This summer has featured some of Miami Heat president Pat Riley's best moves to retool a roster that could have been headed for the lottery. Instead, Riley has kept the team in contention by signing key free agents from last season, bringing aboard some significant players from other teams and even adding some young talent to help the team improve as years go by.
In truth, this is simply the way Riley has always worked. Building a team with multiple stars and surrounding them with enough talent to compete for a championship.
Of course, it's the moves that involve the NBA superstars - trading for Alonzo Mourning or Shaquille O'Neal or signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh - that make the most noise. But as fans discovered in the NBA Finals, sometimes role players are more significant that the big names on a team's marquee.
Let's take a look at the teams' current roster. People are expecting big things out of athletic swingman James Ennis, the player out of Long Beach State who won the Most Valuable Player award for the Perth Wildcats of Australia's National Basketball League. If he lives up to his potential - which is a might big "if" - it could be one of those successful under-the-radar moves that Riley always seems to make during his two decades with the Heat.
As we celebrate a potentially successful summer and hope for continued excellence in the future, let's look at Riley's history with the obscure.
Heat Sign Free Agent P. J. Brown
In a time before the analytic movement forced how front offices identified a player's strengths and weaknesses, Riley assessed the talents of Brown by saying, "P.J. is the best, weak-side help defender in the NBA." Talk about your esoteric compliment. Of course, he was absolutely right.
After Riley's failed attempt to lure superstar-on-the-rise (at least that's how it looked) Juwan Howard, Riley moved on to "plan B" and grabbed Brown, an athletic big man who was undervalued as a member of the New Jersey Nets. At the time, his six-year, $42 million contract seemed excessive but, in time, he earned every penny. He complimented the first great era under Riley's management, pairing Brown with All-Star Mourning to anchor a stifling defense. And there's always this grainy video highlight, too:
Brown eventually got a ring with the Boston Celtics before he retired.
But longtime Heat fans will always remember P.J.'s contributions to the original "Road Warriors", the awkward shot release and, as he funneled opponent after opponent into Mourning's web of blocked shots, as one of the best weak-side help defenders in Heat history.
Discovering Ike Austin
Austin was taken in the second round of the 1991 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz. He averaged an unimpressive 3.3. points per game in his first three years in the league. He eventually left the NBA, playing one season each in France and Turkey. Most guys out of the league for that long don't ever make it back but Riley saw potential in Austin, helped him lose weight and signed him during the 1996-1997 season.
At first, he was a fine contributor off the bench but when Mourning was hurt the following season, Austin started 50 games in his place and scored nearly 14 PPG. He went on to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award that year.
The following season, Austin's eventual contract demands would place him out of Miami's price range and he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Brent Barry. "Big Ike" got the deal he wanted and, without Riley's constant vigilance and training to guide him along, he never lived up to it. He spent four more years in the league going from L.A., Washington, Orlando, Vancouver and Memphis.
Bait-and-Switch With Clips Leads to Odom
The 2003 offseason was a big one for Miami. Riley stepped down as head coach and promoted Stan Van Gundy. The Heat drafted an undersized shooting guard out of Marquette named Dwyane Wade. And Riley committed multi-millions of dollars to sign Elton Brand away from the Clippers.
For years, the Clippers had been mediocre at best. By 2003, they had a promising core that included three restricted free agents; Brand, Corey Maggette and a young, multi-dimensional forward named Lamar Odom. Riley went all-in after Brand, who agreed to join Miami.
The Clips and owner Donald Stering (yeah, he was there back then, too) were well-known for their cheap exploitation of players. Surprisingly, they matched offers to Brand and Maggette, committing a big part of their available cap space to do so. Odom quickly signed an offer with Miami that Sterling couldn't match.
If the move on Brand was to intentionally trick Sterling, neither Riley or Brand ever let on but both parties got what they wanted. Odom teamed with Wade, Caron Butler, and Rafer Alston to surprise critics and make the playoffs in Van Gundy's first year as coach. Meanwhile, Brand would be paid handsomely and unfortunately suffer injuries that would cast him as a solid, over-priced player. And Odom's biggest contribution?
Being the biggest bargaining chip in 2004 in a trade to acquire O'Neal from the Lakers. Both Miami and Odom's new team won championships as a result.
Giving a Chance to The Local Kid
2003 was a really big summer.
Udonis Haslem had starred locally at Miami High before moving on to a Final Four run with the University of Florida in 2002. But he was undersized, generously listed at 6'8" and oversized, tipping the scale at over 300 pounds.
He went undrafted out of UF, got cut by the Atlanta Hawks and went on to play professionally for one year in France. He stayed focused on his goal of reaching the NBA, dropped 70 pounds, and was invited to participate in summer leagues despite concerns that he'd regress.
Riley took a chance, signed Haslem in '03 and "UD" went on to win three championships in 11 seasons while sacrificing millions to remain the heart and soul of his hometown team.
Letting Birdman Soar Once Again
Describing Birdman's past as "checkered" is the understatement of the year.
Chris Andersen was known as high-flyer with flair when he got his start with the Denver Nuggets after an impressive showing in the NBA's Developmental League. While playing with New Orleans, he was suspended from the league for nearly two years due to a violation of the NBA's drug policy. He was reinstated in 2008 and then signed a five-year deal with Denver but was waived at the end of the 2012 season. An alleged connection to an internet crime with an underage girl tarnished Andersen's image to possible suitors and a promising career was possibly over.
He was out of work and seemed dirty in a way that made him untouchable to teams. Yet the Heat considered bringing Andersen into the fold. They did their homework on Birdman, realized he was the victim of an elaborate hoax and he joined Heat in January 2013.
The team soon went on a historical 27-game winning streak and would eventually win the 2013 title. Andersen has played a huge role over the last season-and-a-half and the fans have embraced him fully. After choosing to re-sign with Miami this summer - and spurning Cleveland's pursuit because it was never really an option - he's probably a Heat legend.
The Move Anthony Carter Didn't Make - Carter was a backup point guard with Miami for years and eventually became a footnote in Heat history, an unnoticed asterisk next to the 2006 championship trophy. A solid defender and weak scorer, Carter's existing contract in 2003 had a player option that would guarantee him $4 million.
If only he had exercised the option.
When the Heat's June 30 deadline to opt in passed, the Heat suddenly had more salary cap space than expected, freeing them to purse Brand and then Odom who led to O'Neal and resulted in a title.
As Carter's agent, Bill Duffy, told ESPN at the time, ""I feel sick for the person in our office who was responsible (for monitoring Carter's situation and contacting the Heat)."
Yeah, and missing out on over $4 million sucks pretty bad, too. Carter would go on to play for a few more years, eventually making back what he lost but it's a constant reminder that the NBA is a business, even as fans always enjoy it as a game.
And it also proves that Riley's success has always relied on a lot of research, a great deal of hard work and, for good measure, just a bit of luck.