Pat Riley has long been one of the most respected figures in NBA basketball. He’s always found ways to make moves, bring in talent, and win. And in his two decades running the show for the Miami Heat, Riley has done just that. However, with his recent shortfalls in free agency and the apparent mishandling of his own star players, the public and professional perception of Riley may be changing.
In the last three summers, Riley has lost LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to different ball clubs and found himself in the midst of a rather tricky situation with Chris Bosh. Not only that, but the manner in which things have played out with his former superstars has left him looking more flawed than ever. His once untouchable reputation has taken a hit, and Riley and the Heat are facing the most uncertainty they’ve encountered in a long time.
Over the years, Riley has basically been viewed as basketball royalty. He was a star player at the powerhouse University of Kentucky. He was a tough, gritty role player in the NBA who helped the Los Angeles Lakers win a title in ’72. As a coach, he led the Showtime Lakers to four championships in the ’80s, one of the greatest dynasties of all time. During the early ’90s, he coached the junkyard dog New York Knicks, who played basketball more like it was football and constantly challenged Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for the Eastern Conference title.
In 1995 he took over the Heat as their head coach and team president, and has remained at the helm of the franchise ever since. In Miami, Riley has pulled off some of the greatest trades and free agent hauls in NBA history, trading for Shaquille O’Neal in 2004 and assembling the Big Three in 2010. His work in the front office has brought three championships to the Heat, turning an expansion team into one of the best franchises in the sport.
He was named one of the 10 greatest NBA coaches of all time in the league’s 50th anniversary honours in 1996-97, and is now considered one of the best executives, too. But his recent handling of James, Wade and Bosh has made many second-guess his highly regarded reputation.
See, the thing about Riley is that he has multiple personas that appear to conflict with one another. There’s the smooth, stylish, charming man with the slicked-back hair and tailored suits who coached the Showtime Lakers, one of the most fun teams ever, to great success in the glitz and glamour capital of the world. And there’s the tough, no-nonsense, win-at-all-costs competitor, the coach who put his team through four-hour practices and was the general behind the Knicks of the early ’90s, one of the toughest and most physical teams in NBA history.
Underneath all the style and bravado, this is who Pat Riley really is. Winning is everything. And that mentality has served him well.
That is, up until this point, when it may now be doing him harm. Not only has he lost out on superstar players, but the manner in which he handled it has made him come across as disloyal, disingenuous and somewhat out of control. Three qualities we are not used to hearing in the same sentence as Pat Riley.
His first big loss came in the summer of 2014, when James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers instead of re-signing with the Heat. LeBron’s decision came after Miami’s run for a third-straight title ended with a lopsided loss in the 2014 Finals to the San Antonio Spurs. After the defeat, with the superstar’s free agency pending, Riley spoke to the media, stating in a rather stern and direct tone, “This stuff is hard. And you’ve got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts, and you don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity.”
The message was obviously directed at the Big Three, who were all able to opt out of their contracts at the time. It came across as belittling and an almost desperate move.
When James returned to Miami for the first time as a member of the Cavs, Riley sat in his chair after a tribute video was played. He stood and applauded after the video for James Jones, the former Heat sharpshooter who followed LeBron to Cleveland. It was clear the relationship between LeBron and Riley was severely damaged.
After Cleveland won the championship this year, James told ESPN.com, “When I decided to leave Miami—I’m not going to name any names, I can’t do that—but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career. And that s— hurt me.”
Although he didn’t name names, many believed he was referring to Riley. This was not a great look for the Heat franchise.
While the LeBron situation was a big hit to the organisation, it wasn’t until this past summer that things got really bad for the Heat, when they lost Wade to the Chicago Bulls. He had been the face of the Heat for 13 years and is a self-proclaimed “Heat lifer,” but circumstances got in the way and tensions grew between Wade and Riley.
Although Wade made his decision to leave this summer, you have to look at his whole career, particularly the last few seasons, to understand why.
For starters, during his 13 years with the Heat, Wade was never the highest paid player on the roster. In 2010, when the Big Three was formed, it was Wade who took the biggest pay cut in order to help Riley assemble talent around them. It wasn’t by much (Bosh and James each gave up about $14 million over the duration of their contracts, while Wade gave up $17 million), but it set the tone for the future. In 2014, Wade, James and Bosh were all able to opt out of their contracts. After LeBron opted out, Wade and Bosh followed suit, hoping to help Riley gain flexibility with the roster and re-sign James. But once James signed with Cleveland, Bosh received a five-year max extension, while Wade had to settle for less money than he would have gotten if he had opted in.
Then, in 2015, Wade once again opted out of his deal and looked to get compensation for his past sacrifices. However, Riley didn’t want to give it to him, and although Wade contemplated leaving, the two sides compromised. Finally, in 2016, it became evident that Wade didn’t want to compromise again and was seeking a max deal for his years of service to the organisation. Riley, however, made it clear that Wade was not the priority. He didn’t speak with Wade throughout the free agency process, and instead focused his attention on re-signing Hassan Whiteside and pursuing Kevin Durant, who went to the Golden State Warriors. Riley and the Heat reportedly offered Wade a deal for $41 million over two years, less than what the future Hall of Famer was looking for. Inevitably, Wade left.
