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Can LeBron James Use Pat Riley’s Own Blueprint Against Him?

The Heat president taught James the secrets to constructing a championship team when he played in Miami. Now, the two will meet in the Finals after building contenders over the past two years. Can James prove he’s not just the league’s best player, but also its best executive?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Pat Riley recruited LeBron James in 2010 by pouring all nine of his championship rings on a table. It was not a subtle pitch. Riley had been in the NBA for 40 years at that point, winning titles as a player, coach, and general manager. He had seen and done it all. His experience could help LeBron get to the Promised Land for the first time. Riley thought he was getting a partner when LeBron came to Miami. He ended up creating a rival instead.

Riley didn’t embarrass himself like Cavs owner Dan Gilbert did when LeBron James left the Heat in 2014 to return to Cleveland. But he had some strong words for his franchise player in a surprisingly candid press conference while LeBron was still making up his mind: “This stuff is hard. You have to stay together if you have guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have the opportunity. … I think all of those guys who have come here got exactly what they wanted.”

He had a point. LeBron reached four straight NBA Finals with Miami after making just one in seven seasons in Cleveland. The Heat were more than just a team who cleared the cap space to sign LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Riley had built the franchise from the ground up and established a blue-collar culture for 15 years before signing the Big Three. That group was the third different title contender that he had assembled in Miami, after one in the late 1990s with Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway and one in the mid-2000s with Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. And he oversaw drastic rebuilds while missing the playoffs only three times during that span.

Losing LeBron was still devastating. It took six years and the longest run of mediocrity in his 50-year career before Riley’s Heat returned to the Finals. But Riley thought a breakup would be equally tough on LeBron, who hinted in 2016 that Riley had told him he was making “the biggest mistake” of his career when he left to go back to Cleveland.

Riley said in his now infamous press conference that he had envisioned LeBron building a “forever bond” with Wade and Bosh in Miami, joking that he didn’t come “for a quick trip to South Beach and a suntan.” But that’s exactly what LeBron did. His relationship with Riley was transactional. He didn’t join the Heat just to play for a championship organization. He wanted to learn from one. LeBron returned to the Cavs armed with the knowledge of what it took to win a title. He mastered Riley’s blueprint. Now he’s using it against him.

Six years later, the student and the teacher are finally squaring off in the Finals. Riley, as the president of the Heat, won’t be coaching in the series. But he’s been competing with LeBron ever since the latter left Miami. After 17 seasons in the NBA, LeBron’s biggest rivals are no longer playing him on the court. They are pitching other superstars in boardrooms.

Both Riley and LeBron have spent the past two years trying to build a new championship team. It’s a high-risk, high-reward game, even for glamour franchises like the Heat and Lakers. There was no guarantee that LeBron’s decision to sign in Los Angeles in 2018, when it was a young team and hadn’t made the playoffs in five seasons, would work. Riley’s decision to reload from the middle rather than rebuild was looking even worse at the time. Miami had won one playoff series since losing LeBron and didn’t have the cap space to be a player in free agency, or much hope of growing from within.

They were both in the star-hunting business. LeBron needed a costar. Riley needed a new franchise player.

The pitch that LeBron made to Anthony Davis likely wasn’t that much different from the one Riley made to him. Davis was in the same place in 2019 that LeBron was in 2010. They were superstars on small-market franchises with no history of success. It was the blind leading the blind. Both needed someone who had scaled the mountain to show them the ropes.

Jimmy Butler saw the same opportunity in Miami. He had spent the first eight seasons of his career bouncing among dysfunctional organizations. He knew that he needed something different. Talent wasn’t the reason that he had lost in Philadelphia. Maybe it was just an unlucky bounce on Kawhi Leonard’s jumper. Or maybe those bounces exposed fault lines in the organization that were going to be an issue at some point anyway. Everything that the 76ers have done since Butler’s departure has only made his decision to leave look better.

Both the Heat and Lakers breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs with 12-3 records. Most of their games were won before the ball was ever tipped. Miami didn’t just beat Milwaukee in the second round. The loss revealed every problem in the Bucks organization. The Lakers did the same thing to the Rockets in their second-round series.

This year’s Finals teams share a certain set of practices. Both are built around pairs of two-way frontcourt players. One of the most intriguing story lines about the LeBron-Butler and Davis–Bam Adebayo matchups is that all four players can guard one another. They might not always do it. But none has to be hidden off the ball.

They also are surrounded by smart supporting casts that fit around them. It’s more than just having role players who can space the floor and defend. Those players have to be willing to buy in and accept smaller roles. The Lakers benched JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard to downsize against the Rockets. The Clippers wouldn’t do the same with Montrezl Harrell against the Nuggets, repeatedly blowing fourth-quarter leads while he was guarding Nikola Jokic. Harrell, the Sixth Man of the Year and an impending free agent, would not have responded as well to a benching as veterans like McGee and Howard, who are on the downside of their careers. Those are the kinds of roadblocks that prevent talented teams from winning titles.

The name of the game in the playoffs is adjusting to the opponent and responding in real time to what they are doing. That was one of the hallmarks of the Big Three Heat. The defensive flexibility of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh allowed them to change matchups at any point in a series.

Erik Spoelstra can play the matchup game in the playoffs because his organization puts such an emphasis on its unselfish culture. He benched Meyers Leonard and Kendrick Nunn, both of whom started most of the season, before the playoffs. Then he took Kelly Olynyk out of the rotation in the Eastern finals. No one even blinked. Everyone in Miami is all in.

