When the Miami Heat won their second NBA title in 2013, a thrilling 7 game series against the San Antonio Spurs, Pat Riley had every reason to expect a long-running dynasty that paralleled his Showtime Lakers. And, why not? Riley successfully made it possible for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to exert their will over the league. In his domination of the NBA, Pat Riley wore the crown he earned through blood, sweat, and tears. In 2013, Riley had stars and a supporting cast of veterans who knew their roles and could make open shots as well as defend their position.
But one year after that repeat title, things changed. After being trounced in the Finals by Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, Riley publicly challenged LeBron James who was a free agent. It didn’t go well. James left for Cleveland and to medicate his wound Riley overpaid Chris Bosh. He watched Bosh’s body during the next two years decline. The max deal Riley paid him strangled the cap when Bosh couldn’t play.
More bad luck. Riley got suckered into trading for Shabazz Napier in 2014 (LeBron loved him) and drafting Justice Winslow in 2015. Napier had a great NCAA tournament but never played with LeBron and only lasted a year before he was traded. Justise Winslow had a similar bio. Great tournament but he never projected to be anything more than a three and d guy. Winslow was traded.
Instead of Napier, Riley could have drafted Clint Capela, Bojan Bogdanovic, Nikola Jokic, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jordan Clarkson. The next year he missed on Devin Booker. And Montrezl Harrell. It didn’t end there, the Riley mistakes. He overpaid Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. He mishandled his relationship with Dwyane Wade, causing the Heat star to flee to his hometown of Chicago, a sucker punch to Riles ego.
Riley recovered in 2017 by drafting Bam Adebayo. But his biggest moment was yet to come. Trading Hassan Whiteside, an omission that he swung for the fences and missed, and signing Jimmy Butler, has the down years of Riley (which coincided with LeBron leaving) in the history books. The Heat was desperate for a star and they have one. If you have followed Jimmy Butler’s career you will know he has never been this happy.
When Butler was with the Bulls he was hell-bent on erasing the last player chosen in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft narrative. In Minnesota, he hated how soft his young teammates were. He fit in with Philly but it wasn’t honey and roses with Brett Brown who didn’t hold players accountable. In Miami, Jimmy Butler is no longer the toughest guy on the court. His teammates willingly play d, accept critique, and have guts. They are alike in the same foundational ways. It’s perfect.
For Riles who has struggled with life after LeBron, he has finally found his groove, perhaps in his last great moment as a front office executive and dictator boss. He signed undrafted Duncan Robinson (Michigan) to a Summer League deal which Riley parlayed into a two-way contract. Robinson made the opening day roster 2018 but only played in one game. This year Robinson played in 68 regular-season games and was a Steph Curryian 44.6% from three. Robinson took 386 threes and made 302 of them. (Conversely, he took 11 long twos and only made 3 of them.) Duncan Robinson knows who he is and so do the Heat.
Riley drafted Tyler Herro as his 2019 lottery pick. Herro played in 55 regular-season games and made the All-Rookie second team.
Riley is an imperfect man and his thirstiness for winning has naturally created mistakes, particularly after LeBron left. The first of which was forgetting what that losing life was like. How hard winning in the NBA is. How good players need elite talent if they have any chance at relevancy. Good only gets you so far. Despite the Heat being an A-level organization at developing players, they needed a shotmaker and closer, and leader. They needed a competitor who could take the game over. Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro matter because the Heat have Jimmy Butler.
And the Miami Heat have Pat Riley. His brilliance as a coach is overwhelmed by his exceptionalism as the top boss. Six years after Riley’s worst failure, Pat Riley may indeed have one-upped himself, and if he is successful at winning a ring, it will be top-10 in the pantheon of great Riley comebacks. It will be the ultimate revenge.
Pat Riley is on track for slaying the player who rejected him, and with a team he built with blood, sweat and, tears.