After coaching the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers to four championship titles and basketball history, Pat Riley went to the East Coast. There he took over the command over the struggling New York Knicks. Riley made the Knicks the toughest, most feared, and most hated team in the league. The team with his scrappy imprint all over it made the NBA finals in 1994 and 1999.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Los Angeles Lakers were the ultimate basketball benchmark for attractive basketball. The majestic team featured the 6’9″ point guard Magic Johnson and shooting guard Byron Scott in its backcourt. It was powered by the All-Star frontcourt, which consisted of forwards James Worthy and A.C. Green, playing alongside legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers slick-haired head coach Pat Riley directed the Lakers ‘Showtime’ offense, the ultimate showcase of offensive mightiness. While most of the fans at the time were occupied with the abundance of no-look precision passes and flying transition dunks, the Lakers did a marvelous job on defense in terms of rebounds, steals, and blocked shots.
“L.A. was his alter ego. At heart, he’s a scrapper, fighter, angry, passionate. He’s connected it.”Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN
After taking over the Lakers coaching helm from Paul Westhead early in the 1981-82 campaign, Riley’s 1980s Lakers were ranked lower than 10th place in the category of defensive ranking only once (in 1982-83; 13th)! The team with excellent offense production was always re-fueled with outstanding defensive plays, won the NBA championship titles in 1982, 1984, 1987, and 1988.
But after the Suns surprisingly dismantled the Lakers in the 1990 playoffs, Riley suddenly decided to close one exciting chapter of his life and leave California. Over the next 1990-91 NBA season, Riley had chosen to work as a commentator for NBC.
From behind the camera, he witnessed the begging of an end of the aging Detroit Pistons mini-era and the Chicago Bulls taking over the Eastern Conference and, eventually, the NBA. The Bulls, a team without a dominant inside player, reached their first title ever and opened a new NBA basketball era. New York Knicks’ President Dave Checketts reached out to Riley.
Riley accepted the challenge of turning the tide for the struggling Knicks on May 31, 1991. As soon as he brought his Armani suits to the Big Apple, Riley had his hands full of transforming the team, which greatly suffered not making the Eastern Conference finals ever since they landed center Pat Ewing in 1985.
“We’re going to be the best-conditioned, hardest working, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest, the most disliked team in the NBA.”Pat Riley, ESPN
That team already got the great individual players such as Pat Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Mark Jackson, but lacked the poise at both ends of the floor, either to make a simple pass on offense or to help your teammate closing down the lane on defense. Riley’s energy in transforming the team was contagious; he demanded an absolute commitment to his goals by all of the players.
The arrival of the small forward Xavier McDaniel proved to be a pivotal addition to transforming the team. The X-man was never afraid to play physical and rough, talk trash to anyone, and get in someone’s face. He soon ignited the ‘fire’ Riley wanted, and all of the Knicks players became edgier out there.
Very soon, the new-look Knicks became the talk of the basketball world. After making their defensive imprint on the 1991-92 NBA season, the Knicks eliminated the 1989 and 1990 NBA champions Detroit Pistons. Then, in a very physical series, they took the eventual champions Chicago Bulls right to the edge and lost by 4-3. The same story repeated the next year when the Knicks won the Atlantic Division champions title with an excellent 60-22 regular-season record, only to fall from the same playoffs opponent by 4-2.
“I believed in defending. I believed in being a hard-nosed player and doing all the things that it takes to win. And so, from the team’s perspective, it’s a very simple thing to me. It’s either you’re with me or against me.”Pat Riley, ESPN
But Riley knew that the Knicks’ time is coming, so he kept upgrading the team’s roster, always adding unselfish players who didn’t care how many points they scored, and who were eager to give their best on the defensive end. As a result, the Knicks became the NBA’s top defensive team over Riley’s four-year tenure in New York. Only once they were ranked 2nd in the defensive ranking during that time, which was in 1991-92, Riley’s first year with the team. They were always a sure lock for the 1st place.
The retirement of the Knicks longtime nemesis, Michael Jordan, in October 1993, suddenly widely opened the potential road to NBA championship title to several contending teams such as Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Seattle Supersonics, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, and San Antonio Spurs. The Eastern Conference champions Knicks made the best of it in the East and made it to the 1994 NBA finals, where they eventually lost to the Houston Rockets, but only after a seven-game grueling match-up.
After taking the rejuvenated Knicks to near-championship heights the first time since the early 1970s, Riley decided to leave New York, continuing his mission on building championship contenders in Miami. Although he left the Big Apple a day after the loss to Pacers in the 1995 postseason, Riles set the team and the franchise on a winning path. The Knicks, coached by Riley’s longtime assistant Jeff Van Gundy did not miss the postseason until 2002.