It’s not just about having “good guys,” either. It’s about putting together a group where personal incentives are aligned with team success. Miami traded Justise Winslow at the deadline for Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala even though the younger Winslow has far more talent than either at this point in their respective careers. The problem is that Winslow’s streaky jumper makes him a poor fit with Butler and Bam. Crowder has been better in his place, knocking down 34.4 percent of his 3s on 8.1 attempts per game in the playoffs. Winslow would have made sense in the role that Iguodala has with the Heat, but he’s not a 36-year-old at the tail end of his career. He’s a 24-year-old who thrived as a point forward before Butler’s arrival. Expecting him to be happy while playing 20 minutes off the bench wasn’t realistic.

The Lakers applied the same logic to their roster. Their supporting cast is filled with veterans, including Rajon Rondo and Howard, who are looking for a second chance (or in their cases fifth or sixth), and youngsters, such as Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso, who play with a chip on their shoulders. Kuzma didn’t always exert himself on defense in the regular season, but he’s bought in during the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine him complaining publicly about his role in the offense like Michael Porter Jr. did in Denver.

LeBron took the long view about his time in Los Angeles, sticking to his plan even after a disappointing first season and showing more patience than he ever showed in Cleveland and Miami. It was a lesson in not overreacting that he learned from his first season with Riley, which ended in embarrassing fashion against the Mavs. It takes time to build a championship team. The Lakers were clay that LeBron could mold. He evaluated the organization with his own eyes and then decided who he wanted to keep. LeBron, who has now reached the Finals nine times in 10 years, has done this enough times to know exactly what he wants from everyone around him. Now he gets to test his blueprint against the man who originally designed it.

The common threads between what LeBron has tried to build in both Cleveland and Los Angeles are stars who are more talented than their opponents and role players who can maximize that talent advantage. He has a 27-4 record in playoff series since losing the 2011 Finals to Dallas, mainly because he doesn’t lose the ones that he’s supposed to win. There is nothing like the Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets in 2020 on his résumé. His only losses in the past nine seasons have come to some of the greatest championship teams in NBA history—the 2014 Spurs, and the 2015, ’17, and ’18 Warriors.

LeBron has yet to be threatened in the 2020 playoffs, winning each series in five games. Frank Vogel has made the right adjustments in each series to maximize LeBron and Davis and take away what the opposing stars could do well. That’s because the Lakers were built to win in the playoffs. There’s a reason they don’t have secondary shot creators next to their stars. Those types of players tend to be defensive liabilities who can be exposed in the wrong matchup. If they were great defenders, they would be stars themselves. There are no defensive weak spots in Los Angeles. Everyone in their rotation can guard their position. Rondo (6-foot-1) is their only player under 6-foot-5. And he’s suddenly remembered how to play defense after spending the last few seasons on cruise control during the regular season.

There’s also a very clear distribution of roles. The Lakers are built under the assumption that their two best players can play like superstars. LeBron has a usage rate of 30.3 in the playoffs. Davis is at 28.3. No one else who plays regularly is above 20.

The Heat don’t have that type of luxury. Butler (usage rate of 24.2) and Bam (20.6) cannot handle the same amount of offensive responsibility. They share the load with Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. The problem is that LeBron can pick on all those players defensively at the end of games. It will be hard for Spoelstra to find lineups that can slow down LeBron and Davis in crunch time while still being able to keep up with them. His best chance is to pack the paint to protect his weaker defenders and hope L.A.’s supporting cast misses open 3s. It was the best hope the Blazers, Rockets, and Nuggets had too. The Lakers are undefeated in the playoffs when they shoot higher than 30 percent from 3 as a team.

Building a championship team is like solving a complex puzzle that only the best minds in the NBA can complete. LeBron had a vision for what he wanted his team to look like when he came to Los Angeles. Then he ruthlessly executed that vision over the past two years.

It’s what he has been doing ever since he left Riley. LeBron was a different kind of leader when he came back to Cleveland in 2015. He brought James Jones and Mike Miller with him from Miami to create a winning culture in an organization that never had one before. Then he called a players-only meeting before the start of the season where he outlined exactly the roles that every player would have. The ones who wouldn’t get on board (Dion Waiters) were shipped out. It wasn’t personal. The Lakers signed Waiters this season. LeBron runs his teams like businesses. That’s why Los Angeles never signed Carmelo Anthony. Cleveland signed Wade in 2018 only to send him back to Miami at the trade deadline.

It’s no coincidence that Jones, who played with LeBron from 2010 and 2017 and served as one of his consiglieres, is thriving as the Suns general manager. The first couple of moves that Jones made in his new role baffled people around the league. His vision for how to build a team around Devin Booker makes a lot more sense after seeing their success in the bubble.

Riley would obviously love to chase Booker in free agency one day. But it’s going to be harder when competing against a rival executive like Jones, who learned at his feet. The only reason that LeBron wouldn’t assume the same role after he retires is because he has so many other things going on off the court. He’s not just one of the best players in the NBA. He’s one of the best executives, too.

LeBron once told Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports (now at The Undefeated) that he had trouble recruiting players to Cleveland in his first stint with the franchise. His pitch the second time around was more direct: “It was nothing, really. Either you want to play here or you don’t.”

“I’m not dropping championship rings on the table for those guys,” Riley said about convincing the Big Three to re-sign in 2014. “They can drop their own.”