It's a ring thing: Why Shaq thinks highly of Riley

Updated: December 13, 2005, 7:30 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

It has been almost 20 years since Pat Riley won his fourth NBA championship as a coach. Seventeen years and six months, to be precise.

With Riley suddenly positioned to make one last drive for No. 5, here are five questions and answers about his controversial return to the bench in Miami in place of Stan Van Gundy:

Pat Riley
Pat Riley has four championship rings and 1,110 NBA wins.

Q: Is the timing of the switch really all that surprising?

A: Absolutely not. Not if you can look deeper than the initial bolt of shock.

If the change was going to happen eventually, as pretty much everyone in the NBA universe believed, why not Monday?

The Heat are starting over anyway now that Shaquille O'Neal is back from a lengthy injury absence. If Riley was going to end up coaching this team this season -- which has been classified as the inevitable for months -- now is better than later to start all the way over and bring Riles back, too. No sense dragging out the inevitable.

Besides ...

If Shaq came back and this team started rolling, Riley might have lost his opportunity to justify a takeover.

Q: But Van Gundy insists it wasn't a takeover. What's the truth -- did he walk willingly or was Stan shoved?

A: This is where you can quibble. Van Gundy was earnest and convincing at Monday's news conference when he described how much he has missed spending time with his family and chided any outsider who dared to suggest he had been victimized by a corporate raid from the office of the team president.

It doesn't feel good to doubt someone who has always been pretty open. It's nonetheless hard to believe that a coachaholic like Van Gundy, homesick or not, would walk away if this group was playing as if it wanted him to stay.

It isn't.

Heat players are just like the rest of us. They've been waiting for Riley to come downstairs ever since this monster of a roster was assembled, consciously or subconsciously, and it has affected their play. The message that they transmitted to Van Gundy, albeit through performance and body language as opposed to voicing disatisfaction, is that they'd rather be playing for Riley. Which had to eat at the resolve of a man who has reasons, family and otherwise, to be weary of the grind.

And don't forget why folks have expected this move for months.

Riley said in June that he planned to take a more active day-to-day role this season, sparking speculation that a change was imminent ... especially when Riley didn't immediately squelch it.

Riley then responded to the Heat's narrow Game 7 loss to Detroit in the East finals -- with both Shaq and Dwyane Wade playing at half-speed because of injuries -- by acquiring Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey from Memphis and later signing Gary Payton.

After all those risky moves, you struggled to find an NBA front-office executive who disputed the notion that Riley was intentionally amassing a collection of big names and egos that only a Riley or a Phil Jackson could manage. A few players I've spoken to, inside and outside the organization, have since indicated that Riley -- throughout the summer -- was talking privately as if he were already the head coach.

Stan The Man On The Hot Seat had to sense all of the above. The timing of a change now undoubtedly appealed to him because A) he genuinely does want to spend more time with his family and managed to walk away before things got really ugly and B) because he had to know, deep down, that the responsiveness from the locker room wasn't going to get any better.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaq's voice may be even more powerful than his muscles.

Q: Did Shaq want Stan fired?

A: That's probably a bit strong. Let's just say Shaq hasn't been Stan's biggest fan.

His issues with Van Gundy's offense -- and a lack of late touches -- were well-chronicled after the Game 7 loss to Detroit. I recently heard a more subtle story about Shaq-Stan relations from a teammate, who described Shaq wiggling three fingers near his ear while Van Gundy was lecturing his players about disrespecting his knowledge.

That was Shaq's way of saying, apparently, that he had won three rings and Van Gundy had won none.

A self-proclaimed living legend, Shaq wants to be coached by legends as well. That's why Van Gundy was always going to struggle for Shaq's full support, with a four-ringed coach working in the same organization as team prez.

That's not to say Shaq went to Riley and asked him to remove Van Gundy. It's more accurate to say he never urged Riley to keep Stan in place, which surely would have kept Van Gundy in charge.

Q: Will Riley have unanimous support from Shaq's teammates?

A: In the short term, certainly. Alonzo Mourning is a bigger Riley fan than Shaq, and Riles has the stature to get all the newcomers to play harder and swallow their discontent about roles and minutes.

However ...

You have to wonder if Riley's famously grueling practices are really what Shaq, Zo and Wade need. These guys take a tremendous pounding already. All three regularly play hurt. The last four Heat teams Riley took to the playoffs were all upset by lower seeds -- supporting the theory that he works his teams too hard during the regular season -- but you can safely assume that Riley has some long sessions planned to make up for all the time this team has already lost in the quest for cohesiveness. Not such promising news, I submit.

I also wonder, quite honestly, if Riley is a better coach than Van Gundy at this stage. I'm sure the players believe Riley is better, which is hugely significant, but look at the coaches' respective playoff records in Miami.

Not only did Riley's Heat teams suffer the upsets referenced above, but overall Riley closed his first stint as Heat coach with four first-round eliminations in a six-season span.

Both of Van Gundy's teams, meanwhile, could be labeled overachievers. The first, led by Wade and Lamar Odom, overcame an 0-7 start to reach the second round of the playoffs. The second obviously had Shaq and Wade -- a better combo that Riley was ever blessed with in Miami, true -- but neither was close to full strength in the postseason.

Q: So how much more dangerous does Riley's presence make this team?

A: My opinion hasn't changed. I still say Miami added too many players who need the ball (Walker, Williams and Payton) to be successful when the emphasis should have been finding the right role players to help get the Wade-Shaq balance right. I also don't see the dogged defenders, Zo and Posey aside, who will enable Riley to keep the scores as low as he likes to keep them.

Regular-season force? Sure. Playoff threat to Detroit? No. I'm not so sure the Heat could beat Indiana in a seven-game series, depending on how much Ron Artest's forthcoming departure hurts or helps the Pacers.

Yet my promise hasn't changed, either. If Riley can make this work, from an up-close seat now and with just 60 games to go before the playoffs start, I'll be the first to put up my hand and say I was wrong.

Either way, though, Riles will get what he deserves.

He put this team together and his approach helped put Van Gundy in an untenable position. Riley, then, should have to coach this team and live daily with the pressures and headaches that made Van Gundy miss his family so.

Winning it or all, or at least getting to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1994, figures to bring Riley some widespread vindication.

Anything less?

The most uncomfortable heat of Riley's life, I'm guessing.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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