Let’s add a significant piece of missing insight into the competing schools of thought concerning Erik Spoelstra’s job security.
Pat Riley is potentially handcuffed by his roster.
Unlike 2006, when he watched Stan Van Gundy struggle with a team Riley believed to be championship worthy, we’re not sure what the team president thinks of the ultra-soft, point-guard-less 2010 Heat.
This team is too small, not long enough, not nearly tough enough. Riley knows – we think – leadership and coaching alone can’t fix these things.
If he’s concerned at all about his image and credibility, Riley can’t dump Spoelstra one week and then modify the Heat roster the next. The best way to be fair, and for Riley to protect himself against charges of egoism and betrayal, is to give his hand-picked successor an opportunity with a lineup that truly can compete for a championship.
Anything short of that would appear cold and manipulative.
Pulling off the right move – trade forward Chris Bosh, get lucky and discover that 6-foot-11 rookie Dexter Pittman is ready (unlikely), or perhaps some other move – protects Riley on two fronts.
It’s the best way to be fair and for Riley to protect himself against the harsh whispers of other NBA coaches and executives interested in Spoelstra’s fate and Riley’s intentions. If Riley wants Spoelstra to be the guy – and that might very well be Riley’s intent – then he’s already thinking along these lines.
There’s no reason for him to take the hot seat himself until it’s properly cooled off with the right personnel.
So for now, as we wait to see if this lineup can get it done or if a change must be made, let’s filter the competing Spoelstra theories through the prism of the Heat’s roster:
Theory I: Under no circumstances does Riley want to coach again. Too much of a grind. Too big a lifestyle change. Too much like 2006 and Van Gundy’s unceremonious exit from the Heat.
Too much internal respect – particularly from Dwyane Wade – for the 40-year-old head coach.
“I don’t see any need to worry about anything,” Wade said Saturday after Miami’s victory over Toronto ended a two-game losing streak. “It’s on us, the players, to go out and execute the game plan. (Spoelstra) does a great job of getting us the game plan. We are 6-4 because we haven’t executed the game plan. (The coaching staff has) done an unbelievable job.”
Theory II: Spoelstra was on a very short leash at the season’s start and now, at 6-4, his collar is tightening with Riley’s grip on the other end tensing up.
One thing to remember about 2006 is, after Van Gundy was let go, Riley coached the Heat to a championship.
Fair or not, the first action had an impact on the second. And Riley is, like any legend, a stone-cold winner. At some point, friendship and hope have nothing to do with it. Getting it done – or not – becomes the overriding variable.
For Spoelstra, Heat history and Riley’s pedigree are enough to add stress to the situation.
There’s also concern about LeBron James, an international icon and superstar with a reputation for getting his way and sometimes getting in the way of his coaches.
Before Spoelstra, The King had been coached by Paul Silas, Brendan Malone and Mike Brown.
Legends these men are not.
So it raised a few eyebrows when LeBron quipped after the Heat lost to the Celtics last week that, “For myself, 44 minutes is too much. I think Coach Spo knows that. Forty minutes for D-Wade is too much. We have to have as much energy as we can to finish games out.”
After Saturday’s game, LeBron sought to clarify.
“It got (blown up) out of proportion, saying I told Coach Spo he’s playing me too much, and he’s a bad coach,” James told reporters. “I think you kind of understand sometimes when (embattled NFL receiver) Randy Moss says, ‘I will not be answering anymore questions,’ because every time I say something it gets turned out of character.”
Much of the local media quickly circled the wagons, pushing the Heat’s view that this is another example of James being persecuted for little reason.
Let’s put this into some context:
LeBron James is a living legend, anointed as such at an age earlier than most of us know what it means to be an adult. Erik Spoelstra is not.
That means LeBron’s words carry much more weight than most anyone else in the NBA. Period.
There’s a reason NBA analyst Charles Barkley, not one to bow to public opinion or the threat of disapproval, put Spoelstra on a clock and has criticized James with harsh candor.
LeBron is a guy who, by most accounts, ran roughshod over the power structure in Cleveland. Personal history follows all men until they alter it.
And he has yet to change the perception – some would say fact – that he hasn’t bought into and fully embraced his head coaches in the NBA.
When he quipped about playing time, he sounded put out, unhappy, not quite respectful enough.
Which is understandable. Tough loss. Bad start. The King has enormous talent and pride, and he didn’t bring his talents to South Beach to start 6-4. He came, by his own words, to win multiple championships.
To do something special. To be special.
Problem is, LeBron James is not like everyone else.
Can Udonis Haslem say the same thing and not have it cause waves? Of course he can. But he’s not called The King.
This is the same reason your insurance agent can make an offhanded or politically insensitive remark about something but President Obama and John Boehner can’t. One’s position in life dictates the power and consequences of one’s words and actions.
Randy Moss never learned this lesson, and he now has left enough teams in his wake to prove the point many times over.
LeBron needs to find a better role model than Moss, and soon, as he figures out why people respond the way they do to what he says.
And believe that Spoelstra is one of those responding to what James says.
Early on, a reporter would ask the head coach after games – wins or losses – if so-and-so had gotten the message on this or that. Spoelstra would make a point of saying the point had been made – even mentioning James a few times – as a way to appropriately and respectfully show he’s in charge.
Which makes sense. He’s supposed to be.
That subtle attempt to draw some boundaries with LeBron has vanished in the past week, replaced by mundane comments about how everyone gets it and everyone is buying in and everyone believes in the process.
Spoelstra even made a joke about James’ minutes with charm and grace and, of course, a smooth burst of praise for his star.
Translation: I believe in what we’re doing, but I must move gingerly here because LeBron is LeBron and I’m a footnote-waiting-to-happen if things don’t go better.
So which theory on Spoelstra is the right one? Short leash or long haul?
A lot of things will dictate that. Riley. James. Wade. The roster to come. Wins and losses and bad losses. An owner looking at too many empty seats. James again.
One person who won’t get to dictate this, outside of his ability to make his so-called process function more quickly, is Spoelstra.
So everyone is left to wonder. Especially the sharp, likable, under-pressure 40-year-old head coach.