Miami Heat: Stan Van Gundy Redux? How Long Until Pat Riley Fires Erik Spoelstra?
As the final seconds ticked away on the Miami Heat's 112-107 loss to the Boston Celtics, there was a noteworthy moment when Pat Riley was seen in the stands.
He did not look happy and just before time expired, he shoved several folded papers into the inside pocket of his blazer jacket.
Considering the team had just reached its fourth loss in a mere nine games, that moment has opened up the floodgates of speculation that the papers contained "a list of potential coaching replacements," "notes for Pat Riley for when he takes over the team as coach," or "the amount of mistakes that he counted made by current coach Erik Spoelstra during the game."
Of course these theories are largely baseless, but the prospect of Spoelstra being fired if the Heat continue to underachieve is very real.
One need only look at the long overdue decision by Speolstra to place Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the starting lineup against the Toronto Raptors to see his attempt to stem the tide of his team's slide, perhaps mindful of the consequences of continued inconsistency by his team.
But how much time will Riley really give Spoelstra before he is given the pink slip?
To answer that question: I first considered a former Miami Heat coach whose team was not meeting expectations.
Stan Van Gundy
Stan Van Gundy, in December 2005, was in a similar situation that Speolstra finds himself in. Both found themselves coaching dramatically altered rosters and both were faced with a "win right now" expectation from President of Basketball Operations Pat Riley.
After losing in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Detroit Pistons in seven games, the Heat were looking to make another run at an NBA title during the 2005-2006 season, but rumors began to swirl that Riley was attempting to push Van Gundy out as coach.
Following the Heat's subpar 11-10 start to the season, Van Gundy announced that he was resigning from the team due to "personal and family-related reasons."
Many speculated that the "resignation" was a backdoor firing by Pat Riley who didn't want to face the criticism leveled his way for firing a man who had been loyal to the Heat organization for 12 years; others like Miami sportswriter Dan LeBatard said that Van Gundy indeed resigned by choice.
But there's no doubt that, along the team was not excelling record-wise at the time, Van Gundy was losing the ear of several players on his team including Shaquille O'Neal, and there was a sense that the team needed a new direction.
Erik Speolstra would never speak in the media about the individual expectations that he and Riley discussed prior to the season beginning, but there must have been a talk about what both men hoped to see from the team through the winter into the spring.
So far, the team has not played consistently well, but many of their struggles could be dismissed for now as an "early learning curve" for a team still trying to find its identity.
However, Spoelstra must know that there is only so much time he will be granted to "build the team's chemistry" before talk of a coaching change becomes a distraction for the team.
Was LeBron's Comment A Sign Of Friction?
After the loss to Boston, LeBron made a subtle jab at Spoelstra claiming that the 44 minutes he had played were too many.
LeBron certainly could have simply mentioned this to coach Spoelstra in private or during a team meeting. But was James' insistence to air the grievance in the media a sign of possible friction between he and his coach or worst, a sign that he was losing respect for Spoelstra's decision-making?
James dismissed the idea of friction as false, but it could be a problem if the team does not work out its issues within the next few weeks.
The most obvious sign that a coach will be fired, is when the players make it clear that they have tuned him out.
In 1998, Lakers coach Del Harris led his team to 61 wins and the Western Conference Finals, but before the 1999 season had reached its halfway point, he'd already been replaced by Kurt Rambis, largely because he lost the ear of his team.
Byron Scott had led the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, but Scott was sent packing right before All-Star break of the 2003-2004 season after the team sputtered to a 22-20 record. His dismissal was proceeded by rumors that the team was simply not listening to him anymore.
If there are further signs that players, particularly the big three are questioning Spoelstra's decision-making (whether it's playing time or defensive assignments) expect the "Spo got to go" rally cries to begin from inside the locker room, and he will be dismissed.
The Team Is Still Figuring Things Out
The Heat is still very much a work in progress, and it stands to reason that Spoestra will be greeted with a certain amount of patience from the front office for this team to develop its depth and chemistry.
It's not easy asking three players to go from "the main man" on their former teams to a second or third option and the club needs time to gel and figure out the system.
On the other hand, when does talk of "the team needing time to learn each other's tendencies" become an excuse, rather than a legitimate rationale for the team's struggles?
Well, I think in about two months.
January is the month that Dwyane Wade cited as the point when the team should be playing more like themselves.
By then, they should at least be acquainted enough to know where they fit into the system and where they will be in the rotation.
Mike Miller will be back, so they will have another offensive threat to finally relieve the pressure off Wade and James offensively and Bosh should have his rebounding issues worked out.
However, what the team does in January could go a long way towards determining Spoelstra's fate.
If they have time to gel and Miller returns, yet the same problems are cropping up (struggling against offensive bigs and elite point guards, not defending consistently) , I think Spoelstra may not be the Heat's head coach by Valentine's Day.
Will The Close Losses Continue?
The Heat are currently 6-4 and there is a curious trend in all their loss and wins.
In all the wins, the Heat have won the games by nine or more points, in the losses the Heat have lost by 8 or fewer points and all four losses essentially went down to the wire despite the Heat's ragged play.
On one hand, it's a positive sign the fact that although the team is not full strength or near the peak of its potential, that they have been in every game they have lost and despite strong performances by their opponents (Paul Millsap's 46, Pierce/Allen's combined 60 points, the Hornets front court scoring 42) that the Heat have still lost only close games.
It suggests that once the Heat learn how to close games out, they will be ready to take that next step toward reaching their potential, and the fact that the team has yet to suffer a truly embarrassing loss, is an indication that coach Spoelstra is doing some things right.
On the other hand, close losses will begin to hurt Spoelstra's chances of keeping his job as the season progresses, because instead of being seen as a sign of the potential of his team, they will be viewed as evidence that he does not know how to run a team in a pressure situation.
If it is March, and the Heat are playing the Magic for the Southeast Division title and the Heat rally from a double-digit deficit but lose by two, no one will be giving Spoelstra credit because his team "hung tough," they're going to be demanding that he be fired for not making the correct plays down the stretch to win the important games that will decide playoff seeding.
It is my belief that Erik Spoelstra will not be fired during the regular season.
I think Riley will give him a little more time to work with the team and considering the fact that Mike Miller is still out with an injured thumb he will be given a bit of leverage.
I also believe that the team will develop their chemistry as the season progresses and begin to play better in January as Dwyane Wade suggested.
They may not win 65, but I think they do reach the playoffs as a top four seed.
However, Speolstra's fate will come down to how far the team goes in the playoffs. First round exit? He's definitely out, even if Wade, James or Bosh were faced with injuries. If the team faces a second round exit, I think he also will be shown the door.
However, I say the team makes it to the Eastern Conference Finals and Erik Spoelstra retains his job next season.
But if the team starts 11-10 next year, look for Spoelstra to resign for personal and family-related reasons.