The stakes are always high in the NBA’s Conference Finals. Winning means a chance at the league’s ultimate prize. Losing puts you in a heap of forgotten also-rans who will be lost to the archives of basketball history. But Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra could find his job on the line if his team does anything short of winning the title, despite four playoff runs in his four years as head coach.
Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan has been covering the Celtics-Heat series, and he joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. Ryan believes Spoelstra’s record shows that he is a good coach.
“I don’t think he’s a top-tier coach, but I certainly think he’s a very representative NBA coach,” Ryan said. “I do think he’s being judged unlike any other coach, and I think in the eyes of the public, whoever coaches the Heat — unless his name is Phil Jackson — will get no credit for any good that they do and will get a disproportionate amount of blame if anything bad happens.”
Partly because of the superstar status of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and partly because of the way their union was announced on ESPN, the expectations for the Heat are high. Miami reached the Finals last year, but fell to Dallas.
“There was a very thin margin between those two teams,” Ryan said. “The difference in the series was probably the transcendent play of one player: Dirk Nowitzki. He simply outplayed both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in that circumstance, for which Erik Spoelstra deserves no blame whatsoever. A coach’s job, as I see it, is to create a circumstance to enable the team to put out its best effort, give his team its best chance to win…If he gets them to the Finals and they run up against a very good opponent and it doesn’t go their way, I don’t think he should be chastised in any way.”
Don Nelson, the NBA’s all-time wins leader among coaches, has coached exactly zero NBA championship teams, and he will soon be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. So what is it about the NBA compared to other major sports when it comes to winning titles?“There’s a rather elastic viewpoint people have about rating coaches in the NBA,” Ryan said. “It’s a very interesting discussion. The one thing everyone knows is that you must have excellent and great players to win a lot…Nelly was an innovator, a creative coach who did strange things that often worked very well.”
If the Heat fall short of a title this season, Ryan had no doubt that Spoelstra would be back as their coach, considering his relationship with team president Pat Riley. If, by some chance, Spoelstra was fired, Ryan suggested either of the Van Gundy brothers, Jeff or Stan, would be good candidates for the job, though he thought that Jeff shouldn’t leave his commentator job with ESPN.
“I love Jeff Van Gundy,” Ryan said. “I have written and told him that he does a far greater public service serving us by the millions than he does working for one particular organization. He’s a natural. No one knew that buried inside this nerdy little guy that we last saw clinging to Alonzo Mourning in that famous incident was this resident stand-up comedian who happens to love and understand basketball.”