LeBron James left. Blood clots erased Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade retired. Now, this week, it sounded like even Pat Riley, the Miami Heat’s president and franchise rudder since 1995, might have considered leaving, too.
Riley’s greatest NBA years came from 1981 to 1990 when he won won four championships as Los Angeles Lakers coach, and he admitted the thought of ending his career back in L.A. crossed his mind “from an emotional standpoint” after Magic Johnson abruptly resigned as Lakers president six weeks ago.
“But I was never pursued by them. Nobody officially contacted me,” Riley told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan this week. “I have about 20 friends wishing I would come back, but nobody asked.”
That sounds like a man who would have been receptive to a call from Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, a man who, at age 74, might have been enticed to go full circle and end his Hall of Fame career where it began.
The idea of Riley retiring anywhere but in Miami reflects not only the degree to which those Showtime Lakers define him, still, but also the tough spot the Heat is in as it tries to paddle upstream in the post-Big 3 era and now without the beloved icon D-Wade.
Miami has won 217 games and lost 212, including two playoff appearances, in the five seasons since LeBron departed, taking Miami’s national relevance with him. The Heat is left with several complementary pieces but no difference-making impact star, no “whale.” And none on the horizon, with too little salary-cap flexibility to be a major player in free agency this summer. Miami must hope it gets lucky with the 13th pick in June’s draft.
Top free agents such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, maybe Anthony Davis by trade, draft stars led by Zion Williamson — none will be Miami-bound.
For Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra there seems no quick or easy map back to championship contention, and even the climb from outside the top eight to top-four status in the Eastern Conference appears arduous.
Riley would have left a job undone here had he been pursued by the Lakers and headed west, but I’m not sure I would have blamed him. He made this franchise matter, has given it a third of his life and made real three championship parades along Biscayne Boulevard.
Now, though, it is the distance between Riley and a fourth parade that seems so gaping. It is that one last hurrah to go out on that appears so elusive.
It doesn’t help that Golden State and Steph Curry are a reigning NBA dynasty climbing the charts among greatest teams and greatest players ever.
The Warriors are in a fifth consecutive NBA Finals and favored to win a fourth championship in that span. No Durant? No problem. The team is 5-0 in the playoffs since he has been out injured. In those five games Curry has scored 33, 36, 37, 36 and 37 points.
Somebody asked Curry about the challenge of playing without Durant.
“Fun,” he called it.
He wasn’t lying.
Some would argue Durant is the best player in the league.
He isn’t even the best player on his team.
It’s time Curry started getting respect when greatest ever talk pops up. Same with his team.
Even if Durant leaves this summer, don’t write off the Golden State dynasty continuing without him. Consider that the Warriors won a record 73 games the season before he arrived. Consider Golden State is an OK 28-18 when Durant plays but Curry doesn’t -- and 33-4 in games Curry plays but Durant does not.
The Warriors are so good they make Durant seem expendable. So good they shrugged off deficits of at least 15 points in three different games against Portland in the last round.
The 1957-66 Boston Celtics seem safe as the NBA’s all-time greatest dynasty, making 10 consecutive Finals and winning nine. The NHL record also is 10 consecutive Stanley Cup Finals by the 1951-60 Montreal Canadians, who won six.
But Golden State’s current run stacks up with anybody else, in any of the Big Four sports. The Warriors are the first basketball team in five consecutive Finals since those Celtics. The NFL record is six championship games in a row by the 1950-55 Cleveland Browns, who won three of them. The MLB record is five consecutive World Series by the New York Yankees in 1949-53 (they won all five) and 1960-64 (they won two).
Look at all those time frames. It has been more than a half century since sports has seen what these Golden State Warriors are doing. The Big 3 Heat gave it a run. But they weren’t this.
It’s sometimes harder to fully appreciate what’s right in front of you, in the moment, but the Warriors deserve that respect.
They’re plain fun to watch, except, of course, for Pat Riley’s Miami Heat and every other team trying to somehow close the gap on historic greatness.