When James Worthy, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper walked into Dr. Jerry Buss’ office and demanded to be traded if Pat Riley was still the coach, it was the spring of 1990. The three Lakers players had been worn down by the Riley ethic. Tired of his megalomaniac tendencies, his relentless and brutal criticism and his Magic Johnson favoritism, they were willing to leave the Showtime Lakers, the most celebrated and decorated team of the 1980’s, to escape Pat Riley’s wrath. The public face of Showtime, photographed on the sidelines often with a grimace, had a players mutiny on his hands and he didn’t even know it.
The broadcaster turned coach turned Showtime savant was now being told to go…go somewhere else. However, the P.R. machine didn’t spin it that way, insisting it was a mutual parting of ways and that Riley wanted to pursue other opportunities. The truth was Riley had a habit of exhausting players until their capacity to function with a high amount of mental energy was gone. Eventually players tired of Riley’s guerrilla warfare tactics, his protecting Magic Johnson from criticism but skewering everyone else for the simplest of infractions, his nitpicking; players stopped listening. Then stopped caring.
This was a team that won 4 titles with Pat Riley leading them and were the standard bearer of the decade. Yet, Riley coached them as if they were a team of rookies. Veterans, champions, proud, competitive, persistent, they had enough. As was reported in the Long Beach Press-Telegram days after Riley was celebrated for everything he gave the organization, Jerry Buss fired Pat Riley.
Twenty four years later, Pat Riley faced the media and dared the greatest player of his generation (and most other generations) to not be weak, to have the guts to stick around. The Heat had just lost in the NBA Finals, were obliterated by the San Antonio Spurs, and LeBron James was a free agent mulling over his options. If it was anyone but Riley, it would have been peculiar to hear an executive maligning his star player as weak if he didn’t return.
When LeBron James called Pat Riley’s bluff and left to go to Cleveland, Riley was stunned and shaken. LeBron was leaving regardless of what Riley had said but his words only stirred the got to get out of here pot. Riley was left nearly empty. He had one ace in the card to play. He had Dwyane Wade.
It took two years. It is Wade’s turn. He has finally succumbed to the same end of my rope angst that weighed heavily upon James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper and LeBron James.
Pat Riley does this to everybody. He wears players down so they want to flee. But in Wade’s case, there were more Riley layers.
He questioned Wade’s loyalty. You can’t have two masters when Pat Riley is the boss. Is it Riley? Or, is it LeBron James?
The irony is that Riley was the direct beneficiary of the Wade/LeBron friendship. Two titles came out of it. But when LeBron defected, Riley expected allegiance to him and only him. Riley hated LeBron. He expected Wade to do the same.
Riley is a great builder. He put Showtime together. He elevated Patrick Ewing and bully ball and made it to the NBA Finals. He had the foresight to draft Dwyane Wade and wouldn’t trade him in the Shaquille O’Neal acquisition. He cleared cap space and made it possible for the Big Three to come and conquer.
But Riley also tears things down. He destroys what he builds. He can’t get out of his own way. His relentlessness doesn’t have an off switch. Veteran players know what they need to do. Veteran players want respect. They want respect in how they are treated. And they want respect in how they are compensated.
Riley’s main character flaw is he doesn’t have a pulse on what his players are thinking. He doesn’t have the late Jerry Buss’ talent at keeping engaged in his players lives so he knows when mutiny is about to strike. His arrogance deems him the best at what he does-he’s right. But there is a second part to that equation: the nurturing of relationships. Of every player that has defected or wanted to, Pat Riley was blindsided.
None more so than Dwyane Wade. This loss hurts Riley more than any of the other losses he has endured. Wade was Riley’s project; he drafted him. He coached him. He loved him. He watched him mature and grow. Right or wrong, Riley took ownership in everything Wade had become, in the entire Wade County narrative.
And now he has egg on his face. This could have been avoided if he had only nurtured a relationship. What harm would there have been if he had a meeting with Hassan Whiteside at midnight and then with Wade two hours later? Or if before meeting with Durant in the Hamptons, he had a meeting with Wade in midtown Manhattan?
But Riley couldn’t do that. He had frozen Wade out. They hadn’t spoken in a month.
When it matters Riley is laser focused on a singular goal and goes after it with everything he has. Goal number one this free agent season was Hassan Whiteside. Goal number two was Kevin Durant.
Dwyane Wade had to make do with Riley’s leftovers, although Riley didn’t see it like that. He lacks perception. He is never aware the ship is sinking until the hole is in the boat and men are drowning.
His current team is without a star to build around. Whiteside is a defensive player. Justise Winslow is a defensive player. Goran Dragic can do some things. All Riley had to do was give up Josh McRoberts in order to fit Wade’s money in. But Riley has to make sure everyone knows he makes the decisions and not the players. He is the boss.
The Miami Heat boss is facing a huge 2017 offseason. Blake Griffin is comfortably settled with family life in Los Angeles. It would take a lot to lure him away from the Clippers who can offer him the most money, probably near $40 million with the rise in salary cap. Chris Paul will be 32. He has never been out of the second round. Adding Chris Paul only matters if you add a frontcourt offensive star. Miami will just be one of many suitors.Riley will be part of a crowd.
It is telling that when Riley met with Kevin Durant he brought no players with him. No Wade. No Whiteside. No one. It’s how Riley likes it: all about me.
In the end, it is what sunk Riley with Dwyane Wade. Wade was looking for Riley to care. Riley severed the affection tie two years ago when Wade wouldn’t renounce LeBron James.
People don’t change. Fluctuating from grudge holder to bully to dictator happened in Los Angeles with Worthy, Byron and Cooper. It happened with LeBron. Now Wade had his turn. That constitutes a pattern, mathematicians would say, empirical evidence.
Pat Riley’s legacy is of a brilliant team builder and multiple champion and master motivator. Pat Riley’s legacy is of an autocrat that players stop listening to and eventually are desperate to escape.
photo via llananba