch" that causes the Heat to come out flat at times.  This, and a few other issues, are indicative of not-so-good coaching.

Not every coach is Gregg Popovich, but the juxtaposition of this series underlines Spoelstra's weaknesses.  I don't think he has control over the emotions of this team and I don't even blame him for it.  Pat Riley put together a team of three superstars all at once and there are only a hand full of coaches in history that would be able to meld such a collection and into a truly cohesive unit.

But by now, three years in, the fact that you can tell when the Heat are on just by looking at the intensity level of a few key players is worrisome.  LeBron is the best player in the world and I am an unapologetic fan of his, but it is unacceptable for your star player to fluctuate emotionally so much.  I am not saying he needs to score more or pass more.  He needs to focus more.  And that's part of Spoelstra's job.

And Dwyane Wade, who Spoelstra has been coaching for an additional two seasons, is the team's true wild card.  His varying production is a weakness for the team--a weakness that the coach must surely recognize.  Wade has even stated publicly that he doesn't know what he can give quarter to quarter.  

In retrospect, Spoelstra should have been managing Wade's minutes more carefully for the last season or two, like Pop does, and now it seems to be too late to jerk his playing time around.  When a star is ailing and can only be productive in bursts, the coach needs to use that to his advantage and control those bursts, not passively fall victim to them.


I get that the Heat are an emotional team and when their emotions are working for them it leads to incredible dominance, but the coach's responsibility to establish a consistently high level of play, regardless of who's hyped on a given evening.

After Sunday's game, Spoelstra talked about how that emotional volatility can be frustrating to him in December and January when the Heat don't play hard in certain games.  Obviously this is true for all teams, but the great leaders in the NBA actively work to nip it in the bud.  Do you think Pop would allow his team to give inconsistent effort, even if it were in the middle of December?

Spoelstra is still a young guy.  He's worked his way up from video coordinator; he never played in the league or built a reputation that players would respect on its own.  I think he's worried that his players won't like him if he gets on them.  I think that he is a brilliant basketball mind and should probably be a lead assistant somewhere.  But I don't think he has it in him to pull LeBron James aside, look him in the eye and tell him what he needs to hear if he isn't focused.

Remember what happened after LeBron's insane block?  James just stood there facing the crowd and basking in the moment before eventually running down the floor and joining the play late.  Sure, LeBron ended up making great plays on both ends, but a real leader of a team would never stand for that type of showboating in the middle of a play, even in a blowout.  

How much do you want to bet that Spo never chewed LeBron out for that? In the post game press conferences, no one even mentioned it from what I could tell.

The reason why Spoelstra can't control the team's emotions is because LeBron is really the leader of the team, not Spoelstra.  When LeBron is hyped, the team gets hyped.  When it looks like he's in another world, Spo can do all the diagramming he wants,  it won't matter.

This summer, even if the Heat win their second straight title, they have work to do.  They need to rebound better, play tougher against physical teams, but most importantly, find an emotional state that they can count on, game in and game out. 

I get that this team was built around the individual stars on the roster, but a team takes on the personality of its coach no matter how good the players are.  I can't tell for certain if Spo is an elite coach or not, but he clearly doesn't have the personality of one at this point in his career.
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