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Are We Sure … That the NBA Hasn’t Passed Pat Riley By?

For two decades, the league’s Godfather figure has consistently kept Miami’s name in championship discussions. But in this strange new world of team-building that he helped usher in, can the Heat rise again?

AP Images/Ringer illustrations

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Pat Riley is as much an institution now in Florida as Disney World and Publix subs. I don’t know when he officially became the Godfather of the NBA, but he was making Godfather moves the moment he arrived—Armani’d up, hair slicked back, with four rings on his right hand from his time as head coach of the Lakers. In 1995, as team president and coach, Riley landed Alonzo Mourning from the Charlotte Hornets in a six-player trade one day before the start of Miami’s 1995-96 season. (Riley’s other Godfather-esque quality? Keeping it all in the family. Mourning, the franchise’s first true superstar, returned to the team at the end of his career, and currently works in the front office.)

That ballsy, always one-step-ahead reputation has followed Riley throughout his 23 years with the franchise. He drafted Dwyane Wade in 2003, traded for Shaq in 2004, and won a title with the two in 2006. He nabbed Ray Allen in free agency and got Chris Bosh from a sign-and-trade. And, of course, Riley recruited one of the two best players in NBA history.

Five seasons have passed since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach. Miami’s had only one losing record in that time, thanks in large part to coach Erik Spoelstra’s brilliance. But the Heat will enter 2018-19 with no superstar, no assets, no cap space, and no offseason roster changes outside of undrafted free agents Malik Newman, Duncan Robinson, and Yante Maten. The Heat lost in the first round against the Sixers this past postseason. Though it was a competitive series, facing then-21-year-old Ben Simmons and 24-year-old Joel Embiid was a harsh reminder of how little the franchise seems to have going for itself by comparison. Followed by a transaction-less summer, it’s no longer blasphemy to wonder if the league has passed Riley by.

“Free agency and room can be overstated,” Riley told the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson in July. “You can have room fatigue. Since 2010, we have been a team that has always been chasing somebody bigger and better.”

From a championed creator of cap space, it was a striking comment. Riley sat down with Jackson to address the impatience of the fan base—or, in his opinion, perceived impatience: “I don’t feel that level of anger,” he said.

It took Riley nine years in South Beach to trade for Shaq, and six after that to get LeBron. “You don’t ever want to make a trade for the sake of making a trade,” he said. But in 2018, the question is whether it’s even possible to swing a major shake-up with the roster at hand. After missing out on Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer, the Heat re-signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson, retained Wayne Ellington, and signed Kelly Olynyk—a combined $157 million on role players. Hassan Whiteside is under contract for $25 million a year until at least his player option in 2019. Given the lack of interest in mega-contracts for big men during the past two seasons, it’s easy to imagine him opting in. As it stands, Miami won’t be under the cap until 2020.

Lack of spending room is obviously the root of Riley’s quiet summer. (Though fans were hoping for an active trading block.) Miami wasn’t recruiting stars per usual; the largest free-agency battles it’s faced are keeping Wade away from China and Udonis Haslem away from retirement, neither of which is a done deal. Riley mangled the relationship with Wade— Miami’s son—once before when the latter left for Chicago in free agency after years of accepting pay cuts. But he and Haslem, who has been with the team his entire career, are family, which—outside of Spoelstra and Miami being a fun and warm and exciting city to live in—has served as his go-to recruiting chip.

Riley has stressed the word “organically” in press conferences over the years whenever pressured to discuss the future of the team. Let this team grow into itself, Riley is imploring. He dropped it most recently in late July, in a conference call with reporters: “You always want to improve the team in certain ways,” Riley said, “but also you want to stay the course. I can remember a lot of the teams I coached, whether it was the Lakers or New York or even my earlier years in Miami, once we built a team, you build on that foundation and the most important thing that can happen with that team organically is you improve.”

In prior “organically” spottings, he likened the strategy to Golden State’s; it’s valid. The Warriors drafted three of their five starters (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green) that led to three championships in four years. Except not even Vivek Ranadivé would compare any current player on Miami’s roster to Curry or even Thompson. Green was a diamond in the rough, discovering the Tony Romo route after replacing an injured David Lee, but that’s an unreliable way to grow.

In Riley’s defense, Josh Richardson was re-signed to a highly affordable four-year, $42 million extension last September. Bam Adebayo, the 14th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, had an impressive rookie campaign. Justise Winslow seems to finally be coming around; his performance was one of the more positive takeaways in the Sixers series. (Winslow is also up for an extension this summer, which, once again, could welcome cap issues.)

Playing the long game is something multiple NBA teams have been doing since the Warriors reign began. This has been the half decade of starting over again, blowing up rosters that were perhaps good, but were never going to be good enough to knock off Golden State. And Riley has that kind of time—outside of Gregg Popovich, Riley might’ve given himself the longest leash of any current executive. He’s the Godfather because he built an empire out of a franchise that’s only been in existence for 30 years. He’s made it a family. And who would ever go against that?