Appearing on the Fox Sports program First Things First, Isiah Thomas said that the NBA has “failed” LeBron James because he never played for an established coach. He even falsely claimed that Erik Spoelstra was a rookie coach when James signed with the Miami Heat in 2010. In fact, Spoelstra’s first year as a head coach was the 2008-09 season.
"This is where the NBA and our league has truly failed LeBron James: every place he's gone, they've always given him either a first year coach or someone they were experimenting with. LeBron James has never had the benefit of Hall of Fame coaches." — @IsiahThomas pic.twitter.com/nhR1mHPpoe— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) May 20, 2019
The notion that James always played for a rookie coach or someone the franchise was “experimenting with” is just flat wrong. Then in his mid-60s, Pat Riley named Spoelstra as his hand-picked successor. Here’s part of what he said in Spoelstra’s April 2008 introductory press conference:
I believe Erik Spoelstra is one of the most talented young coaches to come around in a long time. This game is now about younger coaches who are technologically skilled, innovative and bring fresh new ideas. That’s what we feel we are getting with Erik Spoelstra. He’s a man that was born to coach.
Does that sound like someone Riley is just “experimenting with?” When he was named as head coach of the Heat, Spoelstra had just completed his 13th season on the Miami staff. In no way does that situation resemble the Cleveland Cavaliers hiring David Blatt in June 2014, just weeks before James signed with the Cavaliers.
Riley said that he was never interested in coming back to coach (as he did in 2005, replacing Stan Van Gundy), and that he told James as much. In the midst of a March 2011 five-game losing streak, Riley responded to rumors of Spoelstra’s firing — “Write it off. Write it off. It’s the media being neurotic.”
Now, I have criticized Spoelstra’s decision-making in several recaps on this Web site. I’ve talked about how he’s a better defensive coach than offensive one. But every single NBA coach has made mistakes.
Gregg Popovich invited James to take jump shots in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals — in one case, he even took a dribble before making a wide-open corner 3 — and James made five 3s in a 95-88 game. Doc Rivers had a good year coaching the Los Angeles Clippers, but has made questionable moves. Even Brad Stevens, who quickly earned a reputation as one of the league’s best coaches, failed to manage personalities on the Boston Celtics this year.
So could Miami have done better than two championships in four years than Spoelstra did? My bet is no. Spoelstra missed opportunities to counter Rick Carlisle’s moves in the 2011 NBA Finals — including insisting on starting Mike Bibby over Mario Chalmers and playing an injured Mike Miller over James Jones — but Miami lost that series because LeBron James didn’t play well. Chris Bosh averaged more points per game than James in that Finals. James couldn’t even post up J.J. Barea.