“Our so-called leaders” — the cynical genius of Pat Riley
DOWN YEARS

“Our so-called leaders” — the cynical genius of Pat Riley

People very quickly get used to good things. But when those good things have an expiration date, it’s hard to settle for the inevitable worse.

NBA teams, dynasties especially, face this reality. That’s why organizations can’t allow themselves to become complacent, even when championship rafters are piling up. Getting to the top is hard; staying there is even more difficult, but laying the grounds for building the team back into contention once the inevitable downfall occurs is the real challenge. That’s when having a guy like Pat Riley comes in handy.

It’s been nearly a decade since the Miami Heat’s Big Three took the league by storm, winning two championships in four Finals appearances. This happened five years after Dwyane Wade led the organization to its first-ever NBA championship and six years before Jimmy Butler and Co came up short in the Finals, losing the six-game series to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Despite the fluctuating fortunes, the Heat have been one of the most successful NBA teams in the last 15 years. But as Kobe Bryant said, ‘it’s not about the championships, it’s about the down years.’ And that’s exactly what makes the Miami Heat great, even though not too long ago, they were in a hole it seemed no one would dig them out of.

In-between the Big Three era and their Finals appearance in the bubble, the Heat lost Chris Bosh to blood clots. That put a cap on Miami’s postseason success in the short run, forcing the organization to turn to free agency. But after they struck out on Kevin Durant in 2016 and then Gordon Hayward the next offseason, Miami responded by overpaying their own free agents — they’ve already re-signed Hassan Whiteside to a four-year deal worth $98 million the year before. Here’s the recap of their 2017 offseason:

  • James Johnson: Four years, $60.002MM. Fourth-year player option.
  • Dion Waiters: Four years, $47.3MM.
  • Kelly Olynyk: Four years, $45.611MM. Fourth-year player option.
  • Jordan Mickey: Two years, minimum salary. Second-year team option.
  • Udonis Haslem: One year, minimum salary.
  • Derrick Walton Jr.: Two-way contract. One year. $50K guaranteed.

When the 2017/18 season tipped off, the Heat were stuck with cap-clogging overpays whose contracts seemed impossible to move. In other words, the organization seemed lost, without a plan moving forward. And people within the team were frustrated — Riley especially.

On the Lowe Post Podcast, Dan Le Batard, who knows Pat really well, recalled spending time with him around that time and told the story that perfectly embodies the level of distrust Riley had for Miami’s roster. It happened while the two were strolling the Heat headquarters, right after they passed walls with photos of Waiters and Whiteside.

He, like, snorts in disdain and he just blurted, ‘Our so-called leaders.’ And I’m like, ‘Oof. This is not a good place for these people to be.

Dan Le Batard, The Lowe Post

Two years later, after one of the greatest short-term turnarounds in NBA history, they were in the Finals. And today, with the addition of Kyle Lowry, following a disappointing 2021 NBA Playoffs — they were swept by the Bucks in the first round — the Heat look ready for another deep postseason run.

How is that possible? It’s the Pat Riley effect. He’s been in the league long enough to know that dynasties don’t last forever. He’s also aware that trying to build one isn’t the only path to success. That’s why, no matter the state of the team, Riley keeps himself busy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But even when it doesn’t, he manages to turn it around.

The big market, Florida climate, and friendly tax regime also have something to do with that. But it starts and ends with Riley. He never allows himself to become complacent, and that’s what keeps the Heat relevant, year in and year out.