Riley’s Legacy Is Safe

Nearly everyone involved in the 2014 edition of NBA Free Agency will see their legacies change as a result of their decisions. Carmelo Anthony has arguably the most at stake, but Miami’s Big Three faces a breakup as well. While Dwyane Wade is a lock to return, LeBron James and Chris Bosh have been rumored to be leaving South Beach.

No matter what the Heat’s roster looks like this fall, one man’s legacy won’t be hurt: team president Pat Riley, the architect of the four-time defending Eastern Conference Champions. Even if LeBron goes back to Cleveland, Bosh goes to Houston and the Heat struggle next season, the man who built one of the most dominant teams in league history can rest easy.

After all, only four teams in NBA history have gone to four straight NBA Finals. Riley was part of two of them, coaching the Lakers to four straight from 1982-85 and building the 2011-14 Heat. Both teams won twice and lost twice, but Riley’s impact was crucial.

If asked, Riley will almost certainly tell you that building the Miami Heat was a greater challenge; the process was just so difficult. First he had to convince LeBron, Bosh and Wade to take major paycuts to make it happen. They each left $15 million on the table, which was definitely not the easiest sell in a league where players take every dollar they can get.

Aside from the financials, Riley had big egos to manage as well. All three players were used to being “the man” in their first seven seasons, but things would definitely be different when they teamed up. D-Wade was the face of the Heat franchise, but he would have to make sacrifices when the league’s best player joined him. LeBron would still be the man, but he didn’t have to do it all himself now, something he had to adjust to. Bosh went from the go-to guy to the third scoring option, an act of checking his pride at the door that is still overlooked by basketball fans to this day. It would take a while, but the three superstars would get used to their roles.

At the much-ballyhooed “Welcome Party” Miami held at the American Airlines Arena two days after the Big Three were assembled, Pat Riley sat in the stands looking like the most powerful man on Earth. He had accomplished something not many saw coming, and while the emcee of the event called the players the “Three Kings,” Riley was now the king of basketball executives.

But there was still work to be done to make this a championship team. The rest of the roster had to be filled in, as only a few players were still under contract. Riley brought in veterans like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron’s teammate in Cleveland, Eddie House and Mike Miller. In March, Mike Bibby was brought in to provide much-needed consistency at the point guard spot. The moves paid dividends and Miami started their four-year Finals run.

Over the past four years, Riley has constantly improved the roster by bringing in key role players to complement his Big Three. The Heat would not have won the 2013 championship if it weren’t for the signing of shot-maker Ray Allen, who Riley nabbed away from the Celtics in 2012 free agency. Without the mental toughness and leadership of Shane Battier (signed in December 2011), would the Heat have been able to weather the storms they faced the last three years? Don’t underestimate the draft-day trade that brought key reserve Norris Cole to South Florida, either.

Another point that is often overlooked when it comes to this era for Miami is that head coach Erik Spoelstra wasn’t supposed to stay in his position when LBJ and Bosh came to town. The prevailing belief in July 2010 was that Pat Riley would coach again because that’s what LeBron wanted, but James and Riley both rejected that notion and put their faith in the current coaching staff. The selfless move showed that Riley truly cared about what was best for the organization, and the decision to allow Spoelstra to grow was rewarded with two more rings on Riley’s mantle.

No matter what LeBron, Bosh, Carmelo Anthony or any free agent decides, and no matter how different the Heat roster looks as a result, one man’s legacy is already solidified. Pat Riley will forever be known as one of the smartest basketball minds the game has ever known, the man who wasn’t hindered by the status quo when he went for the opportunity to build a superteam. The players have the utmost respect for him, and his place in NBA lore is unquestioned.

The prevailing image of Riley will depend on who you ask. Fans from the 80’s and 90’s will remember the fashion icon with the slicked-back hair and Armani suits who led the Showtime Lakers to greatness. This generation will remember the confident executive who recruited the most sought-after free agent in the history by tossing a bag of his championship rings on a table in Cleveland, then watched with glimmering satisfaction as that player won rings of his own.

No matter which way you remember him, Pat Riley’s legacy is set in stone.

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