“Pat Riley,” the screenwriter Robert Towne once said, “is as sane as any obsessive man can be, and as obsessive as any sane man can be.” This is as correct now as when Towne said it more than 30 years ago. (Towne, who wrote “Chinatown,” tried to change the arc of Riley’s life by offering him a lead role in his film “Tequila Sunrise” in 1988, a cop who wore custom made suits and had slicked-back hair. Riley declined; the part went to Kurt Russell.)
But the quote is the thing here; all these years later, and Riley still is obsessed with winning and building another title contender. He’s now been in Miami as the Heat’s president longer, 21 years, than he was with the Lakers, where he burst upon the public’s consciousness as the team’s dapper and driven coach, leading the franchise to its greatest triumphs — four championships with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.
Overall, Riley has nine rings — one as a player with the Lakers (’72), one as a Laker assistant under Paul Westhead (’80), the four as coach (’82, ’85, ’87, ’88), one as Miami’s coach (2006) and two as the Heat’s president (’12, ’13). The last two — along with two other Finals appearances — came after Riley orchestrated the construction of the SuperFriends, with LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami. But that group had a shelf life; James tired of Riley’s rules and limits, and the inability to retain role players like Mike Miller, and went back to Cleveland in 2014 — a clear rebuke of Riley’s impassioned plea to stay in Miami “if you’ve got the guts.”
But even that was a prelim for this past summer. First, Miami couldn’t clear Bosh, who’s missed most of the last two seasons with blood clots, to play this season, even though Bosh insisted (and insists) he’s healthy and able to go. Then, the Heat and Wade — certainly the most important player in franchise history — couldn’t agree on a new contract, and Wade left for a two-year, $47 million deal in Chicago. It has left the 71-year-old Riley in a familiar yet odd position — rebuilding again, but without any of his proven superstars, having to depend now on center Hassan Whiteside (whose four-year, $98 million deal was Riley’s priority; that was part of what bothered Wade in the first place), second-year forward Justise Winslow and other young players with potential, but not a track record.
Last week, Wade returned to Miami for the first time with the Bulls, and received thundering applause. Riley was reflective, and wistful, but still ready to roll his sleeves up again to build again.
Me: As someone who’s been around long enough now to do multiple rebuilds, other than obviously looking for talent, what kinds of characteristics do you look for in players when you’re beginning the process of starting over?
Pat Riley: Well, right now, it’s talent. It’s not the same level of talent that we saw in Dwyane or Caron Butler, what we saw in Alonzo Mourning when we traded for ‘Zo. It’s the raw talent that we can find. So talent is still, always and will forever be at the top of the list. So we feel that with Hassan, and with Justise and Tyler (Johnson) and Josh (Richardson), and some of the new guys who we got this summer, four or five of those young guys can create a nucleus. We have a pick this year. I have intentions, if it’s possible, to try and get another pick. And then we will have room. And so from that standpoint, you start making a plan and formulating what it looks like down the road, but you’re going to have to get some breakthroughs — from Hassan, from Justise, from Tyler, from Josh. And then you’ll see where you go from there..
Me: You’ve coached or acquired any number of great centers, all number one number ones — Kareem, Pat Ewing, Shaq and so on. Hassan is not a number one No. 1, but he’s young. So what’s the tradeoff between his maybe not being as talented as those others, but being a late bloomer with potential?
PR: No, he’s bloomed. He’s already bloomed. He’s not finished. And the nights that he creates awe, I mean, he does, when he’ll go for 27 and 16 and 8, and being right on everything. You can see it there. I do believe his level of maturity and becoming a focused, all of the time player (can improve). I sort of break ‘em down — are you an all-of-the-time guy? You a some-of-the-time guy? You a none-of-the-time guy?…we expect Hassan, somewhere, will be an all-of-the-time guy, and like every great center that I’ve coached and had the ability and was fortunate enough to coach, they had 20 games a year when they were none-of-the-time guys. You have to live with that. We really feel fortunate, and lucky, that we were able to sort of semi-stumble into him, but be on top of it and have Hassan in the fold here. And I think he’s going to have a great career for us
Me: You churned through so many centers after Shaq — Eddy Curry and Greg Oden and Chris Andersen. What flashed with Hassan that made you think this guy was worth investing more time in?
PR: We almost drafted him. Chet (Kammerer, the Heat’s vice president of player personnel) and I were in Dallas, at Southern Methodist, watching him play down there (for Marshall). They had him stand in the lane with his arms out, and they were playing the zone, so you never could really tell or not if he could play man to man or any kind of offensive moves. That’s when we drafted, just ahead of Sacramento, the kid from Texas — Dexter Pittman was drafted just ahead of him. To make a long story short, we had a history with Hassan because we really liked him. And we scouted him and we looked at him and we followed him. So when he came back after his sojourn around the world, and went to the NBDL and put up those numbers, and we brought him in, then we sent him back. And when we sent him back he had 40 and 28, or whatever it was. We said ‘get him back here.’ But then there was this one-day contract he signed with Memphis, because they didn’t have enough players. They said they were going to waive him the next day. And I said, ‘we lost him.’ When he signed with them, I said, we’ve lost this guy. But they cut him. And we picked him up and signed him.
