Slowly, surely, this has to be the beginning of the end for Pat Riley, the ache within his bones tempered by a contentment of his basketball heart. Deep down, there had to be a part of the Miami Heat's coach that wished he could've let that June champagne celebration soak into his skin and walked away with the championship season he had been chasing the longest and hardest of his coaching life.
Out of obligation, though, Old Man Riles dragged his tired bones back to the sideline. Out of a sense of duty he returned to coach again to honor the diminishing window for Shaquille O'Neal and the worldly talents of Dwyane Wade. Whatever Riley's heart told him, he owed them this season. Deep down, Riley had to have doubts that his team was constructed with mind or body for a repeat, but together they all had to find out the truth for themselves.
As it turns out, Riley found it harder to withstand the pain of bone chips in his knee and a bum hip with Shaq out and mediocrity ruling the day in Miami. Apparently, Riley kicked a door in the losing locker room a week ago in Chicago, possibly exacerbating a deteriorating condition.
"What I do in the locker room has really always been my business," Riley said Wednesday. Sure it has, except when there was some genius to share that would further his legend, and then he was glad to tell everyone all about it.
Throwing a tantrum that causes you to leave the basketball season for the operating table isn't becoming of a legend. Truth be told, it's kind of sad, kind of pitiable. He's getting too old and too broken down to deliver his old theatrics. If that act cost the Heat his genius when they need him most on a West Coast trip this week, shame on him.
"We're a championship team that is sideways right now," Riley said.
He had forever medicated himself on the championship chase, but as Riley steps away as Miami's emperor for surgery, everyone is left to wonder whether this is the beginning of goodbye for him. His fifth NBA championship was the most cherished of all and it delivered a peace to the forever restless Riley, a validation of his post-Magic-and-Kareem Lakers coaching career. There's a run left in these Heat, a push for everything in the Eastern Conference, but you have to wonder what Riley has left to give it.
The timing of his leave on Wednesday was surely suspicious what with Nick Saban getting torn up on his way out of Miami the way that Riley did on the way out of New York. It's always high drama with Riley coming and going in Miami, never tidy, never neat. In 2003, he quit and handed the coaching reins to Stan Van Gundy, then muscled his way back into his old job last season when it became appealing again. Now, the position belongs to journeyman Ron Rothstein for a length of time that Riley wasn't prepared to disclose.
For the purposes of the Heat season, bumbling along at 13-17 before Wednesday night's defeat to the Clippers, the loss of Riley isn't nearly as important as Shaq's return in mid-January. Whatever shape Shaq is found to be in promises to dictate the rest of the season's story. This is still Wade's team, but the loss of Shaq has shown that the Heat are still south of mediocre in a gutted Eastern Conference.
"We try to seed ourselves and maybe we don't really want to be the No. 1 team because you might get a handshake and, 'Hey, here's Miami at No. 8,' " said Gilbert Arenas, whose Wizards share the Southwest Division lead with Orlando and are 4½ games ahead of Miami.
Sooner than later, there's a transition that has to come for the Heat. Riley has been insistent that the next Heat coach will rise out of his own staff. Around the league, assistant coach Eric Spoelstra is believed to be Riley's choice if he promotes from within for his replacement. Another name, though, doesn't go away: Florida's Billy Donovan.
Riley has developed a strong relationship with Donovan, the Gators' national championship coach who himself has long been intrigued with coaching in the NBA. Out of all those members in the Rick Pitino coaching tree, one prominent alum says, "Billy was much more mature, much faster than any of us."
And a college coach with strong ties to Donovan says, "Eventually, I think he believes it's the next step for him. There's a real appeal for him about the pros."
The chance to reshape the Heat as a younger, leaner team around Wade could be a lure. But that's assuming that Shaq is on a sharp decline, and Riley knows there are no more titles to get out of this team. For now, Pat Riley sits down and takes a rest. He's getting old, he's tired and it's so easy to see this is the beginning of the end for him on the bench.
Everyone knew the Miami Heat were breaking down. Only, it's Riles, too. Maybe, it's him most of all.
- Pat Riley