The Miami Heat's players are frustrated with Erik Spoelstra and some are questioning whether he is the right coach for their team, according to people close to the situation.
With the ballyhooed Heat losing four of their past five games and sporting a mediocre 9-8 record, the players are privately grumbling about Spoelstra on several fronts.
Sources say the players believe he is not letting them be themselves, that they are questioning his offensive strategies, and that they think he is panicking because he fears losing his job.
"Right now, in my opinion, no one is doing a good job," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, asked Monday about Spoelstra's performance. "We're 9-and-8. We're all in this together. The players are not doing a good job. The coach is not doing a good job."
Exhibit A was a recent shootaround in which Spoelstra told James that he had to get more serious. The source said Spoelstra called James out in front of the entire team, telling him, "I can't tell when you're serious."
"He's jumping on them," one source said. "If anything, he's been too tough on them. Everybody knows LeBron is playful and likes to joke around, but Spoelstra told him in front of the whole team that he has to get more serious. The players couldn't believe it. They feel like Spoelstra's not letting them be themselves."
But Spoelstra, at the Heat's morning shootaround ahead of Monday night's game against Washington, said players and coaches don't always get along -- and that's normal.
"A coach-player relationship in this league often will be confrontational at times. And other times, it's smooth sailing," he said. "But just the dynamic of the competitive nature of everybody, expectations, results -- all these things combine, yeah, sometimes it will get testy. And that's good. Especially when people have a pure heart and mind about getting better, that just shows that the sides want to make it right."
While he talked about his team's frustration at its play not yet matching its lofty expectations, Spoelstra did not directly respond to the comments.
"If it's an unnamed source, I have no comment about that. That could come from anywhere," he said. "I think the guys in our locker room are pure about what we need to get done and to improve and that's all I'll comment on. Anything else is really just speculation."
Wade said winning will fix everything.
"When success comes we win as a whole," he said. "If we win four in a row, Coach is going to look great. If we have a good December, you're going to be talking about coach of the year. And he might not change a thing."
It is not known whether the players voiced their concerns about Spoelstra during their players-only meeting following Saturday's loss at Dallas. Nor is it apparent whether the bump between James and Spoelstra during a timeout in that game was accidental or a result of tension between the two.
Spoelstra said he "didn't even notice" the bump until it was mentioned after the game.
"Coming out of the timeout, it's a pinball at the game, I'm colliding into a lot of people. So it's probably a perfect case of overspeculation from this team," he said Monday.
"I was fine with that timeout. The fact that guys are not happy about the play, tempers rose, you could see the fire and passion in people's eyes. That's the way it should be," he added. "None of us should be happy about what was going on in the third quarter and taking it in stride."
According to the sources, the Heat players believe Spoelstra's offensive strategies have been too simplistic. They feel like he is running nothing but pick-and-rolls and telling the Heat's secondary players to find open spots on the floor for catch-and-shoot jumpers.
The sources said the players also think the constant speculation about Spoelstra's job security is getting to the third-year coach and that he has resorted to nitpicking over minor details because of it.
"He's not a motivator," one of the sources said. "Instead of coaching he's at the point where the players are starting to sense that he's fearing for his job."
While the players may have their doubts about Spoelstra, it is not clear whether they want team president Pat Riley to coach them. Several people close to the situation said Wade definitely does not want Riley to come down to the sidelines. Sources also said that while recruiting players this past summer, Riley insisted that he would not coach the team.
"Riley kept saying 'Spoelstra's a good coach and he'll grow into a great coach,'" a source said. "He said he got his coaching break [with the Los Angeles Lakers] around the same age as Spoelstra got his."
It is widely believed that Riley does not want to coach this season. However, one source said that privately Riley has at times been critical of the Heat's game plans.
While expectations around the league have started to lessen for the Heat because of their struggles, the sources said the players still have a championship-or-bust mentality for this season and that they are open to whatever changes are necessary to get there.
"Come on, if you lose, no one's going to be happy and nor should they be," Spoelstra said Monday. "Our group is still connected. So we're still trying to work and get better. That's the only thing we're focused on right now. As all the noise starts to raise outside of our circle, we have to stay connected and get through this. It will get better. "
While the players think that may mean a coaching change, one member of the Heat organization said the team is suffering from a lack of leadership from the players, not the coach.
"They don't want to step on each other's toes," the person said. "There's no leader on the team. Somebody has to speak up and be the leader on the team. They can't be afraid to step on people's toes. They need a vocal leader who's going to make everybody accountable. I don't think it's on the coach. It's on the players."
Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz contributed to this report from Miami. Information from The Associated Press is also included.