- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Here we go again. It's the 2,204.6-pound gorillaphant returning to the room.
Phil Jackson has commented on it.
Sports talk shows all over the country are leading segments with it.
Websites are running wild with the rumors of it.
All while the city of Miami holds its breath. And waits.
Is he or is he not?
Is the Godfather/Don/Commodore known as Pat Riley going to step down (once again) from his post as one of the most powerful men in sports to coach a team that can't seem to figure out how to save itself from itself?
The answer is not yet known; but to some, the Riley option is as attractive as Odaymis Romero. The last time Riley came down from his presidential position, the Heat took the Chip. It was around the same time of the 2005-06 season, when the team was 11-10 and Stan Van Gundy was catching the heat as the head coach. Under Riley, the Heat went 41-20 the rest of the regular season and then won it all.
Which is the reason the speculation has reached the paranoia stage right now. The reason people are putting numbers on Erik Spoelstra's coaching days like they're playing Lotto.
But just because we've seen this scenario before doesn't mean that the handling of the situation needs to repeat itself, or that the outcome will be the same.
For one thing, 2010-11 isn't 2005-06. The spotlight and expectations in 2005 weren't weighing so heavy on Miami the way they are now, and so there wasn't the same instantaneous sense of underachievement resonating throughout South Florida when the record didn't match the talent that took the floor.
Truth is, though, that Riley is smart enough to pull this off. Again. Smart enough to basically orchestrate something so Nucky Thompson, so smooth, that he can say he "had no choice" but to do it for the betterment of the team and the organization despite his many protestations thus far that he won't/has no intention of doing it. Again.
That's what a good commander-in-chief is supposed to do, isn't it?
But in this case, the true answer is the painful opposite. If Riley is serious about what his Miami Heat team can do and become, then a revisitation as its coach should be the furthest thing from his mind. Even when the subliminal (yet not so subtle) media/fan push to get him back on the bench is spreading like WikiLeaks, Riley needs to leave this newest temptation alone. In the long run (and more than likely, the short run, too), Riley-as-coach will do more harm than good. He needs to do what people who inherit the position of president do: He needs to stay the course.
Because even if keeping Spoelstra (even after the reported positive outcome of Spoelstra's most recent player/coach-only conversation with LeBron James) is a bad answer for the questions about the Heat, Riley's reappearance on the bench to try to clean up the drama is a worse one. The smaller issue is this: Riley, at 65, is not going to be able to handle the day-to-day grind of head coaching for any long period of time. Most coaches under 50, who've yet to amass even a fourth of what's on Riley's résumé, will tell you stories of obsession and how the responsibility of being a head coach in the NBA took/takes years off their lives.
They'll tell you that if an "executive" head coach position is ever created -- one that allows them to coach without going through the unrelenting preparation it takes to win on the regular -- they'd embrace it like the Chilean miners embraced their family members once they were rescued.
LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are signed for six years (all three can opt out in Years 5 and 6 of their contracts), and there's no way Riley could maintain an elite level for that long. Which could cause a whole 'nother problem if the Heat win during that time and one or all three insist that Riley has to be their coach in order for them to re-sign.
But a much bigger issue is this: If Riley does it again, he will have set a pattern and created a perception (which is very hard to dispel in professional sports, even at the exec/nonplaying level) that every time things don't go as planned, the P.O.T.M.H. is going to come down from the mountain and replace his current coach with a peace sign (as in, "peace," you're gone) and do it himself. Thus, the question: What quality coach would ever seriously consider the Miami job if he knows that's always a possibility?
Nobody on the Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown (well, maybe Larry), Jerry Sloan or Riley level is going to stand for or attach himself to that. No "real" NBA coach, even with the Heat roster as enticing as it is, is going to accept a job where he will be looking over his shoulder every day. Where the job security is suspect at best.
Right now, there are only four active coaches in the NBA who have rings. Just four. And if Phil Jackson and Rivers stay true to their original pledges ("last stand," said Jackson; "one more run," said Rivers), then next year that number will drop to two. Meaning, championship-caliber pedigrees in the league will be at the highest premium in NBA history. And if we are being honest about the Heat right now and their struggle to even get mentioned in the same Power Rankings conversation as the Oklahoma City Thunder, then it seems as if a coach of that uberechelon nature (or just a level below it) is necessary. Assuming they can maximize on their potential and make Riley look like the genius he was portrayed as being when he put this thing together.
But if Riley gets too intrigued by the outside speculation, and by his desire and the pressure to use his own coaching abilities to save something that still has a shelf life of three to six years, then he runs the risk of damaging something long-term that will be impossible to fix quickly.
In the long run, you'd be a fool to let impatience be your guide when in reality you have nothing but time on your side.
For Riley and the Heat right now, this ain't the time to take the easy route. It's the time to "men up," show some resolve, don't make an in-the-moment move that could make it impossible to recover the swagger they all had coming into this season. Which means Riley has to stand pat.
Because in life, sometimes doing what's smart is harder than doing what's easy.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
3hMichael C. Wright