Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Failure and the Miami Heat


It's June, which means that the NBA Playoffs are winding to a conclusion.  Last night, the Miami Heat lost to the Boston Celtics, putting them on the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the Heat, a disturbing pattern is starting to emerge: each year, they start the playoffs in spectacular fashion and then they seem to hit a wall and collapse.  When this happened last year, I found it difficult not to join the chorus blaming LeBron James.  This time around, I feel like coach Eric Spoelstra has to take a good deal of the heat (no pun intended).

(It is true that LeBron hasn't been flawless in the clutch in this series, but generally he has played at an extraordinarily high level, increasing his scoring and rebounding from the regular season and guarding the opposition's best offensive player almost every night.)

In general, I think coaches tend to take too much responsibility when things go wrong in the NBA.  The truth is that they get paid a lot less than the players and thus are easier to fire.  Moreover, Spoelstra seems like a likable guy, not to mention a good story: he's the only Filipino coach in the league and by all accounts he worked his way up the ladder quickly by dint of hard work and talent.

Having said this, I find myself utterly befuddled by the Heat's inability to run anything resembling a proficient offense down the stretch in close games.  Despite having arguably two of the five best players in the world, they just don't execute very well.  And yes, the role players deserve some of the blame for this: guys like Mike Miller, James Jones, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers just aren't making enough of the wide open 3 pointers they are getting.  But there doesn't seem to be any motion or creativity in the play-calling.

One reason for the lack of movement off the ball in crunch time might be that Spoelstra is over-playing LeBron.  Last night, he didn't take out LeBron a single time in the entire second half.  This was Spoelstra's approach last year too when things got tight.  As powerful as he is, even Lebron needs rest sometimes.  Contrast Spoelstra's approach with that of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Celtics, who always manages to find time for Kevin Garnett to rest even though the Celtics are demonstrably worse when KG sits.

But my biggest gripe with Spoelstra is that his team just seems tight.  There is a general nervousness about the Heat that you can feel even watching on TV.  I can't remember the last time I saw a Heat player smile.  Spoelstra obviously works hard and takes his job seriously.  But my cheap, amateur analysis is that perhaps he takes it too seriously and has unwittingly created an atmosphere where his team is worried about failing.  And it is the rare person indeed who performs at his best when he is afraid of making a mistake.  I daresay that there are lessons to be learned here for leaders in any field.