ORLANDO, Fla. – Before dispatching Stan Van Gundy to a life of car pools and grocery shopping, Pat Riley prepared his bloodless coup in the dark corners of the Miami Heat’s practice facility.
“Pat was requesting film from the video guy like he was on the staff,” one source said.
Riley must have had a guilty conscience because in the news conference to announce he was replacing Van Gundy five years ago, he insisted – unprompted – that’s exactly what he hadn’t been doing. Whatever. Riley had fostered an atmosphere where Van Gundy was destined to fail because Riley knew his own coaching legacy could use a title beyond Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers. He was 60 years old, and needed to make good on that original promise of a parade down Biscayne Boulevard.
“It’s different this time, because Pat knows he can’t be the difference,” one former Riley assistant said.
If Riley doesn’t return to coach the Heat this season, it won’t be out of a sense of fairness, right and wrong, but self-preservation and self-interest. Riley says he doesn’t have the stomach for the grind at 65, but closer to the truth is that he doesn’t have the stomach for failure. For now, Riley can still lay the blame for this season on injuries and his young coach, Erik Spoelstra. No one has a bigger ego than Riley, but this isn’t 2005, and it won’t be Dirk Nowitzki(notes) awaiting him in the NBA Finals.
Here’s Riley’s best play: Wait until the summer when there are two possible free-agent coaches – Boston’s Doc Rivers and Portland’s Nate McMillan – on the market. Rivers is a long shot because he’s inclined to re-sign with the Celtics, but McMillan – who has worked with the Heat stars on Team USA – is the kind of tough-minded, defensive coach these Heat could use. McMillan’s candidacy with Los Angeles Lakers also won’t be hurt because Kobe Bryant(notes) is such an admirer.
For now, though, Riley doesn’t need a new coach. He needs to support Spoelstra after allowing LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) to publicly embarrass and undermine their coach. The losing has created the Riles-to-the-bench hysteria, but James and Bosh had to come out and pop Spoelstra for practicing them too hard and playing them too many minutes.
The Heat lost again on Wednesday night, 104-95 to the Orlando Magic, and that’s three straight now. The greatest free-agent class in NBA history is 8-7. James and Dwyane Wade(notes) still can’t flourish together on the floor, and the Heat, possibly without Udonis Haslem(notes) for the rest of the season, are powerless to protect the basket.
“I like the fact that we are where we are,” Bosh said, trying to convince himself. “We could be 15-0 right now thinking we have the world in the palm of our hands. We would be fooling ourselves.”
Bosh has been fooling himself for a long time, and now he’s fooling no one. Bosh and James keep talking about how great this is for the team, how they never believed it would be easy, and their noses grow with every word. When James and Wade went to Vegas to hang out with Team USA this summer, everyone heard them talking about 70 victories, about running roughshod over the NBA. They believed it would be easy, and that’s why they joined together. Truth be told, they thought this would be one big party on South Beach, and it’s been nothing but a hellacious kick to the groin.
Van Gundy made a spirited defense for Spoelstra on Wednesday, defending his longtime friend and former assistant from something he should’ve ignored: a bored Phil Jackson trying to stir up Heat drama with scenarios of a player coup to oust Spoelstra for Riles.
Still, Van Gundy is always game to rail against two people whom he’s truly come to despise: Riley and Jackson.
Phil Jackson has never respected the coaches without playing pedigrees. He’s had disdain for the Van Gundy family, and used to refer to the San Antonio Spurs staff as the “Simulator Crew” because none of them had been NBA players.
They’re holding this against Spoelstra too, now. Which is absurd. Somehow, great players need a coach with gravitas, someone who can command respect. Everyone always insists it has to be a former player. No simulators need apply. Only, that logic is forever flawed. Spoelstra worked his way up from a video guy, the way former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown had done. If James didn’t respect them, it had nothing to do with their playing résumé. James would never survive under Riley – the old one, anyway – unless he made some dramatic changes in his professionalism.
Five years ago, Shaq wanted Riley to coach the Heat, and Van Gundy never had a shot.
“Once Pat gave Shaq that $100 million extension, Stan was done,” a close friend of Van Gundy’s said. “Riley immediately became where his loyalty was.”
Nevertheless, Riley was 60 years old, still championship-free without Magic, Kareem and Worthy. Five years ago, Riles was still chasing that parade down Biscayne Boulevard. Everything’s changed now. Five years ago, the flaws were more prevalent with the rest of the NBA. Now, they’re showing on the Heat.
Riley needs to be a GM now, not a coach. He needs to figure out a way to get his frontcourt bench some help. He needs to tell James and Bosh to work as hard as Spoelstra wants, to play as many minutes as he demands.
Riley brought so much of this on himself, on his young coach, when he declared prior to free agency that he was open to take over as coach again. Privately, Wade told his new teammates that wasn’t the way to go, that Spoelstra was solid and they needed to get behind him. Now, they’re playing like they want the coach fired, and that would be the wrong play for the wrong reasons.
This isn’t 2005, and this isn’t Van Gundy. Everything’s changed, but this: The old man still has a big ego, a need for drama. Only, Riley now needs to win it all to make another coup work, and that isn’t happening this season with the Miami Heat. Pat Riley is one of the greatest ever, but even he has to know he’s not that good.