In this series we will be taking a look back at some of the coaching decisions that may or may not have changed the outcome of NBA Finals over the last several years. It’s always easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback but as an NBA Head Coach this is something that comes with the profession. This is not meant to be referendum on their abilities as a coach as a whole but a look back at what might have been should different choices have been made.
Up first is the Miami Heat and Erik Spoelstra. Spo took over the Miami Heat in 2008 and in the 12 years since he has become one of the most accomplished coaches of the 21st century. He is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA and has earned that respect due to his longevity and the success of the Miami Heat. Oh and he leads all coaches in his willingness to go ALL over the floor to try and get timeouts…
He coached his ass off in the 2009-2010 season to drag (Wade was sensational as well) a below average Miami Heat team to the playoffs, he shepherded the Heat to 4 straight finals and 2 titles in the Lebron era, and was able to keep the Heat more than relevant in the years since Lebron’s departure. His record and ability to squeeze the most out of his roster is unquestionable but like all men and coaches he is fallible.
In the 2011 season the Heatles were the center of the basketball world (shout out to the ESPN Heat Index) and despite an imperfect roster and a fair share of speed bumps (bump-gate anyone?) the Heat were in the finals and the heavy favorite against the Dallas Mavericks. By the time the finals ended the majority of NBA (outside of the Mavs locker room) would be shocked that the Mavs were crowned champion in 6 games. Is it Spo’s fault that Lebron struggled so much mentally that he looked lost on the basketball court? Absolutely not. But were there adjustments he could’ve made in the moment to give the Heat the title? Perhaps.
If you remember watching that series, the Mavs were at the peak of their powers. Dirk Nowitzki was dominate…he averaged 26 a game and seemed to hit timely buckets whenever the Mavs needed one. Jason Terry hit nearly 40% of his 3’s. Shawn Marion hounded Lebron and Wade around the perimeter. Tyson Chandler had probably his finest series as a rim protector, screen setter, rim runner, and on the offensive glass.
Jason Kidd shot 43% from 3 and surgically picked a part the Heat defense. JJ Barea was as feisty in the pick n’ roll game as he’s ever been. And Rick Carlisle pushed all the right buttons for his team, deftly sprinkling in zone to keep the Miami Heat offense consistently off balance.
Now with all the being said the Heat were up 1-0 and then had an epic collapse in Game 2 with the Mavs finishing the game on a 22 to 5 run. Despite how good Nowitzki was the Heat had the best player in the finals. Wade was magnificent in the series with averages of 27, 7, and 5. But despite Wade’s brilliance the Heat fell short and it was in this finals that perhaps Spoelstra’s biggest coaching flaw reared its head.
Spo, much like his mentor Pat Riley, trusts “his guys” and trusts veteran players above all. His coaching philosophy is rooted in the belief that experience matters, especially in the biggest of moments. In the 2010-2011 season, after signing the Big 3 the Heat filled out the rest of the roster with veteran cast offs who would be given undue trust in the NBA Finals. Despite struggling on both ends of the floor, Mike Bibby continued to start and play ahead of the younger (and better) Mario Chalmers. Bibby hit just 29% of his 3’s and shot 35% from the field, but most debilitating he was regularly torched by the Mavs perimeter attack. Chalmers shot 43% from the field and 40% from 3. Yet Spoelstra didn’t insert Chalmers into the starting lineup until Game 6. Yes, Chalmers consistently got more minutes than Bibby in the series but by making the starting lineup swap it could have help an another way.
By early in Game 4 it was evident that Lebron was struggling with his confidence and seemed out of sorts. Had Chalmers been in the starting lineup he could’ve helped to lesson the load on James to orchestrate the offense. Even at his peak with the Kings Bibby was never a guard who broke down defenses off the bounce or could create for others. Chalmers could do both of those things. He also would’ve provided a massive defensive upgrade and brought some moxie. Had Spo trusted the 24 year old Chalmers more and given him the starting nod the Heat perhaps could’ve overcome the brilliance of the Mavs. Perhaps not, but looking back it is clear Spo erred by not starting the ever confident Chalmers earlier.