Pat Riley doesn’t stay down for long. He takes failure as a personal affront, something beneath him, and he has responded to it with force. He is challenged again, revitalized. Riley has enjoyed his best summer since 2010, and because of that the Miami Heat, after one season off the grid, suddenly matters again.
Maybe it is that the Heat’s president and architect turned 70 in March, an age when mortality and patience increasingly are at odds. If he has another championship left in him, surely there is an urgency a younger man might not feel.
If you know Riley, though, you know his motivation is more visceral, closer to gut-level. He is out to prove that this franchise — its philosophy, its leadership — is big enough to withstand any punch. Even the loss of LeBron James.
Anybody around the Heat will tell you a fourth championship is the goal. But anybody around the Heat speaking truthfully will tell you it’s reaching the NBA Finals again — at the expense of LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference — that will feel nearly as good to Miami as another parade.
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Riley won’t say it, but he is out to prove LeBron made a mistake by forsaking the Heat, after four straight Finals appearance and two titles, to return to his hometown Cavs last summer.
The race is on now, Riley vs. LeBron, to see who will be a champion next.
Cleveland still is perceived as the East beast because of James, and after coming close with last month’s Finals loss to Golden State.
Miami, though, is generally seen as having risen from a non-playoff team to perhaps No. 2 in the East, a real challenger, after Riley’s big summer. Chicago and maybe Atlanta or Indiana might not agree or concede, but they haven’t had the recent run of good stuff happen like the Heat has.
(You might argue that a team that loses LeBron and then sees Chris Bosh miss half a season with blood clots is due a bit of that good fortune.)
In reconnoitering the top tier of the East, it may bear noting that Cleveland has won nothing in 45 franchise years, despite LeBron. Neither have the Hawks since moving to Atlanta in 1968. Neither has Indiana unless you cast way back to the ABA. And Chicago, of course, has won nothing since Michael Jordan.
Miami is the East contender with a currency of pedigree, not to mention with Riley steering. Let us quantify:
The Heat is one of only six franchises across the Big Four sports to win three championships in the past 12 seasons. The others are the San Antonio Spurs, New England Patriots, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Blackhawks.
Only five teams have had more playoff appearances than the Heat’s 10 in the past dozen seasons: the Spurs and Detroit Red Wings with a perfect 12, and the Patriots, Dallas Mavericks and Indianapolis Colts with 11.
Combine playoff appearances and titles and find that only the Spurs and Patriots stand above the Heat among model sports franchises the past dozen years. Only Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick bring the heft Riley does.
This summer, that has seemed to count for something, because just about everything has gone right for the Heat.
After four straight seasons able to coast in the glow of the LeBron-led Big 3 and then this past season adjusting to his absence, Riley got to work.
Drafting Justise Winslow from Duke won raves from fans and analysts alike.
Re-signing Dwyane Wade to a one-year extension was smart from both a public-relations and basketball vantage.
Securing point guard Goran Dragic for five more seasons — at less money than he might have commanded elsewhere — was huge.
Luol Deng opting in and staying was a quiet plus, and not altogether expected.
Signing veteran Gerald Green for minimum money adds the three-point threat Miami has needed.
Signing veteran Amar’e Stoudemire, also at a bargain price, beefs up the team’s power rotation and lends what Riley called “gravitas” to the roster.
Then you add Bosh’s return to full health, a healthy Josh McRoberts, and an ascending Hassan Whiteside, who shows potential to be a dominant center.
That’s an impressive nine players — and Miami has added enough depth and proven help at the wing positions to bring Winslow along unhurried. He needn’t be an instant fix.
I’d imagine there still will be a spot for old warhorse Udonis Haslem, though likely not for Mario Chalmers or Chris Andersen.
Best of all, the rebuilding of the Heat has been done smartly, with financial prudence, with an eye on Miami having enough to spend to be a player in 2016 free agency, when Kevin Durant will head the parade of potential prizes.
What we are seeing, in the coming NBA season and beyond, is something both men would downplay and insist it isn’t about them.
It sort of is, though.
Pat Riley vs. LeBron James.