A shred of good news for Erik Spoelstra on this not-so-super Sunday:
Beyond that lonely shred?
Good luck finding many (any?) encouraging signs or omens that Spoelstra can point to for reassurance. Even if Bumpgate never happened, coaching the Miami Heat’s SuperFriends is already that uncomfortable.
The truth is that Spoelstra really doesn’t deserve to be under this much pressure this soon -- and maybe Brown proved that getting bumped off as LeBron’s coach takes a lot more than one grazed shoulder -- but larger truths in the NBA remind us Spoelstra won't be dodging the blame with this team.
Not even if the predictably over-the-top furor surrounding Spoelstra’s brush with the fast-passing James in Dallas ends up passing quickly.
Not with the legendary Pat Riley, no matter how loudly he insists he never wants to coach again, upstairs and available for plug-in as soon as Heat owner Micky Arison mandates it.
The most important factor for determining an NBA coach’s success is the quality of his players. But a very close and perennially underrated second factor is the ability to get those players to respect you and respond. X's-and-O's acumen is a distant, distant third.
Whether or not the contact from LeBron was intentional or inadvertent, big deal or no deal, Miami’s increasingly vacant performances suggest that Spoelstra’s players aren’t responding, listening or caring much for what he’s trying to tell them. Which can obviously be fatal for a young (and still learning) coach in the crosshairs like he is.
Even though NBA coaching sources say Riley, at 65, remains adamant about not returning and that the Heat dread contemplating major changes without letting Season 1 of the SuperFriends play out, Saturday night’s rumblings of player dissatisfaction were too loud to ignore. They include complaints about Spoelstra’s offensive and defensive schemes … with James acknowledging that, yes, he'd like to be thrown into some pick-and-roll situations with Dwyane Wade to try to get them both going. Another biggie: Spoelstra is frequently pinpointing passion and effort as issues in his postgame comments, which -- accurate as such observations might be – has annoyed players because it publicly puts the onus all on them.
Doesn’t matter that common sense says it’s too early to be talking about coaching changes or making any kind of binding judgments. Doesn’t matter how unreasonable it is to keep applying 70-win expectations to a team that began the season with size and playmaking issues and has since lost the two main guys it spent money on (long-term injury victims Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem) outside of the LeBron-Wade-Chris Bosh triumvirate. Doesn’t matter that injuries to LeBron and Wade meant that Miami got almost nothing out of the crucial preparatory month of October … or that Wade, as Dan LeBatard so thoroughly detailed in Sunday’s Miami Herald, is still far from his best … or that this is the same Spoelstra who won countless admirers in the business for churning out 90 wins in the first two seasons of his first head-coaching job despite his roster being continuously stripped down to make room for the signings of James and Bosh.
The Spoelstra Watch isn't going away.
At this point? Probably not even if Riley comes out with a strong public statement telling the world that Spoelstra is safe and that it's the stars who have to step up.
The sort of surrender you saw from the Heat against the Mavs -- heaped onto the teamwide confusion and frustration emanating from a group that clearly isn’t meshing, followed by the desperation of a long players-only meeting, makes the rush to judgment unstoppable. The Heat largely forfeited the right to patience and reason when they held that virtual championship parade in Miami on July 9 to fete the arrivals of James and Bosh and promise multiple championships to their fans … but now they’re sleepwalking on top of it.
Trust us: Frequently passive play from the big names, shaky shot selection and James and Wade meeting the media separate while Bosh roamed the American Airlines Center halls with his own security escort after the team meeting all stood out in Dallas more than that bump getting all the air time.
Back in October, when I was as guilty as anyone for believing that the Heat had too much core talent not to mesh at something closer to Boston’s 2007-08 speed, I couldn’t imagine Miami’s lone regular-season visit of the season to Big D playing out as such a flat dud. But soulless isn't a far-off description. The anticipated Traveling Band of Rock Stars vibe? A myth.
Playing its fourth game in five nights, after away stops at Oklahoma City and San Antonio that sandwiched Thanksgiving, Dallas legitimately bullied the big-name visitors, outscoring the Heat by 22 points in the paint (48-26) despite entering the game as the only team in the league scoring less inside than Miami.
Spoelstra certainly isn’t blameless here. The Heat simply have to play at a faster tempo to create more and better shot opportunities and plenty of smart folks around the league are wondering if the Riley protégé, who has never worked outside of his mentor's rigid post-Showtime box, can really embrace the sort of pressing, trapping and tempo-raising that could help make that happen.
As Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle observed after Dallas’ 106-95 triumph: “We made a point to get out of the locker room and get loose. Show them that we would be warm and we wanted to pick up the pace. We felt that by pushing the ball, it wasn’t necessarily their game.”
Yet the larger wounds were such that, after a defeat that trended closer to Debacle In Dallas than the final score shows, Wade and James were forced to admit after the team meeting that they have to give a lot more than they're giving. They’ve squandered almost a fourth of the season without finding anything resembling the on-court compatability that so many of us presumed to be a given after their Team USA time together.
“Right now we are a 9-8 team and we have to own up to that," said James, who went on to concede that the Heat are sometimes guilty of feeling "like we can have lapses" because "we know we're so talented individually."
Said Wade: “I never would put anything on the coach -- win, lose or draw -- because they can give us the game plan but they’re not on the court playing. ... Now it’s time to take ownership. This is our team, even though we respect our coaches for what they do.”
Such comments, though, can only provide Spoelstra with so much comfort, especially since Wade also kept making comparisons to Miami's championship season in 2005-2006 that started 10-10 and didn't really take off until after suffering through a 36-point rout inflicted by the Mavs in this same building.
Wade didn’t mention this part, but surely you'll recall that Riley bumped off Stan Van Gundy in between those two landmark lows for the title team.
"I don't worry about changes,” Wade said. “I can't control them. Only thing we can control is our effort and the way we play.”
On the worrying, Spoelstra probably has him covered.