It was an exceptional day for Pat Riley on July 1, 2016. He was smiling, his face nearly breaking because of it. The reason he was giddy was his prized free agent Hassan Whiteside had just inked a max deal that would pay him $22 million, $23 million this year, $25 million in 2018-19 and a player option of $27 million in 2019-20. Pat Riley exhaled. He accomplished his goal of keeping Whiteside in a Heat uniform even as the cautionary tale of Chris Bosh hung over his head. It was Chris Bosh that Riley signed (overpaid) to a similar max deal in 2014 and a contract Pat Riley had to fight off like a prisoner shakes off his oppressors.
That day in July was the last perfect moment. Since then Riley has had to pivot over and over. Six days after his perfect Hassan Whiteside moment, his star and everything Miami defected to his hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Within a two year window, two Hall of Fame players who Riley had in the fold turned their back on the great motivator and leader Pat Riley.
Pat Riley is in the middle. He is not God awful as a talent scout, but not great in convincing free agents from other teams to come to the Heat either. He couldn’t convince Gordon Hayward to forget about the Celtics. His best moves this summer were re-signing solid players Dion Waiters and James Johnson but that hardly pushes the Heat needle forward. Give Riles A “B”.
Justise Winslow is his guy of the moment. Winslow is everything the scouts said. Can’t throw a brick in the South Beach ocean but can defend and does exude toughness.
Winslow, a 25% three point shooter, would have trouble making an impact in Erik Spoelstra’s three point shooting offense of last year that nearly made the playoffs. So what is Riley to do?
Winslow’s extension comes up next year; this year is huge for him. His 10.9 points a game is an underachievement, even for a late lottery pick. For a young player, his defensive rating is decent (106) but his offensive rating (96) is a testament to his inability to make shots against NBA defenses. His offensive rating last year was worse than his rookie year.
The closer Winslow is to the basket the better. But that narrow window resembles the small forward game from a long lost era, not the scorers of today. It doesn’t matter how good a defender Winslow is. If he can’t be trusted to put the ball in the hole then he can’t be on the floor the last two minutes. Teams will just defend 4 on 5 and leave him open and double Waiters or Dragic or Whiteside.
Winslow is a nice rebounder, especially on the offensive end but he doesn’t block shots which isn’t a necessity with Whiteside. But this year he has to do more. He has to show that he is more than a specialist as he competes to be a starter and that brings us back to Pat Riley.
He had to clean up the Chris Bosh mess. He had to publicly gut Bosh in the media so other NBA teams would get the message about Bosh. He had to cut ties and think about 2018 once he lost Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin. But here is where the Riley pressure comes in to play. 2018 is a nice free agent year. Dwyane Wade. LeBron James. Chris Paul. Paul George. Possibly Russ Westbrook. DeMarcus Cousins. Riley needs a star, sorry Dion Waiters isn’t it. But what has Riley done lately?
Riley has to be magical again. But everything is different than in 2010. The deck is stacked against Riley because of what he did with the Big Three and how the CBA was designed to punish the Rileys of the world. Plus, there aren’t enough stars out there to go around. His worst crime was alienating LeBron James. That will come back to haunt Riles for years.
Riley overpaid Goran Dragic, just like he overpaid Chris Bosh, just like he overpaid Hassan Whiteside. He didn’t overpay Waiters. It seems as if he has learned.
Dragic is a good player not a great one. He can’t carry a team and for that matter neither can Whiteside. No one on the Heat roster is the difference maker to get them to the Eastern Conference Finals. That means that Riley hasn’t been Riley these past few years. He’s made some slip up mistakes. Is this period of ups and downs that faint light flickering in the sunset? Soon you will barely see the glow of where the great Pat Riley used to stand.
It was just seven years ago when Riley was toasted and feted and praised and nearly drawn up on murals as Miami Jesus for clearing cap room and bringing the Big Three of LeBron James and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade into the Miami orbit. Seven years later they are all gone, leaving Riley to pick up crumbs. LeBron and Wade jilted Riley and left him to explain himself. It has been awkward, a father sent into no man’s land by his own sons. Bosh has been permanently exiled though the Heat will retire his jersey and go through all the ceremonial things you do after a long war is over.
Empathy was never the Pat Riley value. He came in this way and he’ll go out this way, driven and salty. This generation of players weren’t raised to adopt the habits of tough men. They want compassion and trust. The ways of Riley just aren’t comfortable.
The NBA is in a down spiral as far as elite talent. There aren’t enough elite players coming in. Is Riley going to end his career like this, an architect of a good team, but great having disappeared in the LeBron James night three years ago.
Note to Riles: It’s hard to find superstars. Either you grow them or you steal them from someplace else. All the superstars are taken. And so what last magic act can Riley conjure up?
photo via llananba