On the same morning Pat Riley broke the news the Miami Heat were no longer working toward Chris Bosh’s return to the franchise, the 71-year-old architect of three championship parades down Biscayne Boulevard was asked about the future — his and the team he’s run for 21 years.
Even though he has thought about leaving the game he has been married to since he was drafted by the San Diego Rockets in 1967, Riley simply can’t leave the Heat like this.
Not only is the front office still “one person short” in his eyes from making him feel comfortable about walking away, but leaving now — in the midst of what he calls the seventh Heat roster makeover he has been involved with — would give the appearance he’s running away from a challenge. And he’s not going to do that.
“I’m not excited about the dilemma with Chris,” Riley said of Bosh. “But I’m excited about another season, another build, another group of young guys that have been coming here since Aug. 1. I’m excited about [coach Erik Spoelstra].
“Now, we’re onto rebuilding, really rebuilding, but at the same time coach’s and my attitude is that we want to win. And we don’t know what we really have. But we love Hassan [Whiteside], we love Josh [Richardson] and Justise [Winslow], and Tyler [Johnson] and a lot of the other young players we have. From that standpoint, its wait and let’s see what happens — and then we’ll go from there.”
Oddsmakers and basketball experts believe they know what’s going to happen next: The Heat is going to flop on its way toward the NBA lottery, and point guard Goran Dragic is going to get traded to free up more money for next summer, so Riley can go hunting for two free agent whales once Bosh is released and his remaining salary is cleared from the salary cap.
That all could end up happening.
But on the eve of the season opener in Orlando Wednesday night, hitting the reset button is not what Spoelstra, Riley or any of the players on this Heat roster are thinking.
“Really young, really talented,” Whiteside said when asked in the middle of the preseason for his assessment of this new Heat roster that features five players on one-year deals and another five with either a team or player option for the 2017-18 season.
“Anybody can score. So, you really don’t know from day-to-day who is going to be the scorers, the facilitator or the player of the game. So, it’s very diverse and very unique. It’s a lot of playmakers. It’s a lot of defenders. If the guys trust the process like they’ve been doing, it’s going to be an exciting season.”
Whiteside, $98 million richer after this summer and the one whale Riley was able to reel in this summer, is quite literally at the center of the Heat’s future success. The roster Riley has built around the league’s leading shot blocker — with the $20 million Dwyane Wade turned down to go home to Chicago — is built on speed, athleticism, high-energy and much improved three-point shooting, all meant to complement Whiteside and Dragic, the triggerman at the point.
Both players have said this preseason they have a lot more space to work with because of the three-point shooting Luke Babbitt and Wayne Ellington have brought to the team, a huge contrast to just a few months ago when the Raptors and Hornets packed the paint against the Heat in the playoffs and dared Miami to shoot.
Dragic, who looked at home playing in an uptempo offense the second half of last season, loves the playmaking and depth Dion Waiters brings to the Heat’s backcourt, which is deep in talent and potential with Johnson and Richardson. Derrick Williams and James Johnson, meanwhile, each bring their own athletic, playmaking elements to the power forward position, which complements the style of play Spoelstra wants.
“If we stay healthy I think we have a shot — why not,” Dragic said of the Heat’s chances of making the playoffs and being one of the league’s bigger surprises this season. “I know some teams are ahead of us. They have — I wouldn’t say better players — but they [have played] together longer.
“But I’ve been here every day. We’re building habits. Good defense and fast pace — those two things are probably the hardest things to put together. So far we’ve demonstrated we can do both.”
In the end, the season and this franchise’s fortunes ultimately hinge on the success of the four young players Riley mentioned.
Can Winslow, who practiced against the U.S. Olympic team this summer, develop a jumper opponents will respect and raise his level of play on offense to what he brings on the defensive side of the ball?
Will Richardson, who some have compared to former Heat All-Star Eddie Jones, continue to flourish as a three-point shooter and defender now that he’s no longer a second-round rookie surprise?
Can Tyler Johnson, whom the Heat invested $50 million in this summer to stop him from heading to Brooklyn, develop into a stellar playmaking guard off the bench like Manu Ginobili, the player he thinks he can become?
Will Whiteside, who has improved his free-throw shooting, jump shooting and overall offensive game, stay hungry after his big payday this summer?
If the answers to most or all of those questions are yes, then Riley might not decide to hit the reset button. And next summer he will have a much easier time selling the Heat’s future to a potential free agent star.
“It’s not pressure,” Tyler Johnson said of what he, Winslow, Richardson and Whiteside are facing as the future of the franchise. “It’s exciting because I think we’re all up for the challenge.”