Pat Riley, Miami & The Struggle Of Repeating As NBA Champions

Throughout his career in the NBA Pat Riley has won. Besides Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson, no coach has been more successful and certainly no man has won as much while wearing the tripartite hats: player, coach and now general manager. The only caveat to all that winning is attempting to duplicate the feat with everyone gunning for you in the next year. Riley has had three chances to repeat with the Lakers and once – before this year – to repeat with the Heat. The hard-nosed and dictatorial demeanor earlier in his coaching career has mellowed with time, and his front office tactics have allowed him both the distance and the experience to construct (rather than instruct) his teams. Now he’ll get another chance to repeat, and for once, he won’t be coaching.

Unlike the Dallas Mavericks last summer, the 2012 NBA Champion Miami Heat have continued to try and improve since the league’s free agency started earlier this summer. The Heat brought the same core group back (minus Ronny Turiaf), but they’ve also added a couple important pieces in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis (with some youngsters on the horizon). Allen and Lewis will provide important spacing on the floor as they spot up beyond the arc and give James, Wade and Bosh the room to operate and create wide-open looks for everyone else.

The pick-ups for the defending champion Heat are a reversal in strategy from their 2006 title-winning team. That Heat group didn’t add anyone of significance in the offseason, and the players relaxed and partied all summer, which helped lead to their failure to win a single playoff game in defense of their title; the following year, they were swept in the first round by a hungrier Chicago Bulls team. Erik Spoelstra explained the differences between the title-winning Heat teams to Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel:

“If we learned one thing from the 2006 title, it was that you need to continue to reinvent yourself and improve as a basketball team,’ Spoelstra said. ‘That year we brought the exact the same team back, we thought it would be the same path and same journey. It never is.

“It’s always going to be different. And we ended up losing the first round and we were swept in four games. Another year later, we only won 15 games and we were the worst team in basketball and that’s how fragile this game can be.”

The fragility of success Spoelstra spoke to Winderman about is why Riley reached out to Allen and Lewis. Unlike Dallas, who let their championship team’s defensive stalwart, Tyson Chandler, walk to New York last offseason, the Heat are utilizing their new status as champs before the always-tenuous hold on the Larry O’Brien trophy atrophies and some other champ cherry-picks the wealthy veterans who only want to win at this stage in their careers (i.e. Ray Allen).

In his position as team president, Riley knows some veterans are willing to take a pay cut in order to play for a title in South Beach; a gorgeous place where they’ll get to play with three All-Stars and take in the sun and fun in one of the best party cities in the country. The impressive moves by Riles this offseason could be considered a slightly muffled echo of his masterful job getting LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami in the summer of 2010.

While Spoelstra coached the Heat to victory in June, he did not assemble the talent that brought the title back to South Beach, and he isn’t the reason Ray Allen forfeited a few million dollars to leave Boston and come south this summer. The primary hand facilitating Miami’s success is Pat Riley, who has now become the first person in NBA history to win a title as a player, a coach AND an executive. But as a coach, Riley also worked his players just hard enough to make repeating as champions even harder than it normally is.

The party in South Beach after Miami’s 2006 title didn’t just extend into that weekend, but seemingly into the next season. Shaq came to camp out of shape (not surprising, but still), Wade was a little dinged up and Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Co. were already satiated from their first championship ring the year before. They had their title, so working hard the next season wasn’t as necessary and certainly wasn’t a priority.

The grizzled Heat veterans that year didn’t appreciate the even-harder-to-please Riley as he sought to defend the title. Riley ended up getting into an altercation with Shaq (detailed in his autobiography, Shaq: Uncut) where Riley’s constant demands for a more svelte Shaq took a turn during one practice and things almost got physical between the star and coach. That incident the season after their initial triumph together ultimately rang the death knell for the Big Aristotle’s time in Miami. It was not the first time Riley has pushed a team or player past their comfort levels.

In the summer of 1987, the Los Angeles Lakers had just defeated their nemesis from Boston and were busy having a parade in downtown L.A. to commemorate the occasion. At the time, it was Riley’s third championship in seven years as the Lakers’ head coach. During his victory speech at the parade, Riley guaranteed a championship the following year, something that hadn’t been done in almost 20 years.

Some, like Byron Scott, reflected back on Riley’s guarantee and said, “Guaranteeing a championship was the best thing Pat ever did. It set the stage in our minds. Work harder, be better. That’s the only way we could repeat.” And repeat they did, winning 3-straight Game 7s in route to the 1988 title. But the strain of Riley’s pronouncement also began to show itself in the Lakers play, and with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all but retired, that meant even more stress for the affable Magic Johnson.

The next year – although not so bold as to announce it during the victory parade – Riley trademarked the phrase ‘3-peat’ before his Lakers even started their season, and they ultimately failed in their bid to win three titles in a row. They got swept by the Pistons in a 1989 NBA Finals rematch. The following year, amid rumors there was a rift between Riley and (then Lakers GM) Jerry West, the Lakers’ deteriorated play under Riley meant they didn’t even make it to the Western Conference Finals and Riley’s “motivational speeches and critical comments wore thin with many players.”

Riley’s strained relationsip with Magic and the mighty Showtime offense was done. He stepped down with two years remaining on a contract that paid him $650,000 plus incentives in the ’89-’90 season (adjusted for inflation, that’s $1.23 million today). Riley’s team had repeated – the only time he did so as a coach, which Gregg Popovich can’t say – but his domineering personality and strict adherence to conditioning didn’t mesh with a team of professionals long-term.

In 1987, Riley guaranteed his team would repeat, and they delivered, but not before he damaged his relationship with his players and he stepped down before winning another. Almost 20 years later, the Heat’s Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal won a title with Riley again at the helm, but his personality again clashed with players and that group quickly disbanded after failing to defend that title.

This time around, with LeBron and Wade, Riley is behind the scenes where he’s beginning to thrive. Pulling the strings to get guys like Ray Allen even after winning a title gives him his best shot to repeat since he coached Magic. He’s been playing a balancing act with this year’s current crop of players because he’s seen a couple championship teams burn out from his constant pushing. Riley’s gone out of his way to extol the virtues of LeBron James’ hard work during the 2011 offseason that led to his first title as a pro. This year he’s not just making his squad better by adding pieces to the league’s most talented roster, but he’s remaining above the fray when it comes to their conditioning and commitment to winning. That’s the coach’s job, and Riley is no longer the coach.

The defending champion Miami Heat might not win just one title, or two, or – you know the rest – but Riley’s experience with winning as a coach and his increasing mastery of what it takes to be successful on the executive level, means the Heat still have a lot to look forward to even as they collect their championship rings this coming season.

Do you think the Heat will repeat as champs?

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