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Scott Howard-Cooper

Pat Riley has built a powerhouse in Miami without having to start from scratch.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Riley masterfully, painlessly has put the Heat back on top

Posted Jul 9 2010 3:35PM

Forget looking around South Beach. The greatest evidence of the improbability of what just happened, the greatest perspective of what Pat Riley pulled off while no one was looking, can be found far up the Eastern seaboard, away from the party and the video clips of the announcement being beamed from the side of the arena.

The Knicks went 61-103 the last two seasons and gutted the roster as they jumped into the LeBron James game.

The Nets spent tossed bodies overboard to build the kind of war chest that would get them in the sweepstakes, went 46-118 in the process and in 2009-10 threatened the league record for fewest wins.


A couple months of discomfort. Give or take a long lunch.

The Heat hit the free-agent jackpot without enduring the agony of impatient fans like those in New York or the kind of empty arenas like the one in East Rutherford, N.J., or any of the self-inflicted lacerations in the name of clearing cap space. That makes what went down Thursday night of an entirely new magnitude.

Miami didn't merely land LeBron James after adding Chris Bosh and retaining Dwyane Wade. It added two of the biggest chips and kept a third in the biggest free-agent bonanza in history -- the top three prizes of the summer -- without spending a couple dozen months or so on the rack. It swung this massive resurgence without coming close to touching bottom.

The Knicks did nothing wrong in their pursuit of James. If anything, they did right. Donnie Walsh took over a roster in salary-cap hell, locked down by bad contract over bad contract, not to mention a lot of bad players whose development suffered as Isiah Thomas used games to catch up on his rest. Walsh, a respected veteran executive, absolutely had to get to a new beginning even if it didn't lead to James, and even if it's a tougher sell with New York expectations and Madison Square Garden ticket prices.

Same thing across the river. The Nets did nothing wrong. If anything, they did right. Rod Thorn, also a respected veteran executive, cleared salary while also building a real future, with 2009 All-Star Devin Harris at point guard and Brook Lopez in the early stages of a very promising career at center. This can't be a time of mourning for a franchise that has a new energy of an incoming owner, plans to be in a New York City arena in two seasons and a promising young core of players.

It's just that Riley pulled off the James-Bosh split without nearly the hair loss. That's what makes Wednesday with Wade and Bosh and Thursday with James and wing man Jim Gray almost remarkable.

The Heat of 2008-09 were 43-39, third in the Southeast Division and a five seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, before losing to the Hawks in seven games in the first round. Wade led the league in scoring and finished eighth in assists. Enough interest remained that they were 15th, right in the middle, in attendance.

The Heat of 2009-10 were 47-35, third in the Southeast and a five seed in the playoffs, before losing to the Celtics in five games. Miami was a very good defensive team and won close games. This was not a group waiting for the season to pass. And attendance held at 15th.

And now, with the new three in Miami, they're back. Maybe better than ever.

The Bulls did something similar. They did it better in the blueprint, actually, remaining respectable while positioning themselves for the great summer chase, creating the necessary cap space while maintaining the roster with Derrick Rose, the improving Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. The Bulls just didn't finish better this week, though they landed an important addition by signing Carlos Boozer.

Riley stuck it to the Knicks. Everyone has to acknowledge that he did a masterful job and that they'll really have to live with both Riles and his ego now. He wrapped up the three brightest lights -- and appears on the verge of signing Mike Miller as well -- without getting close to the Knicks' 61-103.

Riley also is the only person whose reputation does not depend on the outcome of the new grouping. There is no debate over whether he made the right moves -- every personnel boss would have done the same thing. So if this thing goes down in flames of conflicting personalities or someone's inability to accept a supporting role, it's on coach Erik Spoelstra and it's on the players . Most of all, it's on James.

The team president has spoken and maneuvered. And he has done it without two seasons of anguish.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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