Shoulder-gate! Spoelstra-watch! Player-only meetings! Other hyphenated phrases with exclamation marks! As the Miami Heat sunk to 9-8 for the season there has been an explosion of rumours concerning the team's happiness with Head Coach Eric Spoelstra. ESPN's Chris Broussard yesterday suggested the players were unhappy with the coach, feeling he was both underperforming and focused solely on keeping his job rather than on combining effectively the talent on hand.
This is after seventeen games of an eighty-two game regular season, and less than a quarter of a season into the New Miami Triumvirate's five-year reign on South Beach.
That a coach is facing a player revolt seventeen games into a five-year journey speaks volumes as to the mindset of his key men James, Wade & Bosh. Spoelstra is on a hiding to nothing - has been since The Decision, really - and now it's become public knowledge. By signing probably the best two free agents on last offseason's market and combining them with their own prize Wade, Miami were suddenly expected to win big now. That they then brought in a glue guy and a potential starting centre only increased expectations.
Unfortunately, the glue guy got hurt and the centre has sucked. The roster is mismatched: two elite players who both need the ball in their hands, a highly-paid big man who doesn't defend the rim, centre-by-platoon and point guards more at home in the Minor Leagues doesn't spell championship. The Heat have struggled against good teams as Chris Bosh has produced only the shadows of his Toronto Raptors form and Wade has struggled with injuries. Rumours of player discontent at their coach's man-management skills have gone beyond whispers creating the impression that the star players are looking for someone to blame. Perhaps the most damning indictment of the current Miami team is that no-one envies Spoelstra his job, not even Coaching Supremo Pat Riley who came out of retirement once before to relieve a head coach he thought was overwhelmed.
The easiest target is the coach: the man with the most thankless job in pro basketball today. Why thankless? Because should the Heat win public opinion will say it was due to their talent level and the coach got a free ride. Should they lose, the coach takes the fall because of that same talent, no matter how duplicitous. Spoelstra has the most to lose out of everyone around Heat because it's his job to combine the mismatched talent on hand and shape it into a winner. The old adage that it's easier to replace one coach than an entire team is particularly apposite here because once-in-a-generation players like LeBron come along less frequently than good coaches. The New Triumvirate have five-year, $90M+ contracts and an investment of that sort buys significant job security. Spoelstra was promoted from within and the investment in him is not nearly to the same level.
Player-coach meetings happen all the time. But reported "clear-the-air" talks between coach and star do not, which is why yesterday's pre-game chat between Spoelstra and LeBron was headline news. Afterwards, the coach said "There's an amount of healthy conflict within the team" and LeBron's take included the words "This is who we have". This came after last week's loss to Dallas where LeBron appeared to bump his coach. Neither statement even came close to saying "We've sorted whatever it was out" and the guess is that Spoelstra is now on borrowed time.
LeBron and Co. want to win now and for there to be no apology/explanation after a shoulder bump, player-only meetings and crisis talks means this smoke leads to a fire somewhere. If seventeen games into a season the players want their coach fired under these circumstances, it shows a remarkable degree of immaturity. Immaturity can be exemplified by any or all of impatience, shortsightedness, arrogance or an unwillingness to accept responsibility.
Red Flag One: Those seventeen games comprise 4% of their five-year term. Impatient? Check.
Red Flag Two: If they don't see the holes in their roster that are causing their failure to thrive then they may be guilty of shortsightedness. If they see those holes and think their extraordinary abilities can cover them then that's a degree of self-confidence bordering on Arrogant. Shortsighted? Arrogant? It's either one or the other.
Red Flag Three: Bosh isn't performing to his potential while LeBron and Wade seem at odds with being able to play together, settling into what looks very much to be a "My Turn, Your Turn" approach with which neither is comfortable. That they are ostensibly blaming the coach for their failure to gel together perfectly so early shows a degree of unwillingness to shoulder the responsibility. Avoiding responsibility? Probable check.
Or perhaps the coach does stink. But if so, surely that same self-confidence and talent could be used to prosper despite his inadequacy; or they would have chosen to sign for a better coach? It turns out the easiest target is also the guy with the hardest job: balancing the egos of superstars.