This isn’t fair. Other NBA teams should file a grievance. The Heat can offer prospective free agents a reigning championship team, a surrounding All-Star Big 3 led by the best basketball player on Earth, and a resort city famed for its nightlife. And then they bring in The Closer, Pat Riley, whose résumé and force of personality seems to work on players the way Sean Connery’s gaze worked on women in 1960s James Bond films.
Best team, best players, South Beach, LeBron James, Riley — who needs money!
Miami had hardly anything to spend in free agency this year and still somehow signed a 10-time All-Star in three-point record-holder Ray Allen and another star-pedigree player and former maximum-contract guy in versatile 6-10 Rashard Lewis.
Both men accepted much less money than they were offered by other teams and agreed to a role off the bench simply to be part of this special thing that Riley has built.
“You mean I’m not starting?” joked Allen when reminded he plays the same position as Dwyane Wade.
The architect parries the credit, of course. Riley interrupted during Wednesday’s arena news conference introducing the Heat’s two newest players when Lewis was asked what it is the Heat’s club president says behind closed doors that is so alluring.
“Let me answer that,” Riley said wryly. “I mention LeBron, Chris [Bosh] and Dwyane and they take it from there. We have built a team players want to play for.”
Economics once ruled NBA free agency. Players followed the biggest contract offer. Now players follow the scent of other talent and of championships, not money.
What Riley can offer — better teammates and a better shot at a ring than other teams — was all the sales pitch Lewis needed after 14 seasons without a parade.
“Obviously, I’m hungry just to win a championship,” Lewis said.
It was more than that for Allen, who won a ring with Boston.
Riley made him feel wanted — needed — in a way that the Celtics did not, even though the money offer could not reflect that.
Boston had tried to trade Allen during the All-Star break, demoted his role and last week signed his replacement, Jason Terry, even as Allen weighed whether to leave. Clearly, Celtics fans calling Allen a traitor might consider it was Boston whose actions showed him the door.
Miami, in contrast, wooed Allen as if he were the biggest free agent in the NBA. James and Wade lobbied and showed love with calls and texts and Tweets. Coach Erik Spoelstra outlined a major role and significant minutes.
And then The Closer did his thing. Anyone who has been in Riley’s company has been mesmerized by a philosopher in coach’s clothes. He doesn’t so much speak as enlighten. A reporter interviewing Riley is tempted to simply transcribe what he says verbatim because, as a colleague of mine says, “He speaks better than I write.”
“Just a very disarming guy,” Allen described the experience of meeting Riley during his visit here late last week. “This was my first time really sitting down with an opportunity to swap stories with him. He’s a guy after my own heart. We probably talked four or five hours that day, and I took a lot from it.”
They talked basketball, talked movies. Riley gave Allen a book, The Four Agreements, an inspirational in which author Don Miguel Ruiz discusses steps on the path to personal freedom, to a life “filled with grace, peace and unconditional love.”
(The four agreements, by the way, are to be impeccable with your word, to not take anything personally, to not make assumptions and to always do your best. I cannot confirm that the hidden fifth agreement is to sign with the Heat for less money.)
Allen left Miami deeply impressed by the opportunity here, but mostly by Riley.
“And the next day he texted me some good quotes,” Allen said.
Riley is 67 but would tell you he is still growing, learning. His Heat won the 2006 championship and he stood pat, choosing to not fix what wasn’t broke. It didn’t work. Now he sees Steve Nash joining Kobe Bryant. Sees Dwight Howard about to change uniforms. He knows that what won in 2012 might not be good enough next year.
“We’ve got to raise the bar. Expect more,” he said Wednesday. “What we didn’t do [after the ’06 title] was add people like Ray or Rashard. That was my mistake. You have to keep adding pieces, adding quality talent.”
Riley calls Allen “one of the most professional professionals this league has ever seen.” Spoelstra (albeit given to dramatic hyperbole), said, “There are only a handful of players in this league that absolutely strike fear into their opponent, and Ray is one.”
Lewis was coveted more for his length, wingspan and versatility. He has the three-point touch to join Allen as a floor-spreading perimeter threat but also the size to play power forward. No matter that Allen turns 37 next week and Lewis 33 next month; adding pieces that make you better now is the luxury of a champion.
Miami’s winning blueprint shows an increasing reliance on versatility embodied by the newest additions. Hybrid players are in here. Think about it. James was the small forward whose conversion to a power role made him Finals MVP. Wade can play either guard spot. Bosh was the power forward who converted seamlessly to center.
“We want to get to a point where we are position-less,” Spoelstra said. “The more we can become position-less, the more exciting it can be.”
The Heat wants a mix and rotation that has five strong players on the floor at all times. They want to “play faster,” Spoelstra said, and rely less on set plays.
Wednesday’s introduction of Allen and Lewis marked a welcome indication that the Heat is symbolically over the champagne now, past the parade and looking forward.
On Wednesday, the NBA’s best team got better.