Erik Spoelstra sat in the stands inside Cox Pavilion on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas looking very relaxed. He happily signed a few autographs, scribbling “Coach Spo” on one program.
Life is good for Coach Spo. He’s coming off a second championship season and one day before the start of training camp the Heat reportedly is working on a lucrative contract extension that would keep the 42-year-old head coach in Miami for a long time.
Spoelstra is 260-134 in his first five seasons with Miami, going to the NBA Finals the last three seasons. Only 12 other coaches in NBA history have multiple championships and only seven others have collected rings in back-to-back years. And last season may have been Spoelstra’s best coaching job.
The Heat rolled through the regular season, winning 27 straight games at one point on the way to a 66-16 record. Then in the playoffs, Miami had to rally from a 1-0 second-round deficit against Chicago and ultimately had to grind out seven-game victories over Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals and San Antonio in the NBA Finals.
”What’s overlooked for him is the management of the team,” Wade told AP last season. ”It’s not the coaching part of it. It’s, ‘Can you manage these egos, these personalities, without having one your damn self?’ He’s done it.”
Every team in the league are gunning for Spoelstra and the Heat this season. But they were all gunning for them last year as well, and we all know how that turned out.
OneManFastBreak.net examines teams in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division and where they’ll finish:
LeBron James is at the height of his powers and no one is no longer doubting his ability to win, especially in crunch. He delivered a virtuoso performance in the 2013 playoffs, including a dagger mid-range jumper from the right elbow to seal Game 7 of the Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. If there are chinks on the Heat’s armor it’s injuries and fatigue. Dwyane Wade’s knees are beginning to fail him and his health has been a concern for three years. Wade turns 32 in January and he has 100 percent relinquished the team’s “Batman” title to his buddy LeBron. The Heat are about to embark on a historic journey. Since the NBA-ABA merger, only two teams have gone to four consecutive NBA Finals: Magic Johnson’s L.A. Lakers teams from 1982-85 and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics teams from 1984-87. The Heat have played well over 100 games the last three seasons, so fatigue will definitely be an issue.
Owner Ted Leonsis, team president Ernie Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman are going all in on point guard John Wall, as the Wizards inked the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 with a five-year, $80-million contract. The team is shaping entire game plan around Wall, a player who is blessed with many physical gifts but is still learning how to run an offense. Wall made great strides last year after missing the first 33 games with a bum knee. He averaged 18 points per game, but more importantly nearly eight assists. Instead of going end-to-end looking for his own shot, Wall started sharing the ball and finding open teammates. Wall’s evolution as a point man helped Washington play .500 ball over the final 50 games. Bradley Beal got off to a slow start but finished strong, earning third place in the rookie of the year voting.
Larry Drew did a commendable job in 2012-13 despite having a depleted roster and losing All-Star Joe Johnson to free agency. Instead of getting a hearty handshake, Drew was shown the door and was let go. Enter new coach Mike Budenholzer, an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. Budenholzer was hired by general manager Danny Ferry, another former Spurs employee. Ferry believed that the Hawks were “locked into an identity that was hard to change and was going to be harder to maintain.” Change is coming in Atlanta. Aside from losing Drew, the Hawks won’t have Josh Smith. Jeff Teague and Al Horford are now the focal point of Budenholzer’s new attack, and free agent pickup Paul Millsap replaces Smith in the starting lineup. Lou Williams, who is coming off an ACL tear, should bolster scoring off the bench.
The Magic organization is now two years removed from the Dwight Howard drama and, frankly, Orlando seems to be doing just fine; the rebuilding process is well under way. Second-year head coach Jacque Vaughn was given a bad hand to start his coaching career, but he should have more pieces to work with this year beginning with prized rookie Victor Oladipo. The second overall pick in the 2013 draft shined during the summer league, averaging 19 points, four rebounds, five assists, and two steals while primarily playing point guard. Oladipo comes into the NBA with reputation as a defensive standout who loves to slash to the basket. But he impressed the Magic coaching staff with his ballhandling and outside shooting. The former Indiana University star will be a strong candidate for rookie of the year in 2014.
Charlotte fans are absolutely giddy, and it’s not because they picked up Al Jefferson in free agency or drafted Indiana University stud Cody Zeller. The reason for the big buzz in the city is the return of the “Hornets,” as in the Charlotte Hornets. The NBA Board of Governors recently approved the name change after New Orleans changed its name to the Pelicans. Charlotte just needs to tough it out for one more season as the Bobcats before switching to the Charlotte Hornets at the start of the 2014-15 season. The change can’t come soon enough for team owner Michael Jordan because since taking over majority ownership in 2010 the Bobcats have become comatose, winning just 28 games in two years. But help is on the way. First-year head coach Steve Clifford has armed himself with great assistants in Patrick Ewing and Mark Price. Too bad Ewing and Price can’t put on uniforms.
Joel Huerto is editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.