Riley’s lack of interest in reaching out to his franchise player was shocking to a lot of people. It gave the impression he wanted Wade out of town, and didn’t want to pay top dollar for a 34-year-old. He was seemingly thinking about the future of the franchise rather than its immediate success. While this is understandable, it still rubbed many the wrong way. Wade had spent his entire career with the Heat, and the loyalty he had shown the franchise wasn’t returned. The situation made Riley come across as disloyal and had people questioning his intent. Wade was clearly hurt by the whole process.
“I thought it was an opportunity I would be there forever, but s–t happens,” Wade told CSNChicago.com in November. “And when s–t happens, you gotta be prepared to [move on]. I found out very quickly that this is a business.”
After Wade left, Riley expressed regret about the way he handled his free agency. “What happened with Dwyane floored me,” he said. “I have great regret I didn’t put myself in the middle of it and immerse myself in the middle of it and get in a canoe and paddle to the Mediterranean if I had to, be in New York when he arrived on the sixth and greet him at the airport. I wasn’t there in the middle of the negotiation, and that’s my job. It’s not going to be the same without him.”
While it was a nice sentiment, it still had people wondering if Riley was being genuine or if he was simply trying to save face. I mean, it’s Pat Riley, right? Surely he knew what he was doing. Either way, the Heat will have to move ahead without Wade, and the way the split happened left a stain on the pair’s relationship.
In the same offseason as Wade’s departure, the Bosh situation began to turn ugly. He had missed the second half of each of the past two seasons with blood clot issues, and his medical status became even more complicated. He had hoped to return to the court for the 2016-17 season, but after he failed his preseason physical, Bosh was not cleared to play by team doctors. This led to Riley saying publicly that Bosh’s Heat career was “probably over.”
“There is not a next step for us. It’s pretty definitive for us in our position,” Riley told the media.
“We headed down the road very excited to a point where we thought it would work. And then the physical couldn’t clear him to the next step.”
Bosh revealed that he wasn’t told he failed the physical before the Heat issued a media release with the news. According to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel, a Heat spokesman said Riley emailed Bosh and reached out to his manager and agent, without reply, before the announcement was made.
Bosh said in a video on Uninterrupted.com, “I guess my career in Miami is done. My career is not done.”
If Bosh doesn’t play again, the Heat would be allowed to clear a large amount of his contract from their salary cap, so it was speculated that money played a role in the team’s decision. Things got worse when it was reported on Twitter that Bosh had said, “If you think you’re going to turn my medical issue into cap space, think again.”
Riley’s stance on Bosh is, no doubt, a reasonable one. It would be negligent for the Heat to let him play without clearance and risk further setbacks, and even his life. However, it is the way in which Riley went about it that made the situation such a negative one. Bosh still remains on the Heat roster, but it is unclear what the future holds for the two parties.
James, Wade and Bosh all seem to feel bitter and betrayed by Riley, although Wade less than the other two based on public comments. And when all three of your former superstar players appear to resent you, that’s clearly a problem for Riley going forward.
For the past few decades, the Heat have been a top destination for free agents and star players. As well as O’Neal, James and Bosh, Riley brought guys like Eddie Jones, Ray Allen, Lamar Odom, P.J. Brown, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway to the franchise. Miami is a big market where the weather is great and there’s no state tax. But more than anything, the biggest reason players were drawn to the Heat was Riley.
He’s a winner with the rings to prove it. He’s set up a culture of excellence for the Heat, who have missed the playoffs four times in his 21 seasons. That is what made his organisation appealing to players. Free agents would meet with him, see his rings, see the banners, and get wooed by him. It’s the Riley mystique.
But with everything that’s gone on in the past few offseasons, this mystique has weakened. Riley has been left looking petty and disingenuous.
With this in mind, there is a decent chance that players around the league and future free agents considering Miami may not be as trusting of him. It’s also possible he’s lost some credibility and trust amongst the players on his own roster.
Riley is an incredible GM who has the potential to bounce back from this. With free agents potentially being less inclined to join the Heat, he may have to look to draft and trade for talent, rather than signing big names.
He’s done this in the past, orchestrating trades to bring in Shaq and talent to put around him, including Jason Williams, James Posey and Antoine Walker, which led to the franchise’s first title in 2006. He also drafted Wade fifth overall in 2003 and had other draft-day successes with Justise Winslow, Caron Butler and Mario Chalmers. However, Miami has traded away its first-round picks for 2018 (it’s top-seven protected that year) and 2021. So things will be tough.
For now, re-signing Whiteside was huge for the Heat’s rebuilding process, and Riley has a few nice young assets on his roster, such as Winslow and Tyler Johnson. That being said, this is the least promising squad Riley has had since perhaps ’07-08. Making the Heat strong again from where they stand now will be his biggest challenge as a GM.
“I know who Pat is. It’s no secret to me,” Wade said before his return to Miami in November. “I was there 13 years, I’ve seen a lot of players come and go. I know how he is. If you’re not with him, you’re against him.”
At his core, Riley is a competitor, and puts winning above all else, even above loyalty. It’s part of the reason he has been so successful over the years. It’s just that this time, his win-at-all-costs mentality may actually turn out to have the opposite effect.