Me: You’ve never shied away from paying guys, from Alonzo and Juwan Howard to LeBron and Chris Bosh. But they were all proven NBA commodities. Was there any trepidation with paying Hassan the max — because unlike the others, he hasn’t played at that high level for nearly as long?
PR: Well, let me take out some money (reaches into his back pocket for his wallet) and give it to them.
Me: Good point.
“I’m telling you, within a year, we’re going to be running a lot of offense through this guy.”
Heat president Pat Riley, on Hassan Whiteside
PR: No, there was no trepidation. When you look at how the game is played now, when you look at how it has evolved and how it’s played, he’s the perfect center. As a matter of fact, give me one team in the league that runs its offense through its center. There isn’t one. But there are a lot of centers that are mobile, that can leap, that are long, that are good in pick and roll. There’s a verticality to their game. They can catch it above the rim. They’re good defensive players. They can block shots. They can defensive rebound. I’m telling you, within a year, we’re going to be running a lot of offense through this guy. He’s never had that kind of pressure on him … These (superstar) guys, you went through them seven or eight possessions in a row. It didn’t make any difference. You knew you were going to get a shot. You would get one through them, or you were going to get one on the other side of the court because of the double team. But there’s a real focus on how to play the game when you’re going to see these kinds of defenses. He’s not ready for that yet, but also, that’s not the game we need him for right now.
Me: Besides his shot, what other improvements do you need from Justise?
PR: Just, he’s 20. Just experience, more and more experience. He needs — I hate to say this — he needs more and more failure.
Me: What do you mean by that?
PR: He just needs more and more, he was so highly touted and there was so much that came to him. He’s not making the shots that he’s been working on. Everybody’s examining and micro-managing his 3-point shot. But this kid is a player. He’s a competitor. He is one of the all-time heart guys and can make an impact defensively, on rebounds, tough dig-outs, offensive boards. His offensive game is going to come when people shut up about it … I’m not concerned about Justise. We have a winner there, and we were very fortunate to get him.
Me: What are your feelings about Dwyane being back? (Interview conducted before the Bulls-Heat game last Thursday.)
PR: …There’s been a lot written about it. The last two years have been hard on the franchise. We’ve had a very, very tough time. LeBron left, we thought we could get a facsimile of him with (Luol) Deng. Just to fill it. And so we’d have Deng and Whiteside, and we’d have CB and we’d have Dwyane, and then we immediately made a trade for (Goran) Dragic. I said that’s a nice five. We had (Josh) McRoberts coming off the bench. CB goes down. And then Dwyane leaves. We’ve had a tough two years. But we’ve been through it before.
I remember 2001, or 2002, in that summer, when I met with Alonzo and his agent, he came into my office in August, when I was planning for a big year and we were looking at these players and signing this guy and doing trades. And I remember ‘Zo came in with his agent after playing an entire year the year before, and he said he was not going to be able to play for the season because of the kidney problem. And I went to my staff and said ‘you know what? We’re going to lose ‘Zo for the year. Let’s get ready to take the hit. We’re not going to tank, but we have to get ready to take the hit. We’ve got to rebuild.’ And those two years, we got Caron and we got Dwyane. And we had Eddie (Jones) and we had Brian (Grant). We signed (Elton) Brand (to an offer sheet), and the Clippers matched, and then we got Lamar (Odom). And we had a great little team that could. But it wasn’t going to win anything.
Of course, I was impatient, and guess what? Diesel came on the market. Shaq came on the market. And we moved very quickly to try to win. And I think that’s the one thing that Micky (Arison, the Heat’s owner) — you mentioned giving players millions and millions of dollars. Well, it’s not my money. I don’t think Micky has ever made a bad multi-million dollar deal with players. He’s willing to pay for the talent that he knows will make a difference. How do I feel? We’ve gotten to this point. We got the prodigal son coming back. He really is. There’s been a lot made about what happened and how it went down. It doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t. It really doesn’t, from the standpoint of what happened. It’s how you deal with it, it’s how you come back from it and move on. It’s how Dwyane went on from it and how we’ve gone on from it.
We’ll always love him. We’ll never forget him. I can listen to ‘The Way We Were’ by Willie Hutch and I’ll come to tears just thinking about him. Or I can listen to “Always Together” by the Dells. See, only you and I know these songs. And I’ll come to tears thinking about him. I’m a cold-assed, cold-hearted Irishman. And I was raised in that kind of environment by a coach, by Dad, three brothers that were in the military that were athletes, eight coaches that were tough-minded guys. Believe me, that was a tough hit when Dwyane left.
Me: I’m sure his jersey’s going up in the rafters. Any idea when?
