Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Pat Riley’s quest for fourth title with Miami Heat could hinge on one decision

A decision on talented but enigmatic center Hassan Whiteside could be one of Pat Riley’s last, biggest moves.
A decision on talented but enigmatic center Hassan Whiteside could be one of Pat Riley’s last, biggest moves. EL Nuevo Herald

Pat Riley, basketball lifer, turns 71 in a month. It is a time when a man begins to put his career affairs in order and plan for retirement, even if he doesn’t quite realize it.

Riley’s legacy in his sport and in Miami with the Heat is beyond question. He has won eight NBA championships as a player, coach or executive — including those three parades down Biscayne Boulevard in 2006, 2012 and ’13. He is Hall of Fame-embossed.

The greed of excellence is at play, though, of course.

Everyone wants to make a million dollars, but no one who has ever wants to stop there. Every football player wants to win a Super Bowl, but none who has wants to win just one. So it is with Riley, even after eight times on top of his world, and maybe increasingly so now as the sands run ever louder through the career’s hourglass.

“Just one more, please.”

Don Shula spent the last 20-plus years of his career chasing but never quite catching that elusive just one more.

It had the feel of a man putting his career affairs in order this week when the Heat announced it would retire Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 32 uniform number in a ceremony next season. The decision was abrupt, somewhat surprising and all Riley, and it was one you could place in the Life Is Too Short For Grudges file.

Shaq left badly. His public persona, Fun-Loving Big Kid, could bare its teeth in private. He used his leverage to force out Stan Van Gundy because he wanted Riley to coach. He once refused to practice and got into a heated exchange with Riley. Upon his 2008 trade to Phoenix he leveled a parting shot at popular Heat trainer Ron Culp.

But even burned bridges can be rebuilt.

O’Neal spent only 3 1/2 seasons here but helped deliver the Heat’s first championship, raised the franchise higher than it had ever been and also provided the presence that allowed Dwyane Wade to fully blossom into a star.

So his No. 32 will rise into the rafters and join the retired numbers of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning.

Riley loves him some rafters.

Heck, he has Dan Marino’s 13 and Michael Jordan’s 23 up there, too, purely out of respect. If Bruce Springsteen had a number, surely it, too, would be up there. Wade, Chris Bosh and probably Udonis Haslem also are bound for the rafters someday.

Oh, and that other guy, most probably.

LeBron James.

He, like Shaq, also left the Heat badly, angering Riley. But LeBron also won two MVPs and helped win two championships in his four seasons here, so his No. 6 surely will ceremonially rise someday. The thawed relationship with Shaq sets the precedent.

If you think the names in the rafters — the stars you could attract — are nearly as much a part of your legacy as the championship rings, surely you cannot miss out on adding all-time greats like Shaq and LeBron due to some pointlessly lingering animus.

Retiring numbers and raising banners is the easy part, of course.

The hard part of the tying up of career loose ends is that “just one more” we mentioned earlier.

Does Riley have another championship in him?

The Hassan Whiteside conundrum complicates the question and presents what could be one of Riley’s last, biggest decisions.

The 7-foot Whiteside is a terrific rebounder and an even better shot-blocker and also can be tempestuous and unreliable and shows selfish tendencies. The latest evidence came just Tuesday night when he was ejected for elbowing the neck of San Antonio’s Boban Marjanovic. Whiteside plainly lacks maturity and lets his ego get in the way. Some teammates who publicly encourage him privately shake their heads and wonder.

Clearly, the free agent-to-be Whiteside is not in the Heat mold. The question is whether he is in the Heat’s future.

That’s on Riley entirely.

If he enters into a bidding war and spends big to keep Whiteside, Riley would be conveying that he believes the nucleus of Whiteside, Bosh, Wade and Goran Dragic, with minor tweaking, is good enough to win a championship. (Is it, though? Isn’t that same group currently in fifth place in the East at the All-Star break?)

But if Riley lets Whiteside go and opts to spend big elsewhere in free agency, will he hit on that gamble? Is there a landscaper-changer beyond Kevin Durant this summer? And isn’t Durant surely headed elsewhere?

That could be the last major fork in Riley’s career road, his last telling decision.

So maybe it all comes down to this one question that Riley must ask himself, and answer with clear conviction:

Would Hassan Whiteside, if he stays, be a player whose uniform number you’d expect to be raised up into those rafters someday?

If the answer is no, it may be time to let him go and move on.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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