What'll Riley do next?

Updated: April 30, 2004, 7:35 PM ET
By Sam Smith | Special to ESPN.com

There's something missing from the NBA playoffs thus far. Competition? Sure, but it's the first round. The bad teams are supposed to lose. And it's been years since teams like Boston at 10 games below .500 were even allowed into the postseason tournament. Brad Miller? He's missing again and injured again. He's becoming the best first-half player in NBA history. After All-Star first halves the last two years, the Kings' center is again averaging fewer than 10 points in the playoffs, although he did grab 16 rebounds in Monday's Game 4 win.

Let's see, what else? It's right there. You can almost see it. The Trail Blazers and Jazz after two decades? But we got accustomed to them being gone a few weeks ago. Shaq? He's around. He's not scoring like before but he's still grumbling. No, there's something else missing. The Knicks? They were around for a while. We're getting closer. I can feel it.

Riles! That's it! Pat Riley. Where's Riles?

His Miami Heat have become one of the best stories in the NBA this season, albeit quietly with the way they seemed to sneak up on everyone. Riles left the bench and predictably the Heat were an 0-7 team, one still heading for 11 games under .500 in March. Sure, they might be a .500 team, but that was if Pat Riley drove them. But Stan Van Gundy? The other Van Gundy, for gosh sakes? He was the friendly one who smiled and was pleasant to be around and who didn't look like he was always headed to a funeral -- or about to sell you a casket.

Pat Riley
Pat Riley has mostly shunned the spotlight since stepping down as the Heat's head coach.
Sure, Lamar Odom in South Beach was going to pay attention. Butler was available, but not Caron. Some guy named Rasual. Anyone want Brian Grant and Eddie Jones? No one did, so they were back. Sure, Stan Van Gundy was going to push that team, coming off 25 wins with a rookie shooting guard they were going to make a point guard. Now, maybe Pat Riley could squeeze 41 wins out of them. But Stan Van Gundy?

And then they finished fourth.

OK, it's the Eastern Conference. But raise your hand if you had Miami with first-round home-court advantage in the office pool. What, your office didn't have a pool for that? Are you working for Billy Packer?

It's been a great story, and the Heat bolted out -- the run-and-gun Heat of all things -- to a 2-0 series lead over the New Orleans Hornets. A few years ago, the teams played in the opening round, and Miami was so bad even Eddie Robinson looked good. It got him a golden parachute from the Bulls and he retired. Oh, he still has a uniform, but that's a different story.

Having been outrun by young Hornets legs then, Riley decided his team had to get older. He got LaPhonso Ellis, Rod Strickland, Kendall Gill and Jim Jackson. Having Alonzo Mourning back wasn't enough, and the plow-horse Heat broke down to the worst season in Riley's coaching career -- until last season when it got even worse.

With Riley also being the general manager, it didn't appear like he was in trouble as coach -- until just before the season he told Van Gundy to take over.

There was much speculation, as there often is around Riley: He was mad at owner Mickey Arison for curtailing his spending and kicked himself upstairs for less work. Riley knew Van Gundy had no chance to get hired if he left and he wanted his loyal assistant to at least get a taste of head coaching. He'd run out of mousse. Kurt Russell was looking for a stand-in. He was joining a bowling league with Dave Checketts. It was hard to check out all the theories.

And then, poof, he was gone. The most visible and, along with Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in the last two decades wasn't even outside the American Airlines Arena with a sun reflector anymore. Just where was he getting that tan?

The fact was Riley built a heck of a team out of not much.

He got a no-so-great No. 10 draft pick in 2002 and took a chance on Caron Butler, who'd had his share of legal problems before. Drew Gooden, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner and Chris Wilcox were among the players taken ahead of him. Butler moved in quietly behind Amare Stoudemire and Yao Ming in Rookie of the Year voting.