PR: I think you have to wait until after they retire. I really do think. Four years ago when I talked to Dwyane he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to play two more years. That’s it. I’m done.’ ‘Cause he was getting hurt and all that stuff. Now I read where he said he wants to play until he’s 40. That would be five, six years from now. We’re saving a spot for him up there. He’s just a special, special player, and he’s been a special player for this franchise. There’s a great line in the book ‘Liar’s Poker.’ The guy who was the very, very best always said ‘okay, I’ll play you one game. Ten million. No tears and no regrets.’ The guy that wanted to play him went back and sat in his stall, ‘cause he didn’t want to play for $10 million. Dwyane would have played for $10 million. He was that kind of guy. He’d go for it. He’d go for the win. That’s why I think we had an affinity for each other. He knows how I was when I coached him, and he knows how we are as an organization. Regardless of what people think about us, we’re rebuilding and he knows we’re going to do it the right way.
“If we ever had to do it again … if we ever had to do it again, when LeBron left (in 2014), we should have given Chris the max, and Dwyane the max.”
Miami Heat president Pat RIley
Me: This is one of those situations where I understand Dwyane’s position as a player, but I also understand yours representing the organization. Do you agree that both sides’ positions had merit?
PR: I want to give you some names. Now, it’s up for debate. George Mikan. Bill Russell. Willis Reed. Havlicek. Magic, Kareem, Worthy. Jordan, Thomas, Dumars. Pippen. Duncan, Ginobili, Parker. Kobe. Dirk Nowitzki. A partner. What you want to do as a president and as an owner is, even though there’s no agreements, there’s no undisclosed agreements or promises, is that you know there are people that are going to be partners with you for their career.
And the one thing that we always wanted to do for Dwyane, and it probably was a mistake, was that we always wanted to try to get him another guy to help him win, to help him enjoy the end of his career. But we also knew that we were going to have to ask him to sacrifice. So we always tried to slide another guy in for him, and at the same time letting him know — really, without letting him know, because he was a partner — he was going to get his, whatever it was over the next four or five years that he played. One of the greatest feelings I ever had was one time when Magic called me on the phone, right after he retired. And he said, ‘guess what? I’m an owner … Dr. Buss let me buy some equity in the Lakers.’ That’s sort of what you envision and what you think can happen along the way, and I think that’s how we always sort of looked at Dwyane.
But all of those names that I mentioned, they all sort of become partners. They understand how hard it is to give the player everything that he wants and also give him everything he needs, which is winning. Dwyane needs winning. And if we gave him all that he wanted, he would have been very angry with me. He would have been in my office and he’s going to be saying to me, ‘where are they? Where are the players?’
It’s the same thing with the Big Three, when we signed the Big Three. I told all of them, and told all of their agents, ‘look, we’ve got the room. We’ve got $16.8 million for each guy. We’ve got $49 or $50 million of room, and you’ve got it all.’ And they said, ‘well, who do you got to play with them?’ I said we’ve got Mario Chalmers at the point guard, and Joel Anthony. So we’ve got Anthony at center, CB at power forward, LeBron at small forward, Dwyane and Mario Chalmers. ‘Well, who else you got?’ ‘Nobody. But we’ve got the three of you.’ And that’s when they all of a sudden became philanthropic — ‘oh, we want Udonis, we want Mike Miller,’ and they started giving money back. We never asked them to do that. But they were partners in winning at that time. It’s not an easy thing.
If we ever had to do it again — and Andy (Elisburg, the Heat’s Senior VP of Basketball Operations and General Manager) bang our fists on the table — if we ever had to do it again, when LeBron left (in 2014), we should have given Chris the max, and Dwyane the max. And that was it. Instead of trying to say to Dwayne, I want to get another guy for you, but you have to sacrifice. And that was wrong. I should have given him — we should have given him — that then. Now, that’s a big second guess. But that’s on me. If I could have pushed that, and I could have pushed that. But I didn’t. I said we need to get more talent for him. But somebody was going to sacrifice. Like I said before, it doesn’t matter what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it. And we’re dealing with it. He’s dealing with it.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
The fact that Kevin Garnett has a cuss button on tv is actually the greatest thing I've ever seen
— Josuélito (@J_Rich1) November 11, 2016
— Heat guard Josh Richardson (@J_Rich1), Friday, 1:41 a.m., no doubt speaking for the nation.
THEY SAID IT
“I want to give a special shout out to J.R. Smith’s shirt for making an appearance. We weren’t sure it was going to show up.”
— President Obama, during the Cavaliers’ White House appearance Thursday.
“If a team made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, then I would’ve looked at it more seriously. The way that year shaped up, nobody was knocking on my door saying, ‘We would love to have you.’ If I’m going to play, I’m going to have to move. I would have to leave my family or move my family. I didn’t feel I want to do that.”
— Ray Allen, in an interview with USA Today, on why he decided to officially announce his retirement a couple of weeks ago after not playing for an NBA team the last two seasons.
“I think right now as far as I know I think we’ve got one of the worst bench in the league right now.”
— Wizards center Marcin Gortat, after Washington suffered its sixth loss in eight games, Saturday in Chicago. Okayyyy then. Should be a great team photo!
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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