The Miami Heat are just 8-6 in the month of March, and fair or not at this point in the season, the question has to be asked if this team can win an NBA championship under the guidance of head coach Erik Spoelstra.
The 41-year-old coach has looked spectacular at times, leading the Heat to the league’s second-best record last season—including a stretch where the team went 21-1.
These epic performances, however, are a result of incredible talent clicking on all cylinders, not unlike what sparked Doc Rivers’ success just a few years back.
In the 2007-08 season, Rivers led the Boston Celtics to the NBA’s best record, won his first NBA Championship and was chosen to coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars during All-Star Weekend.
But was this a miraculous coaching transformation from a guy who had gone just 24-58 the previous season?
The Celtics’ acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside Paul Pierce made Rivers look as if he had turned into a great coach seemingly overnight—the same way Spoelstra remarkably became the coach with the league’s second-best record last season.
Rivers didn’t deserve the credit for his team’s turnaround, and quite frankly, neither does Spoelstra.
The fact is, though, that even Rivers was able to implement a bigger change following the acquisition of his team’s Big Three than Spoelstra was last season.
A year ago, Spoelstra took an already fifth-seeded Miami team and moved them up to No. 2 out East, but he was vastly out-coached in the NBA Finals by Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks.
Rotation issues and game plans down the stretch were Spoelstra’s Achilles' heel last year, and while a new season has seen improvements in some areas, the overall movement and depth of the roster needs to be addressed if the team is ever going to win it all.
The Heat find themselves four games behind the Chicago Bulls, and after a subpar month of March, the team is going to have a tough time catching their biggest competition out East for first place in the conference.
Bulls Head Coach Tom Thibodeau was named the league’s Coach of the Year last season, and with a record of 41-11 so far this time around, the 54-year-old coach is making his way toward receiving that honor for the second year in a row.
Thibodeau has become as a great defensive coach and a guy who can get the best out of his bench when needed.
What has Spoelstra become known for since the arrival of the Big Three in Miami? Complacency with one-on-one basketball? Poor late-game execution?
Yes, the Bulls are deep; but they know how to use the role players on their team. Despite 18 games missed from Rose, 10 games missed by Luol Deng and 36 games missed by newly added Richard Hamilton, the team still holds a winning percentage of .788 this season.
While the Bulls are arguably a much deeper team than Miami, Spoelstra needs to begin truly utilizing all three members of the Big Three—not just LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Chris Bosh is averaging his lowest point-per-game and rebound-per-game averages since his second season in the league, but even more worrisome is that his minutes are the fewest he’s played since his rookie season.
Bosh needs to play better at times; no doubt about it. But it all starts with the coach, and getting the 6’11” power forward more involved in the offense is something that Spoelstra needs to look to do.
Admittedly, Spoelstra is in a ruthless situation, and will be as long as the talent on the Heat remains at such a high level.
If the team wins, the credit goes to the Big Three for performing so valiantly and President Pat Riley for acquiring such an incredible collection of talent.
If the team loses, however, Spoelstra is given all of the blame and is placed on the hot seat as long as the team is failing to reach their exceptionally high expectations.
But while this is a tough situation for any NBA head coach to be in, Spoelstra has yet to do enough to pull the credit back his way when the team is actually at its best.
He certainly hasn’t been all bad as he’s posted a .607 winning percentage since becoming the Heat’s head coach before the 2008-09 season. But failing to make the right adjustments—both in games and before them—has kept Spoelstra out of the elite-coaches list despite the talent that surrounds him.
So the question becomes if not Spoelstra, then who?
The easy answer is Pat Riley. He’s already inside the organization, he’s a proven winner and he’s won with rosters that have talent and egos that would likely compete with the current Heat roster.
Other candidates such as Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan also fit the mold of what the team should be looking for.
Even Mike D’Antoni could become a candidate should Spoelstra find himself severing ties with the team by next year.
The Heat came into the season playing at a pace that was seemingly unmatched throughout the NBA, but having resorted back to isolation basketball, the team needs a fresh start having scored fewer than 100 points in all but just three games since the All-Star Break.
But despite the numerous candidates out there, Spoelstra should remain the coach of the Heat for the rest of the 2011-12 season.
Leaving the team with a new leader at the helm for the rest of the season would only further complicate the chemistry and rotation of a Heat team that is still fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
If he can’t get it done this season, however, and the team goes another year without winning when it counts the most, Spoelstra should be the first to go in an offseason aimed to bring South Beach the championships they were once so infamously promised.