Pat Riley Has His Groove Back

In the summer of 2014, Pat Riley was trying to keep his head above water. His best player had fled the warm confines of South Beach despite Riley’s very public threats to not abandon what they had spent four years building. It was an idea Riley couldn’t wrap his brain around, that LeBron James would return to the place he had fled and abandon Riley, his best friend Dwyane Wade, the Heat culture, and in the process, embarrass Riley by not giving him a head’s up. Riley, like the rest of the free world, would have to read about the defection in Sports Illustrated, and for Pat Riley, champion, coach, salesman, mentor, chess master, it was one of those body blows that took a long time to recover from. It was a sucker punch that left Riley shaken.

Eleven months later, an amused Riley watched as LeBron James was defeated in the NBA Finals. It notched James fourth loss out of six tries in the championship round and the entire Miami Heat contingent exhaled. They were spared the public coronation of LeBron James being toasted and cheered and re-crowned as the King of the basketball world. In fact, the dull glow that LeBron James wore after the game 6 defeat was eerily similar to Riley’s expression when he had to face the bitter news that he wasn’t the recruiting shepherd he thought he was. He couldn’t keep his flock together in 2014. Riley’s comments directed towards LeBron James about sticking together if you have the guts backfired in a big way in 2014, which is not to say James wasn’t going to leave Miami in the first place, but Riley’s challenge to him fell flat. Riley couldn’t intimidate James into staying and it was a noteworthy failure. It was the first time in recent memory Riley had to take one on the chin and accept a public defeat.

But here we are 22 months later.  Pat Riley has the Pat Riley swag back. The team he rebuilt, after LeBron told him hell no to you being the dictator of me, is about to play a game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Take the dramatics out of it, this Heat team has done it without Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside, both injured. While Whiteside may return from his sprained knee if the Heat advance to play the Cavs, Chris Bosh’s career is in limbo.

The main issue last year for the Miami Heat was scoring. They couldn’t get to 100 points which had them near the bottom of the league. Riley thought he had solved that particular issue by adding wing players (Gerald Green) and drivers (Goran Dragic) who could  finish at the rim. But last year is this year. The Heat play slow. In the regular season, they were 23rd in points and assists. Their 3-point shooting was abysmal.

Gerald Green was supposed to change the calculus but he was a huge disappointment. His 3-point shot died on the vine and his catch and shoot makes were going in 34% of the time. Green was always a Riley gamble. His career was one of hits and misses.

Goran Dragic, another free agent signing, was not what Riley expected either, particularly as he gave Dragic close to the max. Dragic wasn’t in Riley shape when he came to camp. The point of Dragic was to speed up the tempo. It hasn’t happened. His year was average. For some reason, he couldn’t make free throws which contributed to his lowest point average in four years, when he was a member of the Rockets. His regular season PER was a 5 year low. His 3-point shooting was nearly a career low. His catch and shoot numbers were slightly above Green at 39%, but misses are misses and are depressing. But his assist numbers (5.8) are the third most of his career and would be higher if the Heat had some offensive talent that could make consistent shots.

Mediocre in Miami, 2015-16 Points FG% 3-Point% PER
Goran Dragic 14.1 47.7% 31.2% 15.5
Gerald Green 8.9 39.3% 32.3% 10.1

On the other hand, Hassan Whiteside is the most exciting thing to happen to the Heat since Riley convinced LeBron to defect. Whiteside was a journeyman player until Riley plucked him out of obscurity. He was the reason the Heat’s defense was spectacularly good at the rim, leading the league in blocks and 3rd in rebounding. and leading the Heat in PER, 25.7, in the regular season. Furthermore, Whiteside and Wade had great chemistry together.

But Whiteside is sidelined and the Heat have a game 7 in Toronto. Goran Dragic who has not exactly meshed with Dwyane Wade has to come up big. In games 1, 2 and 6 he had a 26 point, 20 point and 30 point performances to augment Wade, who can’t do it alone.

If the Heat make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and face LeBron James that will be epic because Pat Riley recovered. He lost the most impactful player of this generation and he was able to pull it together after a year in the lottery.

The NBA is fragile, just look at the Chicago Bulls. You blink, things change.

22 months after losing LeBron James to free-agency and Chris Bosh to illness, the fact that the Heat are here is less a Pat Riley miracle than a Pat Riley familiar story. The cream always rises to the top.

 

photo via llananba