Ethan J. Skolnick

Pat Riley’s free agency challenge appears to be increasing

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, left, and teammate Dwyane Wade enter free agency at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, left, and teammate Dwyane Wade enter free agency at 12:01 a.m. Friday. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

So often, Pat Riley gets the last word. And so he did again on May 18, leaving South Florida with something to ponder and savor before he left the dais, after all the pertinent news conference questions had already been posed.

“Thank you. I will see you down the road. It will be fun in July. You’ll see. I hope … it will be fruitful for us.”

Nearly six weeks have passed since that promising, unprovoked prediction, and July is nearly at hand. It’s unclear what he knew then that would embolden his optimism — or whether that optimism persists.

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Speaking of hands, what sort is he holding?

A trio of faces?

Or a slew of small cards with ill-matching suits, short of a straight? Good for nothing but a bluff?

After all, Riley and the Heat aren’t exactly entering this period unencumbered.

Yes, they have a triple threat — Riley to sell the vision, Andy Elisburg to tweak the numbers, a proven ownership group and coach to provide the platform.

But this isn’t 2010, when the Heat had a 28-year-old superstar — who happened to be one of LeBron James’ best friends — not only surely returning but also quietly recruiting.

This isn’t 2004, when Riley had enough young assets, even without including Dwyane Wade, to steal Shaquille O’Neal.

This isn’t 1996, when Riley was perfectly positioned to reload the Heat around recent acquisitions Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, and could rebound even after the NBA rescinded the Juwan Howard acquisition.

This might not even be 2000, when not everything went to plan, with Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill choosing Orlando instead, but Riley could still summon the creativity to add Eddie Jones, Brian Grant and Anthony Mason.

No, this is starting to feel more like 2014, before the free agent period officially starts, with circumstances conspiring against Riley. It’s not just that the Heat is more restricted financially than initially assumed, thought it is — with enormous inflationary pressure on available talent because of the salary-cap spike combined with the nondescript nature of the NBA’s 2016 free agent class.

It’s also that — just like 2014, when James’ fingers suddenly cramped upon receiving Riley’s texts — the Heat’s two top free agents might not go with the program.

First, it was Hassan Whiteside eager to inform reporters on Sunday that he was “open” to all options, would prefer his situation be resolved by July 1, and does not deem loyalty — an apparent Heat advantage — a primary factor. That’s not ideal if Miami wants to keep him, at the maximum rate (starting at roughly $23 million) or anything less, not with the Mavericks (and maybe the Lakers and Blazers) prepared to offer the max as soon as free agency opens.

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Then came the ESPN.com report that Wade’s negotiations with the Heat, like last summer, had gotten off to a rough start, rough enough that his representatives had announced his availability to other suitors. On my radio show Wednesday on 790 The Ticket, the reporter, Brian Windhorst, revealed two teams as the Spurs and Mavericks. (The latter is fascinating since Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told the Miami Herald recently that Wade had been ignoring him since the 2006 NBA Finals.)

Will Wade go? Well, for sentimental, legacy and basketball purposes, it’s still in both sides’ interests to connect and compromise, just as it was last season when Wade’s representatives and Riley stepped aside, with Micky and Nick Arison selling Wade on a short-term option (one year, $20 million) with a long-term vision. It’s hard to believe they map out this summer’s subsequent move, even if they couldn’t legally settle on one. But perhaps it changed, after Wade lived up to his promises, playing 74 games prior to proving in the playoffs he’s still Miami’s best active player.

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After the last game of the regular season in Boston, Wade spoke proudly of his season-long availability while resisting attempts to pin him down on how many games he would play in 2016-17. He said he might reveal it at media day. When I joked that must mean he’s coming back to Miami, he replied, with a smile, that 29 other teams have their own media days.

Is he serious about leaving? As serious as he was last summer? As annoyed as he was last summer? We’ll see. But, on the surface, any additional uncertainty would seem to put Riley’s plans in more serious jeopardy, when he already has to assure any other free agents — such as Kevin Durant, with whom he’s scheduled to meet in the Hamptons on Sunday — that the Chris Bosh conundrum isn’t calamitous for the franchise. If Bosh doesn’t play again, his $23.7 million contract for next season still takes up one-quarter of the team’s payroll. And if he does, there’s always the chance that he will be sidelined again, a chance that any prospective addition will need to consider no matter how Riley sells it.

Fun? Fruitful?

So far, more like fickle.

So if Pat Riley can still pull off something positive, no need to put off the statue. Just start pouring the plaster.

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