Riley puts Van Gundy to the test

Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy is in a sink-or-swim situation in South Beach, Ric Bucher writes, because Pat Riley put him there.

Updated: August 29, 2005, 10:54 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

How nice of Pat Riley not to throw Stan Van Gundy overboard earlier this summer and officially assume the Miami Heat coaching helm. After all, what fun would that have been?

That's akin to tipping someone out of his hammock into the briny deep in the middle of the night. No war of words battling for the crew's allegiance. No scuffle as the ship heaves wildly to and fro. No parting scream, punctuated by a final thunderous splash. Trust me, for entertainment value, this is going to work out much better.

Stan Van Gundy
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images Let the finger-pointing begin.

The Heat aren't vying for a title no matter what happens, but at least they'll provide plenty of drama. The personalities are too fractious, the points of friction are too numerous and the expectations are ridiculously too high for anything more. Or less.

For now, Stan is still on board but hanging from the railing, his pockets loaded with rocks old and new, engulfed by Captain Vere -- er, Riles' -- shadow, his survival dependent on steering a ship with a half-dozen new parts smoothly into a championship port. (I just couldn't pass up the chance to finally use that 10th-grade summer reading assignment of "Billy Budd.")

Example of an Old Rock: Not getting Shaq enough touches in the final 12 minutes of the conference finals against Detroit.

Example of a New Rock: Antoine Walker with a six-year deal (four years guaranteed) and a penchant for massaging the pebbles off the ball.

Example of a Revamped Team Immediately Winning a Title: None.

There is, in short, no way this doesn't end badly for Billy -- er, Stan.

There's also no way Riley doesn't know this. Although Miami certainly has more talent after his 13-player, five-team deal last month that transformed half of the Miami roster and two-thirds of the playing rotation, it is predominantly offensive talent. Riley has built a strip-mall version of Showtime, the Lakers' highwire act of the '80s he choreographed to four titles.

Van Gundy's forte is defense. By the end of last season, he had trouble keeping two shooting stars satisfied. Now he has four, with the addition of Jason Williams and Walker. Word is James Posey, the lone defensive addition, can get awfully grumpy when he's not getting enough touches, either. Why, this squad just seems to be begging for a commanding presence with a flair for offense to produce its winner within, don't you think?

The explanation I've heard from those who dismiss the potential chemistry concerns for Van Gundy is that Shaq will keep everyone in line. Nobody messes with the Big Po-Po.

Only they did that final year in Los Angeles, if memory serves, and again last spring in Miami, if Shaq's complaints that he didn't get the ball enough are correct.

The sad truth is that no matter what a player's credentials might be, once he can't single-handedly carry teammates where they otherwise couldn't go, the bark loses its bite. Michael Jordan knows that from his experience in D.C. Magic tasted it in his comeback in L.A. It happens in every walk of life. When the star or the boss loses his magic touch, the rolling eyes and behind-the-back jokes around the copier begin.

Shaquille O'Neal
Terrence P. Vaccaro/Getty ImagesIs Shaq ready to look into the twilight of his career?

In any case, it's hard to see Shaq working on Van Gundy's behalf. Although the Diesel labeled whispers he was pushing Riley to oust the coach as unfair, he stopped well short of saying, "He's a great coach and I don't want to play for anybody else." Unless I missed something -- a possibility since I've spent part of the summer in some remote locations -- his lone endorsement was of Riley.

I'm not saying Riley is purposely sabotaging Van Gundy's chance at survival, although I have to wonder what the basis of their mutual devotion really is. After all, Pat abruptly handed Van Gundy his first coaching job less than a week before the season began. For the following season, he reworked the team to land Shaq and did nothing to tamp down expectations until after the fact (recently claiming he believed all along that last year's team wasn't a championship-worthy unit).

The season-warming gift this year was to leave Van Gundy's status in limbo for several weeks before announcing Stan would keep his job but would be under closer supervision. Surely J-Will and 'Toine won't see that as an opening to discuss their roles directly with management should they have issues.

Granted, the Heat have every reason to roll the dice now. Miami's window for a title remains open about as long as Shaq can hold it open. No one knows how long that will be, but the decline clearly has begun. Motivated to prove he could get in shape and win without Kobe, he played 28 more regular-season minutes, blocked five more shots and once more came limping down the stretch.

My biggest problem with believing this has even a remote chance of working -- that Stan will keep his job past Christmas, the Heat will be one happy family and South Beach will host a championship parade in June -- is that it never does.

Title-caliber chemistry requires collective playoff trials and tribulations. It might sound quaint, but teams have to grow together through hard times. I've never seen one that didn't. Adding Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell to the Minnesota Timberwolves made them better, but it didn't make them champions (and then it made them much worse).

This very same Shaq-centric experiment actually failed two years ago with a better surrounding cast. Are the same people who have anointed the Heat the best in the East the same ones who had the Lakers with Karl Malone and Gary Payton waltzing to a title? I guarantee you this: More teams were intimidated by the '03-04 Lakers than will be by the '05-06 Heat. One reason: No one can picture this Heat team playing anything remotely close to championship-caliber defense.

Stan is the man, of course, who might be able to fix that. If only he had a different boat. Or didn't have his hands full trying to stay aboard the one he has.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds."

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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