Then with a better pick, No. 5 overall, in 2003, Riley surprised everyone. He certainly was going to take a big guy, everyone knew. Chris Kaman, probably. Maybe move up to get Chris Bosh. Big guys were his formula. He won with Kareem, then waited for New York to get Patrick and traded for Alonzo as soon as he arrived in Miami. You got a big guy, pounded it into him, slowed the pace and beat up your opponents. It was the Riley way. So Riley picked Dwyane Wade -- a super athlete, a dunker and high flier, a smallish wing player even though they had Jones and Butler -- and all Wade did was finish behind LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the Rookie of the Year voting. Wade even got called to shoot -- and make -- the game-winner in his first playoff game.

Riley also filled around the edges brilliantly, signing undrafted Udonis Haslem, who became an all-rookie guy, and resurrecting New York playground legend Rafer Alston, who became a productive pro. It's already enough for the Executive of the Year consideration no one talks about.

But Riley also had some free-agent money. Anthony Carter botched up his option, so the Heat got a bonus to go after a player. Riley made a big pitch for Elton Brand and the Clippers told everyone they'd match the offer. Still, the Heat made it. The Clippers matched. But was it a Riley shell game? The Heat came back to the Clippers with an offer for more than $60 million for Lamar Odom. The speculation is that's who Riley was targeting all along and knew the Clippers would choke on putting up that much after signing Brand. The versatile Odom fit better with Wade and Butler than Brand, anyway.

The story sounds like one of those film noir movies Riley was supposed to be in when he was in L.A. -- all atmosphere and mystery. Odom and his various drug suspensions going to South Beach? May as well ask Oliver Miller to sponsor the Cheesecake Factory.

But it worked. After a while, anyway.

The Heat became one of the league's best down the stretch, going 17-4 to the end of the regular season, almost doubling their opponents in fastbreak points after midseason and falling into the East's fourth seed when the Bucks collapsed in the last week. Then it's home-court advantage against the beat-up, dispirited Hornets. Maybe the second round. Who knows from there?

And all the while, no Pat.

No interviews. No TV appearances. Not in the tunnel off the court like Isiah Thomas. Or congratulating his coach, like Jerry West. Not in the stands like Larry Bird. Sure, Pat Riley is big, but that's Larry Bird sitting in the stands and no one's really bothering him. And it's Boston.

Riley has said he loves what he does -- I saw him scouting a practice of high school players -- and doesn't want to coach. Sorry, the man's a coach. He's too good to walk away like that.
I called for an interview having known Riley for 20 years. Nah, the PR guy says. Riley doesn't want to detract from the team. Why would he? He was mainly responsible for putting it together and hiring the man no one had on their coaching list, whose preparation, enthusiasm and good humor has been a model for coaches. He should coach in the league for years to come.

So where's Pat? He's not going to take away from that. He'll just add to it.

Again the speculation.

That he's mad Van Gundy turned it around and he didn't. Even I don't believe that one. Riley doesn't have to be jealous of anyone. He's truly a great coach.

That he wants to coach again, but doesn't want to seem too eager. I can buy that one a little more.

In brief snippets, apparently gleaned from paparazzi now staking him out, Riley has said he loves what he does -- I saw him scouting a practice of high school players -- and doesn't want to coach. Sorry, the man's a coach. He's too good to walk away like that.

Mark Cuban has been lusting for him for a year and now is probably a game away from making a bid. Hey, what about the Lakers? Jerry West is gone. Maybe Phil Jackson will be gone, too. If they lose Shaq or Kobe, they might need a big-name, big-time coach to put it all back together.

You know how it is these days in the NBA: The jobs, they are opening.

Boston? Wouldn't that be something? Nah, he still hates them too much even though they've become pathetic. Toronto? Not enough sun. Atlanta? The Clippers with Bryant signing? Take that, Lakers. Golden State? Nice city. Denver? New Orleans? Anyone for a center who needs to be coached?

The holdup probably is the one year Riley still has to serve to get his equity share in the Heat. They're said to be on the market, so who knows what will happen. Perhaps Riley gets paid off if a sale is imminent. Maybe he puts together a group to buy and becomes a gentleman owner. Heat attendance has peaked with its late surge. You even can see the balcony seats for the first time in two years. But the team is a hard sell. It still sounds like a money loser.

Though the Heat, in large part because of Riley, is becoming a winner.

Which begs the question: Where's Riles?

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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