MIAMI — A Jan. 2 loss to Atlanta probably ended any shot Miami’s Erik Spoelstra had at NBA Coach of the Year. After all, it denied the Heat a chance at a 66-0 season.
That’s the way life is when you’ve got the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The perception by many is that among Spoelstra’s most trying duties is making sure the team bus doesn’t get lost on the way to the game.
Spoelstra might have made it into the record books this week for being the most criticized coach of any team that’s ever had a 3-1 playoff series lead. Perhaps he didn’t make the best moves Sunday at Madison Square Garden in using Shane Battier rather than James to guard New York’s Carmelo Anthony down the stretch and by having James stand in the corner watching on a last-shot opportunity to tie. Yes, the Heat lost 89-87, but it is just one game in a series Spoelstra’s team should win easily.
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“We understand the world we live in. If we lose, the decibel will go up,” Spoelstra said of what happens anytime Miami falls.
Spoelstra has accepted that. While he may not admit this, he’s the only coach in the NBA whose season would be a failure if his team doesn’t win the title.
Before the season, Wade said, “If we don’t win a championship, yes, it’s a bust year.” That pretty much said it all for Miami.
Spoelstra often talks about “noise” and “storylines,” his terms for perceived unfair criticism of the Heat. Nevertheless, he insists he isn’t affected by any extra pressure that many believe this season is indeed championship or bust.
“I don’t mind it,” Spoelstra said after practice in preparation for Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Knicks at AmericanAirlines Arena. “What we see is an incredible opportunity. I’m not spending my time thinking about what our answer will be if we fail. We’re spending our time working on the process of this long journey. We’re all comfortable. We went through this last year. It’s not even abnormal for us.”
Last year was different, though. Spoelstra got more leeway because it was an adjustment in the first season with the Big Three. Heck, Spoelstra even got one first-place vote and one third-place vote in balloting for Coach of the Year when his team had the second-best record in the East before going on to lose 4-2 to Dallas in the NBA Finals.
The Heat again finished No. 2 in the East this season, and they likely would have had a better winning percentage than last year had James not rested in three of the last four games (they ended up 46-20 for .697 following last season’s 58-24 for .707). So, how many votes did Spoelstra get in the latest voting for Coach of the Year?
Out of 12 coaches whose teams had playoff seeds of No. 6 or better, Spoelstra was the only one to not receive even a single third-place vote. Out of 15 coaches who got votes, six (Boston’s Doc Rivers, Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy, the Lakers’ Mike Brown, Denver’s George Karl, Houston’s Kevin McHale and New Orleans’ Monty Williams) lead teams that had lower winning percentages than last season.
“That’s what happens here,” James said when asked about Spoelstra not receiving a single vote for the award won by San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. “We understand that. … I don’t know if (Spoelstra) uses that as motivation or not. That’s a question you need to ask him. But he’s put us in a position to compete for a championship, and that’s what it’s all about.”
That question was posed to Spoelstra. He said he didn’t know he was the only one of those 12 coaches to not get a vote, but that he spends no time thinking of such things regardless.
“I really don’t care, and that’s not a throwaway statement,” said Spoelstra, in his fourth year as Heat coach after 13 years in a variety of roles. “I’ve been here for 17 years, and I’m very grateful for this opportunity to coach this team and the opportunity we have with this group now in our second year. That’s all I’m thinking about is hopefully this journey for the next six weeks.”
Spoelstra is talking about the hope the Heat will once again be in the NBA Finals. They received a big break when Chicago, the East’s top seed, lost reigning MVP Derrick Rose for the playoffs with a torn ACL. Still, the Heat might have to get by Boston, which beat them three of four times in the regular season.
And the Finals hardly figure to be easy. Miami likely would run into San Antonio or Oklahoma City and wouldn’t have homecourt advantage against either of them.
If the Heat don’t win the title in June, don’t expect Spoelstra to be going anywhere. Miami president Pat Riley gave him a largely deserved contract extension before the season. But a failure to deliver Riley an eighth ring (he now has five as a coach, one as a player and one as an assistant) would make the pressure next year on Spoelstra as great as it’s ever been on any coach anywhere.
As if it already isn’t intense enough.
“He’s in the boat with us. That’s just part of the gig,” Bosh said of the scrutiny the Heat faces.
“With everything that happened (with the Big Three joining forces in the summer of 2010), it’s expected for Spo to win games,” Wade said. “It’s actually tougher to coach us guys altogether than it was to coach one of us apart. But the perception is that it’s easier. So give him a lot of credit.”
That might be a stretch. Yes, there is the job of managing egos, which Spoelstra has done well. But the last time he coached a team without the Big Three, he went 47-35 in 2009-10 with Wade as the Big One.
For now, despite the pressure Spoelstra is under, there are few NBA coaches who wouldn’t trade places with him. It might be championship or bust for Spoelstra, but he’s still a lot closer to the championship part than just about all the other guys.