Pat Riley said Wednesday morning he’s just as disappointed as anyone that the Miami Heat is off to a 9-20 start, but he thinks the franchise has a solid young nucleus and the financial flexibility it needs next summer to rebuild quickly and get back to it’s winning ways soon.
“We've done this twice,” Riley told WQAM’s Joe Rose on his radio show Wednesday morning of the Heat’s rebuilding project. “Basically we had to do it in 2001 when Alonzo Mourning went down with a kidney ailment. So we had two tough years which produced Caron Butler and Dwyane Wade and also Lamar Odom in free agency. That started that rebuild that turned into Shaquille [O'Neal] and the championship and the Big 3. In 2008, we took a hit and we missed on that pick in Michael Beasley. We didn't really miss on it, but the best player was Russell Westbrook, taken with the [fourth pick].
“You go back and you look at it, we’re in a rebuild with young players that we’re familiar with and we have five or six guys that we really like. They will form a nucleus, two or three them. Tyler Johnson got 32 points coming off the bench and Hassan [Whiteside] had 32 [points] and 15 [rebounds in Tuesday’s double overtime loss to Orlando]. We have some very good young players. Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, they have been thwarted their injuries. Justise missed  games [with a wrist injury]. Josh missed seven weeks with an MCL [sprain]. So, they're a little bit behind.
“But we love our young core. And what we have is flexibility. And you need flexibility in this league to be able to move quickly. You can't get paralyzed by the cap or not being able to make room and being able to trade players. I think the No. 1 asset that we have right now is our flexibility moving forward. We have a first round pick this year. So we're dealing with it. We're dealing with that word that you hate to use – that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild quick. I'm not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami. We have great, great fans. They're frustrated. They've been used to something great over the last 10 years and so right now we're taking a hit. I think we can turn this thing around. As I said, if five of those [close] losses were turned into wins we could be in the playoffs right now. But they didn’t.
“You can use that word rebuild. But we're going to do it fast.”
Riley, 71, said injuries have played a big role in hampering the team’s progress this season. The Heat lead the NBA with the most games missed because of injuries.
Of the 15 players on the roster, only Whiteside has been healthy and available for all 29 games.
“Obviously right now we're all a little bit disappointed with our record. But I mean this – and this is not old coach speak or just trying to put a positive slant on things – but I'm really proud of this young team and these guys that have come in and they've really bought in. They've worked hard,” Riley said. “We’re going through some absolute, important growing pains. We hate to talk about it in professional basketball.
“But we've been in 13 close games and there’s at least five more wins in this team that would put us at .500. We lost last night in a double overtime game we probably should have won. We don't want to keep regurgitating the same things, but we've got a lot of young players that are growing that need to step up, they will emerge. We will find the ones I think over the next six to seven months that will be a part of this team for a long time.
“We love our young guys. We love the veterans have come in, that have helped them. I do believe the old excuse in that there have been some injuries for this team that have hurt the continuity finding out about these players. And so right now it's tough. I think coach is dealing with it as well as he can. But it's frustrating for the fans and it's frustrating for us. But you have to go through it.”
Riley said he’s been pleased with the growth of center Hassan Whiteside, who complained after Tuesday’s loss to the Magic about not getting enough touches late in the game. Riley seemed to agree with him.
“He's a double-double machine,” Riley said. “There's no doubt. And there's going to be nights with the triple doubles when you add in the blocked shots. He’s averaging 18 and 19 a game, leading the league in rebounding, shoots 58 percent.
“I do think that right now Coach Spo is going through the dilemma that I had to go through when you make changes from an offensive philosophy and defensive philosohpy to fit your personnel. Trying to find ways to get him the ball where he's not encumbered with a lot of defenders in his face is not that easy in today’s game. So, he's caught inbetwixt learning the pick-and-roll game, the straight up post game.
“We’re 30 games into the year and there’s another 50 games to go. We have somebody who is pretty unique and special.”
Although Winslow’s shooting remains off (he’s shooting 34.9 percent from the field, 23.3 percent from three-point range and 60.6 percent from the free throw line), Riley said he has faith the team’s 2015 first round pick will find his stroke. He said Winslow – like Whiteside, Richardson and Johnson – is still adjusting from being a complimentary player last season behind Dwyane Wade and other veterans no longer on the team to having the pressure on them to shoulder the load.
“He's a Udonis Haslem type of player,” Riley said of Winslow. “He’s a 6-7 1/2, three position player. He can guard maybe four positions on the court. He’s a defender right now from that standpoint. He’s a rebounder. He makes winning plays, has a winning attitude.
“Right now, he's shooting the basketball. He's going to have to find his game, find his stroke and he will. I don't think there's any doubt that will come with his game. If people are concerned about him, they should be concerned in a positive way because he's only 20 years old.
“Within 18 months it's all been piled on his shoulders, Josh Richardson's shoulders, Tyler Johnson's shoulders and Hassan's shoulders. I mean Goran is playing great for us. So, we love Justise. It's just a matter of time. That’s all it is. Having that wrist injury this year was the real deal. It’s  games he missed. And because of how he plays and how he lands I think the one thing we're going to have to teach him how to fall.
“Dwyane [Wade] used to hit the floor all the time, but he learned over the years how to fall by not using his hands. There's a lot of things he's going to learn in this thing. But we feel very good about him as a winner.”