When the moment came, when LeBron James’ agent called to inform Pat Riley and Micky Arison that James was returning to Cleveland, shock was the immediate reaction.
“Tough blow,” Riley understated Wednesday.
But what stirs in Riley’s soul now is something very different: a doggedness and determination to construct a team that can replace one that captured two NBA titles and four Eastern Conference championships in four unforgettable seasons.
“It has fired me up,” the Heat’s president said in a conference call Wednesday with several reporters, indicating he fully expects to remain with the team in the summer of 2016, when Miami could have nearly $50 million to pursue free agents if the salary cap rises as high as some project.
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“I don’t like to get beat at anything,” Riley said. “I want this team to be as competitive as it has ever been. I want our fans to know they will see a great team every night. Every now and then you have a chance to build a generational team, where you know that team can be together 10 to 12 years. That has been broken. We’re going to try to make it another generational team. That’s what my objective is.”
Riley said he went into free agency “with the thought [James] was coming back. I was selling that to players.”
He told James that he would tell free agents that James was planning to return to Miami.
“He never said to me, ‘Don’t do that,’ ” Riley said.
“I went in with that premise and found out [otherwise on July 11]. I was thinking all along he would come back.”
So does Riley feel misled?
“No,” he said. “I don’t think I was encouraged either.”
In fact, Riley said between the time James opted out on June 24 and their July 9 meeting in Las Vegas, he sent James “a lot of emails and a lot of texts” but received “no responses back.”
Even so, Riley emerged from that meeting expecting James to re-sign.
“There wasn’t anything in that meeting that told me that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Like Micky said, both of us were shocked, but you recover. People in this country have the right to do what they want to. He wanted to go home.”
Is Riley hurt by James leaving?
“Very rarely do I get hurt,” Riley said. “ As soon as something happens, I had to react, and we did. The hurt didn’t last very long.
“We are going to build another championship team, and that’s it. After 45 years of being in this league, I’ve been around 15 transcendent players that walked out the door and you move on. Sometimes things happen to you that you don’t like, but you’ve got to move on.”
Riley said in keeping Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and several supporting players and adding Josh McRoberts, Luol Deng, Danny Granger, Shabazz Napier and James Ennis, “I feel very good about where we are, with 12 guys under contract. Unlike a lot of the prognosticators, I feel that we are up to the challenge and going to be as competitive as anybody in the Eastern Conference.
“If Derrick Rose is healthy, Chicago is going to be formidable. Is Cleveland going to be as good as everybody thinks they are? Nobody really knows. I am going to put my team in the mix with all those teams to be just as competitive.”
Riley said he still needs to add “another wing man” who can swing between shooting guard and small forward and possibly play power forward. (Chris Douglas-Roberts is among several free agents of interest to Miami.) He also wants to add another big man and said “we are going to give some thought” to re-signing center Greg Oden.
“We’re not in a rush now,” Riley said, with Miami able to offer only minimum contracts to any player. “We’ll be scanning the market.”
But Riley also spoke of having his eye on 2016, when the Heat can pursue free agents from a class that includes Kevin Durant, potentially Dwight Howard and others.
“We have positioned ourselves to add players [comparable to] Dwyane and Chris” in free agency in 2016, adding that he expects every team to have at least $10 million in space that summer.
He said he believes Wade and Bosh will “probably have the best years they’ve had over the past four years.”
In a reference to how they changed their games to accommodate James, Riley added: “A strong personality and strong player dictate a certain style of play that takes away from other great players. Dwyane and Chris sacrificed a lot.”
Wade indicated he is losing weight — a move welcomed by the Heat — and Riley said with “what he’s doing with his body and what he’s going to be doing with his conditioning, there is a possibility Dwyane can return to what he was before he ceded a good part of his game to LeBron.”
The Heat originally planned to keep Bosh at a lower salary than the maximum five-year, $118 million deal he signed Wednesday.
“Whatever plans you may have had, how you were going to negotiate with certain players was off the table as soon as LeBron left,” Riley said. “He’s the most versatile big man in the NBA. That’s what the market was for him, and Micky stepped up to the plate. I’ll be damned if I was going to let him walk out the door, and he didn’t want to either.”
Riley addressed other topics:
• He said he spoke to Michael Beasley’s representation recently and re-signing him “is still a consideration.” Beasley auditioned for the Lakers on Wednesday.
• He said Ray Allen’s agent told him that Allen — who has been considering retirement — “has not made a decision about anything,” though it would be surprising to Heat people if he returned at $1.4 million, which is all Miami can offer.
• Riley called Carmelo Anthony’s agent after James committed to Cleveland on July 11, but “we were a little bit late to that party.” Anthony didn’t announce he was re-signing with the Knicks until July 13.
• On Deng: “He knew we wanted him, would try to do whatever we could to get him.”
• On Granger: “I have always liked him as a player. Can shoot from the outside, a good defender. It was low risk, high reward, and he wanted to be here regardless of what the situation was.”
• On McRoberts: “Last year was a breakthrough year for him. He’s a high-motor guy. He can shoot the basketball, and he’s ultra competitive, led all stretch-fours in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. Sort of a younger Chris Andersen that can do a few more things.”