Emperor Riley lords over everything in Miami
MIAMI – In all the ways that the smoke and blinking lights on that balmy July night would haunt LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes), it had been someone else’s vanity that had thrust them into a mid-summer’s championship parade. Pat Riley lords over everything on the shores of Biscayne Bay, an emperor and a kingdom of his creation. When James saluted him in the hysteria of that evening, the old man smiled and nodded and let the ovation wash over him.
They still call him coach, and that never changes here. Yes, Riley delivered his young coach, Erik Spoelstra, something of a vote of confidence to the Star Ledger’s Dave D’Alessandro on Wednesday, insisting everyone should “write-off” the idea of a coaching change. It’s a complex dynamic, Riles and Spoelstra, because there are ways that the coach is completely protected and ways that he’s completely doomed.
Spoelstra has been raised on Riles’ core principles, believes in them, but this franchise will forever be coached the way Riley wants it coached. The coaches will bark out his verbiage, run his playbook and live in perpetual fear of deviating from the blueprint. It’s hard to be your own man here, hard to find a voice when you get stuck between the superstars on the court and the superstar in the front office.
No, Pat Riley doesn’t want to fire Spoelstra. Perhaps he will have to do it, but he desperately dreads the idea. In some ways, there’s no replacing what he represents for Riley. He doesn’t want to go outside his coaching tree to hire a coach. This way, he has control. He had it over Stan Van Gundy. He has it over Spoelstra. To fire him would mean Riley would have to bring an outsider into his program, to employ a coach with his own mind, own system and his own autonomy.
“He wants the Riley way preserved as much as he wants the winning,” says a league source well-connected with the dynamic between Riley and his coaches. “The players know who’s in charge, and know that Riley will never take a backseat. No one is more concerned with getting credit than him, and that doesn’t allow Erik to go outside of what [Riley] thinks is best. It’s hard to coach on eggshells.”
This Heat franchise is a monument to Riley’s genius and vision and cold-blooded acumen. Spoelstra is Riley’s creation too. He was the video kid, the scout, the faceless assistant groomed for an ultimate responsibility here; to carry out Riley’s wishes on the sideline. He owes Riley everything. Spoelstra talks like him and even looks like him standing on the sideline with his hands on his hips and dark blazer open. And yet, the gravitas of his words and the Riles-isms fall flat. He’ll win, because of the players that Riley gave him. He’ll lose, because he isn’t Riley. That’s the job, and it’s true on the winning streaks, and true as Miami’s lost five straight with the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Arena on Thursday night.
Riley gives Spoelstra protection, gives him cover when LeBron acted up, but ultimately does it give him the degree of freedom needed to be himself, to be authentic, to be a championship coach? No one ever truly saw Stan Van Gundy as a coach, as a man, until he had left Miami for Orlando. As soon as Riley made the trade for Shaq, Van Gundy was done. Riles gave O’Neal the $100 million extension, and that’s where his loyalty would go.
Only then, Riley believed he could take back his coaching job and win the title. This time, he’s older. He’s made the Hall of Fame. He’s raised a championship banner. And Riley knows that he isn’t the difference between the Heat winning or losing a title.
Yes, Riles has long been intrigued with Doc Rivers, his old point guard with the New York Knicks. In his mind, Doc’s an extension of his own coaching tree. He must love to hear Rivers tell the story about how Riles told him that he would one day be a coach, about how Doc told him that he was crazy. The Celtics have a contract extension waiting for Rivers, sources say, but so far he’s wanted to wait until the season’s end to deal with it. For him, it would be difficult to make a direct leap from an aging Celtics roster to the Heat. Rivers is too entrenched, too woven into the franchise’s fabric now. What would happen to his relationships with Kevin Garnett(notes) and Paul Pierce(notes), with that city, those fans who adore him?
Nevertheless, he’s perfect for Miami. He’s a championship coach. He has a blueprint for making a Big Three work, for holding difficult stars accountable and together. Yet Rivers has a relationship with his GM that Riley has never had with a coach. He isn’t afraid to tell GM Danny Ainge that he’s completely wrong, that he’s going to do it his way and that that’s just way it has to be. Rivers and Ainge can argue, debate and sometimes even rage, but ultimately Ainge lets Rivers coach the Celtics. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Riley, or Rivers, could have the autonomy that they would need to co-exist. Go down the list of strong-minded, successful coaches, and ask yourself how many could come from the outside and fit into that insular Heat world.
Riley wants more titles, wants to elevate himself on the basketball Rushmore with a Showtime Lakers reborn on the shores of Biscayne Bay. They all thought this would be a lot easier than it’s turning out. Spoelstra spoke of his boss as an “invaluable” resource to reporters on Thursday morning, of sharing a bottle of wine with Riley in the hours after Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Riley taught Spoelstra, and taught him well. And it probably won’t be until his next coaching job in the NBA until everyone can finally see how all those lessons meld with who he is as a man, who he’ll be as a coach.
For now, Erik Spoelstra exists with the blessing and curse of this truth: On the Miami Heat sidelines, he is the last stand of the Riley way.