Miami Heat emperor Pat Riley turns 73 in March. He once told those in his inner circle he planned to leave basketball, make a clean break, when the LeBron James epoch ran its course. He was lying to himself. Riley still talks retirement all the time. Nobody believes him.
He wants to fashion another championship run, one last hurrah, but how can he make it happen? How can he possibly get the ending right from here?
His Heat won a third straight game Friday night to go four games over .500, and this, for fans, defines feeling good in the post-Big 3 era. Being better than average, however modestly.
So many NBA teams now are at the poker table with tall stacks, playing a high-stakes game of Superstars Mashup. Riley is all in with less to play, with an OK hand, hoping that the next card and a decent bluff might get him somewhere.
“We have to take our $25 chips and turn them into $100 chips,” he told me earlier this season.
Riley has given Erik Spoelstra two semi-stars to work with in Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, along with an assortment of young guys and journeymen. The big free-agent signing was Kelly Olynyk. No one on the roster has made an All-Star team. The franchise that won a championship with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade and two more with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade is now bereft of a superstar.
“The Big 3 was a perfect storm that went our way. I could have been left with Joel Anthony, Mario Chalmers and $60 million in room,” Riley said. “You need to have stars. You gotta have ‘em. Players who transcend the game, transcend the moment. Big-game players. I’m not saying we don’t have any. I think we’ve compiled 10 or 11 players who have the possibility to become very valuable.”
The NBA trade deadline is Feb. 8. Will Riley stand pat with his hand, or deal? He already admits, “We’re not a room team [this summer],” meaning a contender for top available free agents. So what is the end game? How does Riley get from a team that’s just pretty good to one that has him planning another parade down Biscayne Boulevard?
He is not alone in this market.
Remarkably the Heat remains the standard-bearer for South Florida major pro sports as we delve into 2018. I say remarkably because it is largely by default. The Heat have lapsed from four straight NBA Finals in 2011-14 into just pretty good, but the wallowing Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and Miami Marlins all are striving for that.
We have had far better collective outlooks to start a new year. A quick state-of:
▪ DOLPHINS: A 6-10 season made it 14 non-playoff years in the past 16. This was the season an offensive line coach resigned in shame after a video surfaced of him snorting white powder off his desk at Dolphins HQ. I’m not sure if Dolfans looking for hope found much in this week’s switch of offensive coordinators, considering Miami hired a guy the Bears just fired because Chicago’s offense was even worse than the Fins’. Will Ryan Tannehill’s return to health solve everything? Or is Tannehill even the answer as we approach a quarterback-rich draft? The Dolphins continue to be surrounded by more questions than answers.
▪ PANTHERS: Florida has won 17 games and lost 23 under first-year coach Bob Boughner and barring a dramatic turnaround will miss the NHL playoffs for a 17th time in the past 19 seasons. The Panthers have an impressive stockpile of ascending talent such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad. They have a proven general manager in Dale Tallon. So when does the turnaround happen? When does this franchise figure out a way to finally give their loyal but starving fans a postseason series win for the first time since 1996?
▪ MARLINS: Jeffrey Loria sold a team with 14 straight seasons of no playoffs and eight in a row with a losing record. The Derek Jeter group swept in and made everything worse -- at least for the short term. Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees in the name of fiscal responsibility and farm system-building headlines a talent and salary purge that isn’t finished. It’s a gradual, ground-up reboot. Miami may be ready to compete in three or four years, if you can make that leap of faith, but, meantime, spring training will begin in February with the decimated Marlins among the worst teams in baseball.
The Heat then, by comparison, is in pretty good shape. In make-the-playoffs shape, at least.
We are spoiled, though. All of us. The faithful following our Big Four pro teams all have seen far better. The Dolphins with two ever-distant Super Bowl wins. The Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in only their third season. The Marlins sneaking in two World Series crowns amid the fire sales. And the Heat with those three NBA trophies.
No wonder the Hurricanes’ resurgence back onto the national stage in college football felt so exhilarating this season. It was that on its own merit, but more so in the context of our sagging pro teams.
Which of those will be the first to solve everything and make Miami great again? Mike Tannenbaum and Adam Gase? Dale Tallon and Boughner? Don Mattingly and Jeter?
Or Riley and Spoelstra?
Reminiscing about the Heat’s first title run, “The 2006 team wasn’t one I thought was a championship team,” Riley said, “But then Shaq rose up, and Zo rose up, and Dwyane -- he was transcendent.”
We are waiting for that again as the new year unfurls.
Waiting to see which of our big teams will transcend.
Waiting for somebody to rise up.