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Super-powered Miami Heat may need a spark only Pat Riley can provide

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 11:49 PM

Even the people who resented the Super Friends for hooking up in the first place couldn't have seen this coming. Even folks who hated LeBron James for taking his talents to South Beach and found completely tacky Miami's presumptuous midsummer celebration wouldn't dare have predicted a three-game losing streak before Thanksgiving and an 8-7 record.

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The Miami Heat suddenly doesn't seem so stacked, not yet anyway. The suggestion that the Heat could win 70 games this season we now know was folly. Sixty wins, at the moment, is a stretch. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are 1-6 against teams with a winning record. Miami is a team in need of a creative playmaker in the back court, a brute in the front court and perhaps a coach the players fear just a little bit on the sideline. Instead of the Heat striking fear throughout the league, even chumps like the Indiana Pacers can't wait to get at Miami.

And the Heat, slow to catch on in every way, appears oblivious to the fact that while most players passionately supported the right of James and Bosh to take control of their own careers as free agents and merge their prodigious talents with Wade's, those same players would rather beat Miami's brains in than do anything else this regular season. Miami's players, meanwhile, seem dumbstruck that they're getting hit with a playoff-level effort from every single opponent. The result is one incredibly disappointing month of basketball.

Common sense said Miami was going to need weeks, and probably even a couple of months for this conglomeration to morph into anything approaching a great team. But only the most cynical hoop-heads expected Miami to be so challenged in so many areas 15 games into the season.

Bosh says the team simply needs to chill. LeBron says the problem is that he and his teammates aren't having enough fun . . . and that he needs to play fewer minutes . . . and that he doesn't want to be the point guard. The on-court results suggest Miami needs just the opposite, something closer to three-hour practices and an uber-demanding coach who'll tell LeBron he has to be the team's dominant player - whether he likes it or not - if the Heat is going to be any good in the short term.

Phil Jackson got at this a couple of days ago when he poked the bear by saying out loud what every basketball fan in the country was already thinking: That if Miami continues to be this lousy, Coach Erik Spoelstra is going to be replaced sooner or later by Pat Riley. "Eventually," Jackson said, "these guys that were recruited . . . by Pat Riley and Micky Arison, the owner, are going to come in and say, 'We feel [Riley] can do a better job coaching the team.' . . . It could be the Van Gundy thing all over again."

Stan Van Gundy, now coaching the Orlando Magic, ripped into Jackson, calling his comments "inappropriate" and "ignorant" before Orlando beat Miami on Wednesday night. And while Jackson probably violated some unwritten but dearly held rule that coaches don't criticize another's man's team, his comments were anything but ignorant. Riley did dump Van Gundy in 2005 - even though Van Gundy had gotten the Heat to the brink of the NBA Finals - when Shaquille O'Neal didn't want Van Gundy anymore. And more to this point, LeBron specifically sounds like he needs a coach with the authority to tell him what he has to do. That's Riley.

I've resisted this notion - that Spoelstra was inadequate to coach this team because he didn't have the resume or the authority, and that Riley would have to come running to the rescue - since the very beginning. Riley isn't going to suddenly make Carlos Arroyo a complementary point guard, and the acquisition of Erick Dampier isn't going to give the Heat the kind of physicality it needs around the basket. I'm not certain that Riley, having watched these first 15 games, looks at this group and thinks he can make it a championship-caliber team this season.

But . . .

Riley absolutely has the charisma and history of success that conveys the kind of authority that will allow him to appoint LeBron as the team's primary playmaker, period, and dare LeBron to whine about it. Spoelstra, from what we've seen so far, does not.

Riley, I presume, could change the tenor of the team. While word is Wade could do without those exacting practices that wear players out before they're whipped into shape, it appears the rest of the team could benefit from Riley's foot. Wednesday night in Orlando, Miami played without any real passion (which perhaps is what LeBron is mistaking for a lack of fun). From a strategic standpoint, the Heat's players don't run nearly as much as they should to take advantage of the open-court wonder of LeBron and Wade. Riley, I presume, could fix that. But Miami gets hammered in the paint, routinely. LeBron and Wade are taking turns more than they are actually playing together, as if they were sharing the court for a few days during all-star weekend.

The volume in Miami, a notoriously bad sports town, has already been turned down. Hell, there are already ad campaigns in South Florida instructing fans on how to be fans, how to cheer and show up on time. Folks outside South Florida couldn't be happier. "I think people are looking at that, kind of hoping things go wrong instead of hoping things go right because of the way they were formed," Jackson said on Chicago radio. That, too, is anything but ignorant. He could have been referring to fans, players, club executives . . . just about anybody.

Of course, Jackson knew exactly what he was doing. He was doing what Jackson is better at doing than any coach or manager probably since a young Red Auerbach, which is being an agitator. And in tweaking Miami from 3,000 miles away, Jackson got a two-fer. He rattled the Heat and Orlando/Van Gundy. What could be better for Jackson than having a superior team and irritating two opposing teams who as of yet aren't worthy of being called rivals.

The question is whether Miami is still simply working out the kinks and still on schedule, relatively, to be a dominant team by mid-April, or whether these flaws plus the injuries to Mike Miller, the team's best shooter, and Udonis Haslem, the team's best rebounder, will lead to absolute doom. While it's all being sorted out, Miami will remain the NBA's top story, and if the Heat is miserable instead of triumphant, it seems we'll have just as much fun watching. Maybe more.

wilbonm@washpost.com


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