The performance was pure Riles, a 55-minute dissertation on not deserting when times get tough. It had everything — emotion, pace, rhythm, cadence.
“I think everybody needs to get a grip — media, Heat players, organization, all of our fans — we got to get a grip on greatness and on teams,” Pat Riley said last week, as defiant as ever. “I’ve been here for 45 years in the NBA, and I’ve witnessed dynasties, I’ve witnessed great teams. The ’80s Lakers, five championships in 12 years. So what does that mean? Seven times they didn’t win. In that run, they didn’t win. You got to deal with it, you got to come back.”
For the Miami Heat and their patriarch’s sake, they had better hope LeBron James was listening and bought every word. Or else Riley won’t go down as a visionary architect, one who put together the first team since Larry Bird’s Celtics to go to four straight NBA Finals. He will be the guy who lost LeBron, who couldn’t convince the league’s preeminent star that his future was brighter in Miami than, say, running the floor with Chris Paul and the Clippers.
For LeBron to stay in Miami, he has to believe Riley hasn’t lost his Midas touch. When you look at the dearth of players lately drafted whom the Heat has substantially developed into all-around players; when you look at the growing number of minutes LeBron had to play this past season as Dwyane Wade’s body continued to break down; when the greatest hunker-down coach of his era is suddenly relaxing standards as team president to accommodate his best player, well, if you’re LeBron you have to wonder if Riley still has it.
The James Gang is led by Maverick Carter and Rich Paul, LeBron’s childhood friends who became savvy enough deal-makers to cut out others seeking the same influence in LeBron’s life and career. They basically had the keys to the Cleveland Cavaliers during LeBron’s time there. Carter and Paul have in the past year been granted more access to the Heat organization than many observers remember anyone associated with a star on a Riley team having. Their presence and allowance into the Heat’s inner workings is a major source of discontent among many in the organization.
Riley, the coach, would have set boundaries. Riley, the president of a team whose three best players can opt out of their contracts this season, is bending the rules to make his best player feel more at home. According to two people, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Carter pushed for this arrangement after last season and Riley reluctantly agreed.
Letting anyone “inside” is about as counter to Riley’s band-of-brothers culture as it gets. Maybe the gamble will pay off, but anyone in Cleveland can tell you in hindsight the worst possible move the Cavaliers made was enabling a player to dictate too much on his own terms, even the greatest of players.
The biggest thing LeBron has to decide is whether Miami is the future or the past. He doesn’t have many better options, only because nearly every team would have to decimate its roster to acquire him. With the exception of real role players, he’s got what he needs to make several more championship runs in Miami.
The Clippers are still the most intriguing possibility because they could remain largely intact. If Riley isn’t worried about Steve Ballmer, a guy who just spent $2 billion on a team luring away his prized recruit, he should be. If you’re a conspiracy-theory sort, you could honestly wonder if LeBron’s passionate feelings about Donald Sterling needing to be removed from the equation before next season were more than social conscience. Further, what neophyte owner pays that much for the second banana in Los Angeles unless he might have some inkling he would have a shot to compete for the services of the game’s best player?
The Clippers would have to give up part of the store — creating cap space by moving Jamal Crawford and DeAndre Jordan, among other moves — but Paul and Blake Griffin would be part of the most lethal three-man break in NBA annals.
Will LeBron leave Miami? I don’t think for at least a year, if then. He probably wants to see if Riley can deliver on his all-in mantra, be a better leader of the franchise so that the players around LeBron aren’t either rusting or not ready for a team like the Spurs next June. The real issue is whether LeBron trusts in Riley to get it done.
“This stuff is hard,” Riley said. “And you got to stay together, if you got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity. This is four years into this era, this team, four Finals, [has] only been done three other times before. And two championships. From day one to the end, it was like a Broadway show. [We] sort of run out of steam, and we need to retool. We don’t need to rebuild. We need to retool. And that’s what we’re gonna do.”
Riley has won everything in his career, including championships as a player, coach and executive. No North American sports icon can say that, not even Phil Jackson. No one in the NBA today is as revered by the old-school crowd as a “dude magnet.” That’s how Jeanie Buss, of all people, actually once described Riley.
But does LeBron James still feel that way? That’s the one real question this offseason, and the entire league’s balance of power hinges on the answer.
Riley can retire a Hall of Famer tomorrow, be fabulously wealthy until he dies and have few regrets about his life and career, other than his admission he should have taken the Knicks’ John Starks out of Game 7 against Houston in 1994.
But can he get LeBron to believe he hasn’t lost it — the ability to develop, not just recruit, players, to put capable multifaceted reserves around LeBron, to make the Heat the class of the NBA for seasons to come? Or does L.A. beckon LeBron sooner than later?
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.