SI.com's Paul Forrester has an interesting piece up detailing the challenges awaiting the NBA's first-year coaches. That includes Miami's own precocious ingenue Erik Spoelstra. After the jump, we'll go point-by-point with Forrester.
Watch his back. Spoelstra may have Riley to thank for his first head-coaching opportunity, but, if history is any guide, he had better adjust the mirrors in his office. It was only two years ago that Stan Van Gundy left the Heat in the middle of the season to "spend more time with his family," with Riley stepping in and eventually leading Miami to a championship. Two seasons later, Van Gundy suddenly rediscovered his love of the NBA and became the Magic's coach. Far be it for us to say Riley pushed a longtime coaching ally to the curb so he could grab a fifth ring on the cheap, but where there is smoke ...
Given that Riley said he is "sure I don't want to do this anymore," combined with the fact that the Heat don't have championship aspirations coming off a 15-win season, Spoelstra should have at least 82 games to show what he can do. He'd better use the time efficiently.
Riley deserves this. After what happened with Stan, it's hard to say that any coach will be given room to make mistakes, and Spoelstra, though he's as smart as they come and is absolutely ready for the job, is going to make a few mistakes. Riley has to be careful - solid, consistent public support in both win streaks and the other kind, and gentle guidance and correction behind closed doors. Riley is the master of motivators (see "15 strong"), but coaches are a different animal - Riley was never a threat to personally step in for Antoine Walker if he didn't perform, but Spoelstra will likely be thinking about that possibility after every bad loss. In short: the last thing we need is an Al Davis-Lane Kiffin debacle, and it's up to Riley to be the grown-up and stay out of the way.
Play the bad guy. Part of an assistant coach's job is to play middle man between the head coach and the players, to offer a comforting voice when a player is chewed out. After assuming that role for seven years in Miami, Spoelstra now will have to be the bad cop to many of the same players he played buddy-buddy with as an assistant. That new dynamic will test the relationships Spoelstra may be counting on to ease his transition.
This is probably my biggest concern about Spoelstra. He knows the game like few others, and he apparently has the full respect of his players. But he's also the backup quarterback on your favorite college football team - everybody loves him until he takes that first live snap. As an assistant, Spoelstra was a prodigy, a symbol of hope and future success. As a head coach, he's just another paranoid wretch with a tenuous hold on his job. And in the eyes of the players, as Forrester points out, he's gone from an ally to an adversary, the guy responsible for the minutes and touches and the eventual paydays that follow from minutes and touches. You just have to give Spoelstra the benefit of the doubt that he's studied the human element of coaching as much or more than the Xs and Os. I'm not leaning one way or the other here - we'll just wait and see.
Embrace Shawn Marion. With an expiring $17.8 million contract, Marion has been dogged by trade rumors all offseason. As long as the four-time All-Star remains in Miami, Spoelstra has a chance to utilize one the league's unique talents, someone who can score inside and out, hit the boards and defend almost any position. Teamed with a healthy Dwyane Wade and an eager Michael Beasley, Marion could help the Heat regain respectability quickly.
Sounds right on the surface, but what does it mean to really "embrace" Marion? I mean, he's the best small forward on the team, so he'll get his burn. And he's in a contract year, so motivation won't be an issue. Aside from that, what should Spoelstra do for Marion that he doesn't do for any player on his team? It's silly to think a coach would suppress a player like Marion because he might be traded. Half the guys in the league might be traded. You don't just stop using them while you wait for the call from upstairs. So if "embrace" means to give him the minutes and opportunites his performance dictates, then I agree. But Spoelstra can't make trade rumors go away or insist to Marion that he's a part of the Heat's long-term plans, because he likely isn't. Spoelstra's biggest responsibility with Marion is to keep his greed under control, because he's going to want to hang up some big numbers for his agent to work with next summer. Spoelstra has to keep Marion in line and make sure Wade and Beasley don't have to scrap for shots.
There isn't much room for the Heat to go but up. And with Wade back on the floor, fresh off a great Olympics and highly motivated, Spoelstra is in position for a decent start as the Heat try to rebound from last season's disaster.
That's the "prospects" part of Forrester's piece. Sounds about right.