Pat Riley, the godfather in winter, feels the shift under his feet, sees the tumult all around.
Watches the champion superpower Golden State Warriors blossom into maybe the greatest team ever. Watches even LeBron James fail to impede the juggernaut. Sees Houston try to counter by adding Chris Paul to James Harden. Sees Jimmy Butler traded and Paul George on the block and Phil Jackson sacked because panic spills across the NBA.
How to compete? How to keep up?
Will Paul with Harden even be a good fit on the floor? There is debate. Both are playmakers who want the ball and to direct the action. No matter. For now, in the modern NBA, it’s about aligning stars, forming Super Teams.
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“You’re either in the weapons race or on the sideline,” as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey put it after trading half his roster and a No. 1 draft pick to the Clippers for Paul.
“A whole new era now,” Riley, 72, the Miami Heat president and roster architect, calls the league he has been a part of for 51 years.
And so Heat fans wonder as free agency begins as midnight madness in the first minute of Saturday morning:
What will Riley do? What can he do? Can the godfather win another summer? Build one last champion before he gives in to retirement and wills the franchise to heirs?
“I love this group,” Riley said in April of his team that narrowly missed the playoffs despite a 30-11 record in the season’s second half. “I love the guys we have to build this team from.”
But build they must, a process underway. This is Riley’s time. His season.
He gambled earlier this month to draft Kentucky power forward Bam Adebayo No. 1 (14th overall), a selection that met with mixed reviews at best, filling a position of need with a player who had been projected to be taken lower.
The onus on Riley to hit big in free agency is magnified.
There are no whales in the open ocean this summer, presuming Steph Curry and Kevin Durant elect to stay with Golden State as all expect they will.
The next-biggest catches — Giant squid? Great white shark? — are Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin. Miami covets both, in the order given, and Riley (The Old Man and the Sea) needs to boat one of them.
To miss on both would leave the Heat unimproved to any appreciable degree — essentially standing pat as the rest of the NBA percolates with activity. It is not enough to re-sign Dion Waiters and James Johnson and spin that as acceptable consolation for striking out on Hayward and Griffin.
Nothing Miami can do this summer draws the Heat in position to compete with the Warriors for a championship, alas. But adding Hayward or Griffin to a lineup featuring Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic, and also re-signing either of Miami’s own top free agents, Waiters or Johnson, provides the skeleton of a roster that can compete in the East.
LeBron and Cleveland remain out front in the conference and Boston is surging, but the Heat with Hayward or Griffin is a player to challenge in the East and at least get to Golden State.
Utah will try madly to keep Hayward, who will meet with the Heat on Day 1 of free agency Saturday and then with Boston. Likewise, the Clippers will try to hang onto Griffin.
Hayward, a versatile 6-8 swing forward, seems a better, safer fit for Miami. He’s 27, made the All-Star team last season, averaged 21.9 points and shot 40 percent (well, 39.8) from three-point range. But it will require all of Riley’s salesmanship skills to convince Hayward he’s closer to a championship in Miami than in Boston (with his former college coach) or in Utah.
Griffin, 28, the 6-10 power forward, averaged 21.6 points per game last season but is much less an outside threat. More than that, he has missed 83 games during the past three seasons, with a toe injury lingering, and durability is an issue.
I’m amused to hear Heat players say they don’t need a star-filled Super Team to compete. Reminds me of folks who aren’t rich insisting that money is overrated.
Riley in his Hall of Fame career always has trafficked in star power though. He played at Kentucky under Adolph Rupp. Was an early teammate of Elvin Hayes and Wilt Chamberlain. Coached the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks. Traded for Alonzo Mourning, and brought together the Big 3 Heat of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Super Teams must start with superstars, and I’m not sure if Hayward or Griffin (or Whiteside or Dragic) qualify for that perch. Even without a whale, though, you can be pretty great with enough really good on your roster.
The Heat can get appreciably closer to that by adding Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin, this club’s litmus test for summer success.
Go to work, Mr. Riley.