At least for a night, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra could fend off speculation that his job might be in jeopardy as his team beat the Washington Wizards 106-95 on Monday. Though it is very early in the season, a 10-8 record is not exactly what Pat Riley had in mind when he re-signed Dwyane Wade over the summer and also added superstar LeBron James and Chris Bosh via free agency.
"I'm just coming to work like everybody else is," Spoelstra said.
The Heat called a players-only meeting last Saturday night after losing to the Mavericks. Spoelstra, though, said he did not feel threatened by that action but was instead encouraged that the players emerged from the meeting saying that adversity was going to make them stronger.
"I'm not worried about what people think and when it should come together after how many games," he said. "The most important thing is that we stay together and we are getting to know each other under adverse circumstances. It's better now than in a heated, pressure-packed playoff series. We're learning how each other deals with adversity and how we respond when the pressure and the expectations on the outside are raised. How do we respond when we are being squeezed?"
The Heat responded well on Monday. Spoelstra, meanwhile, said he used Thanksgiving as a day to get away from a team and a season that has been hyped like no other in NBA history.
"I disciplined myself just to get away from everything," Spoelstra said. "I didn't read anything. I didn't watch any games."
A large media contingent is following the Heat's every move. Furthermore, the team has become like a rock band with extra security measures in every visiting City. Spoelstra realizes all of it could potentially be a distraction as could the attention on the team's slow start.
"We can't let all that other stuff sidetrack us and force us to take another step back," he said. "We've been humbled. There's no question about it."
James believes that if Miami was an ordinary team that they would be looked at as no more than just going through the process of integrating new players. However, things are different when one of those players happens to be one of the biggest superstars in all of professional sports.
"The process is definitely going a lot slower than we all thought," James said. "At some point we are going to have to figure it out. We have to continue to grind games, and we know that every single night that we play it is going to be a packed house. It's tough. It is never fun losing of course, but it is not the end of the world at this point."
While the spotlight has shined directly on the Heat's big three, they are also missing forwards Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem because of injuries. However, James says being down a couple of solid role players can't be used as an excuse.
"I don't think there is anything missing," he said. "If I had the exact answer then it would be easy to figure out. But this is a veteran ballclub. The guys know what it takes to win. Once it gets going, we will know what the difference is."
The question of Spoelstra's job security was raised last week by Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who loves to irritate anyone on Riley's coaching tree. Jackson mentioned how Riley, the Heat's president, fired Stan Van Gundy and took over as coach in 2006, leading them to the only NBA title in franchise history.
That brought forth a strong response from Van Gundy, now the coach of the Magic, who called Jackson's remarks "ignorant" and "inappropriate." Jackson later apologized to Van Gundy.
"People take the word ignorant to mean something it doesn't mean," Van Gundy said. "Ignorant means you have a lack of knowledge. Phil had no knowledge of my situation in Miami. None. And that's all I said."
Wade was not happy that Jackson was speculating about Spoelstra's future, saying, "I respect that from someone else, but not another coach. I guess Coach Jackson has earned the right to say what he wants, and he continues to exercise that right."
Johnson Changing New Jersey's Culture
Avery Johnson has demanded accountability from his players in his first season as the New Jersey Nets' coach. He has called out his captains publicly for not providing the leadership he expects. He has fined players for being late. He had Terrence Williams sent to the D-League last week to get his game back together.
Johnson again showed that he is not fooling around last weekend. After a listless performance in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night, Johnson ordered a morning shootaround Sunday morning before the Nets played the Trail Blazers that night.
NBA teams rarely have shootarounds when playing on the second of back-to-back days. Yet while the Sunday shootaround was light on physical activity, it was filled with film study and talk. It seemed to help, too, as the Nets beat the Trail Blazers.
"I just want them to know mediocrity is not something we should be satisfied with," Johnson said. "We know we're a rebuilding team. We know we're not an elite (team). But we've got to give ourselves a better chance to win every night. We've done that pretty much recently and I just didn't want them to be satisfied with 'Philly got away from us at the end of the game, we'll just show up at 4:30 like Coach scheduled it.' Sometimes, you've got to send a little shock to their system and let them know mediocrity is not something we strive for."
Beating Portland was significant for Johnson. One of the blueprints he is trying to follow in turning around the Nets is the one Nate McMillan has drawn up while coaching the Trail Blazers back to respectability.
"Where we are now is where Nate had them when Nate first came over from Seattle," Johnson said. "I look at teams that are built from the ground up. "They're a really nice example of what some other teams who were in our situation have done. The Blazers, they're a tough team. They're long, they're athletic and they've been together."
Karl on Doorstep of 1,000 Wins
Denver Nuggets coach George Karl is four victories away from becoming the seventh man to reach 1,000 in his NBA career as his team is on a four-game winning streak going into Wednesday night's home game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
"I laugh because I never thought I'd be here or get there," Karl said. "I remember talking to someone early in my career and I said I wanted 250. I think 250 would be great (because) then I could probably have a career in coaching the rest of my life. I could ride that into a college job. Then get fired in college. Then ride that into a Division II job. Get fired."
Karl is closing in on the milestone despite having an itinerant career. He has been fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors and replaced by the Seattle SuperSonics and the Bucks.
"I think he's done an unbelievable job as a coach in this league," Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "He's probably been the guy that has accomplished the most that has had the least written about, which is kind of hard to believe."
Part of the reason Karl doesn't get as much credit as he probably should is that he would become just the third 1,000-win coach without winning an NBA title. The others are Don Nelson, the league's all-time winningest coach, and the Utah Jazz's Jerry Sloan.
"Jerry and I are probably going to say, 'I wish we had the championship,"' Karl said. "We'd trade about 300 of those wins for one ring. Maybe 400. Maybe 500."
Smart Still Learning from Nelson
Speaking of Nelson, he was forced out as the Warriors' coach just prior to the start of the season. However, his influence with the franchise is still deeply felt. Nelson calls his successor Keith Smart, who was his top assistant, at least once a week.
"All young assistants want to have the opportunity to one day work for one of the heavyweights," Smart said.
Nelson was criticized for being too detached from his team last season. Yet the coaching transition was made much smoother by Nelson delegated so much authority to Smart.
"No other assistant coach in this league had the freedom I had," Smart said. "He was training me to really run a basketball program."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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