Greg Cote

Heat a long-shot for Durant, but Riley (and Whiteside) give Miami a fighting chance

Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside tries to stop Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant during the first quarter Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015 at the AmericanAirlines Arena.
Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside tries to stop Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant during the first quarter Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015 at the AmericanAirlines Arena. hgabino@elnuevoherald.com

“I’m Pat Riley, dammit. Have you met my nine championship rings?”

Kevin Durant, swooning, after a brief pause: “Where do I sign?!”

That would be the entire transcript, as imagined by Miami fans, of Sunday’s Heat-Durant summit at an unrevealed location in (appropriately) the Hamptons, the New York enclave of privileged affluence.

In the real world, alas, Riley steps into this meeting cast in a role unfamiliar to him: Underdog. He is the charismatic Hall of Famer with two hands full of jewelry screaming legendary success, but Sunday he’s the long-shot trying to beat the odds with a small miracle.

Most NBA experts believe Durant, the free agent “whale,” will anticlimactically end up re-signing with Oklahoma City, and those who think he might leave see Golden State as the likeliest destination.

Few give Miami much of a shot, which, of course, makes this red meat to the challenge-junkie Riley. It also makes it a no-lose scenario for the regal Heat president. If he doesn’t boat the whale, well, who really believed he would? But if somehow he does? His genius-magician card is renewed for life and beyond; he’s the gold-standard closer for all time.

It would be Riley’s greatest triumph in a career full of them. It would be a bigger coup than getting LeBron James in 2010, because that was a back-door friends deal brokered by Dwyane Wade. This would be all Riley — one man selling his vision, selling himself.

Miami Heat team president Pat Riley talks about the recently completed season and the team's plans for free agency on Wed., May 18, 2016

It won’t happen. Will it? It can’t. Can it? Logically, Riley’s chances of winning over Durant on Sunday seem only slightly better than his chances were of keeping LeBron in that charade of a 2014 Las Vegas meeting when LeBron made Riley jump through hoops even though his decision to leave already was made.

The reasonable best-case scenario for Miami now is that Durant might sign a one-year deal with whomever wins his sweepstakes and that the Heat is back in a room with Durant doing this same thing next summer — but with more spending money and more ammunition.

A year from now, maybe the newly re-signed Hassan Whiteside has allayed all concerns and is coming off an All-Star season that justifies the four-year, $98 million deal he is getting. Maybe Chris Bosh has unequivocally proved he is back to full health — something Riley can be hopeful about but can’t promise walking into Sunday’s meeting. Maybe Justise Winslow has fully blossomed into a star.

Do not discount right now, though — the possibility Miami might shock the basketball world as it did in 2010.

Even as you admit the Thunder and Warriors are 1-2 as clear favorites for Durant, do not underestimate Riley. Riley thought the key to having a chance with Durant would be to present a newly re-signed Whiteside, which he may now do. And Whiteside in turn reportedly is agreeable to be flexible on his contract and take less than maximum money if it means getting Durant.

That’s a rather extraordinary gesture by a player we had begun to pigeonhole as selfish, immature and obsessed with his own stats. It might be time for a reappraisal.

Whiteside’s sacrifice alone won’t be enough to afford Durant, though. If Wade won’t sign for half of what he wants, it might take trading Goran Dragic to clear enough space.

Still, even if Durant goes elsewhere, keeping Whiteside alone means Miami’s 2016 free agency won’t have been a total bust.

It’s funny. Just a few days ago, Whiteside seemed headed out. He spoke ominously of loyalty not being a factor in his free agent decision. Miami seemed unwilling to offer the money he was seeking. Dallas was reported to be the new favorite to sign him. Most Heat fans probably were preparing to pivot on their allegiance and bid the turncoat good riddance.

Now Whiteside might be the biggest reason Miami has at least a prayer of landing Durant, because he is playing ball with Riley in a way that the free agent Wade is not. Wade is inviting offers from other teams — reportedly the Bulls, Bucks, Mavericks and Nuggets have made substantial bids — before he accepts less here. Plainly he is not willing to sacrifice so that “his money” might go to Durant.

In that context it is interesting to recall Durant and Wade’s mini-feud of 2013, when Durant said James Harden should have made some top-10 list instead of Wade, which Wade took as disrespect. A minor Twitter tempest ensued.

That Durant and Wade are not friendly surely would not outweigh bigger factors Riley might mention on Sunday, such as the Eastern Conference offering Durant an easier path to the NBA Finals than he’d have staying in the West.

Miami and Riley on Sunday will be the sixth and last team to have an audience with Durant, the closer batting cleanup.

This is what Riley has planned two years to make happen. This one chance. From the moment one whale left him, he set sights on the next one.

Kevin Durant, waiting to be persuaded. And Pat Riley, with the floor.

Heat fans couldn’t ask for better.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments