The Miami Heat's nuclear option

November, 25, 2010
11/25/10
3:40
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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ORLANDO -- For those convinced that it's a matter of when and not if after the Miami Heat's record dipped to a mediocre 8-7 with a third consecutive loss Wednesday, trust me: You won't see the potential coaching change coming.

There will be no internal leaks. No anonymous spin from league sources. No inside scoop from influential agents. No immediate response to the media-driven, fan-frenzy feast on the carcass of the scapegoat head coach.

The Heat are the most tight-lipped, stealth-like operation in the league.

The process would likely play out something like this: Heat team president Pat Riley will hang up the phone after speaking with owner Micky Arison, then take the 20 or so steps down the hall from his glass-encased suite overlooking Biscayne Bay to Spoelstra's office outside the practice court. Riley would then be forced to make what would be the most uncomfortable decision of his Hall of Fame career.

Does Spo have to go?

If so, the Heat's media relations staff will simply open the doors of the AmericanAirlines Arena practice facility, dozens of reporters will file in as usual, and Riley will be dressed in nylon shorts, a coaching shirt and a low-top pair of his classic Nike shoes, pushing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh through the tail end of a grueling workout.

How does change happen with the Miami Heat? With as little advance notice as possible.

If Spoelstra is lucky, he might get the courtesy of a formal press conference to convey his gratitude for the opportunity to learn from Riley the past 15 years and coach Wade, James and Bosh over the past few months. Spoelstra would then reluctantly embrace the freedom to explore new horizons.

That's the scene Lakers coach Phil Jackson had the audacity to paint, should things continue to go this way for the lukewarm Heat. Phil's philosophy is that Spoelstra could fall victim to “the (Stan) Van Gundy thing all over again.” Maybe it's a strain of his Zen Buddhism. Or perhaps its just Jackson's way of needling a team that, at least theoretically, could potentially meet his two-time defending champs in June.

There's at least one problem with that picture. It ain't happening. Not now. So pipe down people. Engage in all of the speculation you want. Spoelstra isn't going anywhere.

“First of all, I’m single, OK,” Spoelstra made sure to point out during interviews with ESPN and the Palm Beach Post before Wednesday's 104-95 loss to the Orlando Magic. “So I don’t think I’ll be taking a leave from my team to spend time with my family.”

But that doesn't mean Spoelstra isn't in a hot spot right now.

If Spoelstra's seat on the bench is growing warmer by the loss to Orlando, it very well could reach a boiling point should the Heat hit rock bottom with a defeat at home on Friday to Philadelphia. Injuries have depleted the Heat's bench. Wade and James continue to be more oil and water right now than basketball's version of Crockett and Tubbs. There are still some lapses in effort, energy and focus, although there were signs of improvement in those areas against the Magic.

But during a stretch that has included five losses in the past eight games, the Heat have bounced between demoralizing losses and moral victories. At this stage, the only solution to Miami's issues is accountability. The question is, who assumes that burden?

Spoelstra hasn't bothered to check the temperature of his seat because he doesn't spend much time sitting during games these days. But Miami's players and coaches are aware of the pressure that's building around this team, some of it generated by rivals throughout the league. After Wednesday's loss, Bosh responded to Jackson's comment that the Heat's problems might eventually drive he and James into Riley's office and ask that he return to the bench and replace Spoelstra.

“It's the furthest thing from our minds,” Bosh said. “You have to remember people are smart. They might say something just to get some attention out of us, or just to get us riled up a little bit, get us thinking about that. We have to focus on basketball. We don't focus on comments. We don't focus on outside negativity. As long as we do that, we'll be all right.”

The best defense the Heat's players can mount on behalf of Spoelstra is to play better on both sides of the ball, to respond to the game plan he sets in place, to perform up to expectations. Otherwise, they might force Riley's hand. Team officials close to Riley insist the last thing he wants to do is return to the bench. Circumstances were different when Van Gundy was forced out after a 11-10 start during the 2005-06 season and Riley took over and guided Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to a championship that season.

Five years ago, Van Gundy had a mini-mutiny brewing, with Shaq and other veterans having tuned him out. Today, Spoelstra still has the support of his key guys, most importantly Wade. In 2005-06, Van Gundy worked for a 60-year-old Riley who was in the midst of a lengthy championship drought and still had the itch to coach a team to a title to further his legacy. Today, Spoelstra works for a 65-year-old Riley who has since gone through multiple surgeries, and is working on a year-to-year basis with the intention of retiring out west in the not-too-distant future.

But just the threat of Riley's return should be enough to shake this Heat team into shape. And they see Riley's presence at practice almost daily, so he's never too far away. For now, the Heat's key players have a big-picture perspective on what it will take to turn things around.

“We're not going to put too much stress on every ball game,” Wade said Wednesday. “We're not going to stand here and say, 'Man, we're 8-7, where do we go from here?' We're going to the next ball game. There's not doubt (creeping in). We deal with it. We'll learn from our mistakes. Coach (Spoelstra) came in with a plan, we learned and we executed. We just didn't come out with the win.”

But when will those wins start to come in bunches?

“If I had the answer for that, we wouldn't be sitting here hovering at .500,” James said. “It's going a lot slower than we all thought. At some point, we're going to have to figure it out.”

But how soon? How much time do the Heat have? How much time will Spoelstra have?

“In the Eastern Conference, you have a lot longer than you do in the West,” James continued. “You have a team that can hover around .500 and still make the playoffs. Not saying that's that we want to do -- play as a .500 team. We have some time. We should have high expectations.”

When your roster includes this many underachieving star players amid such high aspirations, coaching can be a brutal business. The Heat's problems are such a hot topic right now, even President Barack Obama weighed in on Miami's early season malaise.

Spoelstra insists he can take the heat that comes with coaching the Heat. He trusts his relationships with Riley and Arison. He believes his message will soon get through to his team. His focus was sharp enough during his post-game media session after Wednesday's loss that he completely tuned out a heckler who repeatedly shouted that his days were numbered.

“It'll turn around -- that much I know for sure,” Spoelstra said. “Eventually, ultimately, this will make us stronger.”

Some fans might be ready to fire Spoelstra. But internally, there remains quite a bit of faith. For now.

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