Commentary

Riley's reign has shades of Red

Updated: July 13, 2010, 4:35 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris BoshIssac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesHow'd the Heat land LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh? It has a lot to do with the man on the far left.

There was no way to know that the three men captured in this brief clip from the early 1970s would go on to have so much influence on the NBA in the '80s, '90s, 2000s and now this decade.

The footage is from the moment Game 5 of the 1972 NBA Finals ended and the Lakers beat the New York Knicks to win the series. Pat Riley, a Lakers reserve, is so excited he nearly wrestles teammate Jerry West into a headlock as they run to the locker room. A few seconds later Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks makes his way through the delirious fans storming the court.

Who could have guessed that Riley would become a coaching icon in the 1980s, or that Jackson would surpass him in the '90s, or that West would become such a great team-builder that a rival once suggested they name the executive of the year award for him?

Now, 38 years after their paths crossed in that clip, Riley has the chance to combine elements of the other two and go down in history as the greatest coach/executive since Red Auerbach.

Riley won it all four times with West making the personnel moves in Los Angeles. He won in Miami with a team he put together himself. And now he has emerged as the biggest winner in the most anticipated free-agent summer since 1996 -- and if he returns to coaching, as so many predict he will, he could become the league's most significant single figure south of David Stern. Riley will never be the logo representing the world's best basketball players, as West is, but Riley could say he's done more than West could off the court. West built champions. Riley has done that and coached them, too.

Originally, West and Riley were supposed to coach the Lakers together. But no sooner had Lakers owner Jerry Buss announced the plan in 1981 than West backed off, leaving Riley to handle it himself. The Lakers were in capable hands, it turned out, as Riley won that season and three more times in the next six years. And West was as skilled as they came in the front office, fortifying the Lakers with the likes of Byron Scott and Mychal Thompson to assure they would be the team of the 1980s, patching together the likes of Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos to make a competitive team in the 1990s, then landing Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in one summer to set up the Lakers as the dominant team at the start of the '00s.

West is the standard, but Riley has a chance to surpass him. In Miami, Riley never had the benefit of lucking into a No. 1 overall pick to serve as the bedrock of the team, which the Lakers had with Magic Johnson in the 1980s. (Getting another No. 1 in James Worthy didn't hurt, either.) But through relentless roster reshaping (Riley would like that term; he has a thing for alliteration), Riley has fashioned the Heat into contenders three times.

He traded for Alonzo Mourning in 1995 and brought in Tim Hardaway as part of a three-trade frenzy that netted five players right before the trade deadline in 1996. That team made it to the Eastern Conference finals in 1997.

[+] EnlargeStan Van Gundy and Shaquille O'Neal and Pat Riley
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty ImagesThe last time the Heat landed a big free agent, Riley returned to the bench and brought Miami a title.

In 2004, he turned an exploratory discussion about the possibility of returning to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers into a plot to bring the Lakers' center to Miami and wound up pulling off the landscape-changing trade for Shaq; a year later he reworked the roster around O'Neal and Wade to bring the Heat their lone championship.

And now he has masterminded his most audacious move yet, clearing enough salary-cap space to bring in LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade. True, Riley didn't have to do the hard sell himself, since the players' friendship formed while playing on the U.S. national team spurred the idea of hanging together on a full-time basis. But Riley was the one who facilitated it, made the dream a financial possibility, and will be responsible for surrounding them with the right pieces to fulfill what is practically an obligation to win a championship.

And there's every reason to believe in Riley. You can review all of his transactions as president of the Heat, and you won't find a single trade that he "lost." You'll also be hard-pressed to find a player he regrets allowing to get away.

Free-agent departures Bruce Bowen and James Posey went on to win championships in San Antonio and Boston, respectively, but they're the type of players who plug in gaps instead of forming foundations. When you watched the parades it wasn't Bowen and Posey you wished you had; it was Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. The best player to be selected from one of the draft picks Riley sent away was Ty Lawson -- a backup point guard on the Nuggets.

Yes, Caron Butler went on to become an All-Star, and Lamar Odom is now a main rotation player for the back-to-back champion Lakers … but the Heat got Shaq in exchange for them and won a championship. Any deal that brings a banner you'd do again and again and again. If Michael Beasley ever fulfills his potential in another uniform, sacrificing him to get this roster together will be deemed worth it if there's another parade.

Wade, James and Bosh are the stars, but this still feels like Riley's team. No other executive establishes and dominates his team's culture as Riley does with the Heat. Among the numerous questions swirling around Beasley when he was sitting there as the no-other-choice selection for the Heat's No. 2 pick in 2008 was whether he was the type of guy who could play for Riley. It didn't matter that Riley wasn't the coach at the time and, it turned out, never came down to the sidelines while Beasley was in Miami. Riles had his way and his guys, even from up in the office.

Will he remain there, or can we count on his protégé Erik Spoelstra continuing to coach the team? Surely Stan Van Gundy can tell you how this story will end. If Riley did it to him -- coming down to take over a team on the brink of winning it all after reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals the year before -- he'll do it to Spoelstra, who has yet to win a playoff series.

The Heat have brought back Udonis Haslem and are adding Mike Miller, both at discounts. Credit Riley, who just might be the NBA's best recruiter.

In a blog on The Huffington Post, agent Arn Tellem described his client Miller's meeting with Riley that led to Miller joining the Heat at a reduction from his full market rate.

"Enthusiasm is contagious, and Coach Riley a carrier," Tellem wrote. "Had he not become coach of the Heat, he could have made millions by opening a chain of tanning salons in the Sunshine State. He's that good.

"Pat had a vision for the team, a vision that he laid out with evangelical fervor. We left the room converted."

You don't need to be in a room with Riley to be swayed to the belief that he's currently the best in the business. Just look at the roster.