Pat Riley: Fixing the Miami Heat

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Pat Riley: Fixing the Miami Heat
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Why aren’t the Miami Heat the best team in the league?

Former NBA coaches and analysts like Jeff Van Gundy had foreshadowed 70+ wins and an NBA title following the LeBron James’ “Decision.” There were some bumps and bruises early—the 9-8 start. And there have been win streaks of 12, 9 and 8.

Now that the ‘gelling’ period has officially been over for awhile, the three elite superstars have appeared to have gotten used to each other’s tendencies. So why is Miami constantly still losing games to good teams? Let me rephrase that. Why can’t Miami win close games against elite teams?

The Heat are incredible defensively, something I’ve been preaching on my radio show that NBA championship-caliber teams possess (Spurs, Celtics, Lakers, Magic). Miami rebounds the basketball well and averages 102 points per game, good for ninth in the league. Still, there is something missing about this team.

There are obvious reasons to place the blame on the surface. We’ve heard this team doesn’t have a bench. We’ve heard this team lacks an upper-echelon point guard. We’ve heard Miami doesn’t have a center who can irritate the bigs of LA, San Antonio or Boston. Miami is like the mouth of a first-grader; a few permanent teeth (stars) and baby ones (the many question marks) which could fall out at any minute.

The one extremely loose tooth from the Miami basketball scene is Head Coach Erik Spoelstra—he should be yanked.

Spoelstra is the motive behind the Miami Heat's typical second-half collapse. His grasp of an NBA offensive system hasn’t been shown yet this season. What? A coach can’t lose an NBA team a game? Look at LeBron’s old coach in Cleveland, Mike Brown, who suffered from the same insecurities Spoelstra is dealing with now—how to tell the best athlete in the world what to do. 

No one in the NBA can touch the athleticism that LeBron and Dwayne Wade bring to a basketball court—that is, until the second half. LeBron and D-Wade exert so much energy early on fast breaking and playing Spoelstra’s aggressive defense, that they tend to lose focus on offense after halftime. I believe—no, let me change that, I know—that the James-Wade-Bosh combination thinks they can score at will every time down the court. Well, they’re wrong.

Sunday night, in front of a heavily televised audience, and a game LeBron himself compared to the “playoffs”, the Miami Heat choked on a six-point lead with just under three minutes remaining to the Knicks—a roster that was supposed to be going through the same gelling period the Heat went through during their early season slump. The 84-78 point lead hastily evaporated as a result of awful offensive play calling, or lack thereof.

Kevin Arnovitz breaks down each possession and the outcome. I’ll sum things up for you.

Sloppy passing led to a bunch of forced shots down the stretch, shots that were unplanned. Planning is half the battle in life, particularly in basketball. Twice, an out-of-control Dwayne Wade chose to penetrate instead of hitting a wide open Mike Miller or Chris Bosh from his money spot.

Then, with a minute left, Chris Bosh decides to try and beat Amare Stoudemire one-on-one off the dribble, something he’s rarely done to opponents with the Heat. Bosh loses control of his pass and Chauncey Billups comes up with another steal. The only points the Heat could muster in the final three minutes were two LeBron James free throws, on the lone time he attacked the basket.

Late in games, these superstars can be controlled like chess pieces for coaches like Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and the recently retired Larry Brown. If Spoelstra is a baby tooth, then these guys are wisdom teeth. They’ve been here for decades.

So what am I suggesting? I’m suggesting a move so shocking that basketball guru’s would turn upside-down in their graves. A move so preposterous that not one columnist in today’s everyday media would suggest it. This move would be bigger than any deal the Heat could’ve struck during the trade deadline. I’m talking about bringing back the legendary Pat Riley as the Miami head coach—effective immediately.

Don’t yell at me and say he’s too old, because he’s the same age as Phil Jackson (65). Riley’s won five NBA championships as the head man (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 2006) mostly with the Los Angeles Lakers, a team stacked with superstars just like today’s Heat. Coaching matters in the NBA more than you realize. In the 2000s only five different coaches hoisted a title: Jackson, Popovich, Doc Rivers, Brown and Riley.

Spoelstra hides too often behind his superstars. Riley will do the polar opposite; he’ll act as if he’s one of them. Riley famously guaranteed that the Lakers would repeat during the 1987 celebration parade, a promise that he helped deliver. Riley is renowned for putting pressure on his players, a task that current coach Spoelstra is too immature to employ.

Take a look at this chart, where I’ve pegged some of Miami’s key losses this season.

Opponent - Date

Result

Big 3 Combined

Worst of the Big 3

2nd Half Scoring Margin

Turnovers

Last Shot Attempt?

2/27

Knicks

L 91-86

59

Wade – 12 pts, 5 TO’s

 35-39

 (-4)

20

LeBron

2/24

Bulls

L 93-89

70

Bosh – 7 pts. 1/18 FG

36-49

(-13)

 

12

LeBron

2/13

Celtics

L 85-82

62

Wade – 16 pts. 6 TO’s

37-46

(-9)

17

LeBron

1/15

Bulls

L 99-96

50

LeBron - DNP

43-51

(-8)

13

Chalmers

12/20

Mav’s

L 98-96

60

LeBron – 19 pts. -20 +/- rating

52-55

(-3)

12

N/A

11/11

Celtics

L  112-107

58

Wade – 8 pts. 2/12 FG. 6 TO’s.

61-51

(+10)

14

N/A

TOTAL

6 losses,  22 points

59.8

 

-27

14.6

????

 

Here are three things this chart tells me about the Heat and how Pat Riley could help tweak his franchise right now.

 

1. Tomorrow is March 1, and this team does not have a go-to plan with the game on the line.

In the last three losses, it’s been the exact same shot from LeBron with the game on the line. You know exactly what I’m talking about; that anxious heave from the top of the three point arc, a shot he’s hit only once in his career. LeBron came to Miami so he WOULDN’T have to shoot desperation shots like these. Pat Riley could ease him into a different closing role, one that has his freakish athletic frame near the rim for a tip-in.

 

2. Miami has to limit turnovers

Dwyane Wade has committed a ton of them in key ball games. Too often, Wade is inserted into the point guard role when most of the league knows he’s nearly unstoppable on off-ball screens. If Miami is in a big game (i.e. LA, Boston etc.) I’d like to see LeBron handle the point guard duties majority of the game. This may eliminate some of his scoring, but it will give the Heat more of a rhythm, a trait they repeatedly lack in the fourth quarter of close games.

 

3. Second Half Adjustments

Spoelstra’s defensive game plans have shut certain teams down. Good for him. In those six key losses identified above, Miami was able to win a second half just once, way back in November. Teams are starting to figure out how to lull Miami asleep by keeping LeBron out of the paint. If you force James into a jump shooter, you are going to win most battles.

See, LeBron has these images in his head of Michael Jordan’s greatness, and too many times he thinks he can replicate it. But jump shooting will never be LeBron’s game. If you give Pat Riley a halftime lead, you can forget about it. He will put the players in the right places to succeed.

This won’t happen. Riley will stay in the owner's suite. For now at least. The Heat have enough talent to advance to the NBA Finals, especially if the pieces of Mike Bibby and Troy Murphy come through. But they will continue to fail in late game preparation unless something drastic happens.

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