clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A look back at Pat Riley's 20 years with the Miami Heat

New, comments

Pat Riley has accomplished quite a bit in his two decades with Miami, transforming the franchise instantly into a playoff contender and he hasn't stopped since. Here's a look back at his greatest highlights with the Heat.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

By almost any measure, Pat Riley has had an incredible career. He's won multiple championships, as a player with the Lakers in '72, as a coach with L.A. in '80 (as an assistant), '82, '85, '87 and '88, as well as with Miami in '06 and as a team executive in '12 and '13. He's largely considered one of the top coaches in basketball history, able to maximize his players' abilities and transform a team according to their strengths.

And for two decades, Heat fans have had the privilege of seeing him as part of the organization.

It's almost impossible to view Miami without Riley, either working furiously along the sidelines or behind the scenes, always with an eye toward improving the team...his team. The legend of Riley has grown since he's joined the Heat, beyond the facade of Armani suits and slicked back hair, a charismatic figure that has left generations of players in awe of his mere presence.

However you picture him, there's no denying his impact with the Miami Heat and all that he's done during his incredible tenure.

1995 - Becoming the Face of the Franchise

From the very beginning, Riley's decision to join Miami made headlines, not just for his incredible accomplishments in Los Angeles and New York but for how he joined the team. The story is a familiar one but bears repeating because it adds to Heat fans' view of Riley as one of their own, willing to sacrifice his reputation in order to build a champion.

As coach of the Knicks, Riley had turned the team into a defensive juggernaut, doing their best to keep the Chicago Bulls from winning multiple titles and, like so many others, failing in that regard. He led the team to a post-Jordan berth in the NBA Finals, only to succumb to one of the most versatile centers of all time (Hakeem Olajuwon). But he was determined to help New York win and reportedly wanted more control of the team, something Knicks ownership wasn't willing to give him.

Enter Micky Arison, who was looking to make a splash as the owner of the Heat.

Arison was able to guarantee the type of control Riley wanted in Miami and, after weeks of negotiations that went nowhere, resigned in dramatic fashion from the Knicks organization. He was instantly labeled a pariah in the Big Apple, earning the moniker "Pat, the Rat" that some longtime fans still use to this day. But for Heat fans, the addition of Riley was a godsend, giving the franchise a real sense of direction after seven floundering seasons of semi-success.

Riley could build a winner and was determined to do so, promising a championship parade down Biscayne Boulevard.

Just weeks after taking the reins in Miami, he'd take the first steps toward making that promise a reality.

1995 - The Center of it All

Miami had star potential on its roster in Glen Rice, one of the sweetest shooters in NBA history. But that wasn't the kind of player Riley thought could win in the bruising Eastern Conference. He needed a center that could challenge the other top pivot men of the time. When the Charlotte Hornets couldn't come to terms with a young superstar of their own, Riley saw an opportunity to build his version of the Heat. Rice was sent to Charlotte in exchange for Alonzo Mourning, thus transforming the team into an immediate playoff contender.

The trade was an immediate wake-up call for Heat fans; Riley will make whatever move possible to build a winner. It was the first of many such moves during his two decades with the team and a big reason why fans always believe that, so long as Riley is at the helm, the team is always just a step or two away from building a contender. And it certainly paid off as Mourning would go on to anchor a defensive-minded group that would make the playoffs for six straight seasons, an unprecedented run of success for Miami.

1996 - The Big Three That Never Was

After guiding the team to 61 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, Riley could have simply kept the status quo and left things as is. Instead, he saw an opportunity to make a great team even better. The offseason was a crucial one in franchise history, with Mourning among a handful of top free agents. But Riley, eerily reminiscent of a future success story, decided to build a "Big Three" around Zo, point guard Gary Payton and forward Juwan Howard. Payton had been a perennial All-Star in Seattle and Howard, a restricted free agent, was coming off a great season. Riley offered them the money they each wanted and the promise of championship success.

It never quite worked out as Payton eventually got a more lucrative deal from the Sonics. Riley's "Plan B" was to re-sign Tim Hardaway (who had been acquired via midseason trade just months prior) and sign P.J. Brown, a free agent with the New Jersey Nets.

The NBA would ultimately rescind the $100 million contract for Howard due to salary cap violations and Miami would keep a core of Mourning, Hardaway and Brown, one that would carry the Heat through years of playoff battles but, ultimately, fall short of championship success.

2000 - Contender Foiled by Health

After years of being ousted from the playoffs, Riley once again retooled the team that had captivated the hearts of South Floridians. With Mourning and Hardaway still on the roster, Riley dealt away Brown, Jamal Mashburn and others to acquire Brian Grant, Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason (from Charlotte). This version of the team was arguably more talented and deep than any other in franchise history and, with Michael Jordan finally retired (again), the path was clear for the Heat to make a serious run at the title.

Unfortunately, Mourning's health deteriorated from a life-threatening kidney disease and Miami was left to wonder what might have been. Zo sat out most of the season and returned for the playoffs, disrupting the chemistry that had been so precariously achieved as the year progressed (Mason, in particular, resented being second fiddle to Mourning. He'd been an All-Star that season and had been Miami's best player for most of the year and Zo was hardly as good as he'd once been.)

The team was never the same and underwent another transformation - for the worse - over the next two years. Hardaway left on somewhat bitter terms. Mourning was in-and-out of the lineup and would eventually leave the team in free agency in 2003. And, perhaps worst of all, the bad taste of losing consistently had finally been too much for Riley, who gave up the reins as head coach in 2003 after two straight years of failing to make the playoffs.

2003 - A New Hope Rises

With Mourning's departure, Riley - now just the team's President of Basketball Operations - was tasked with the challenge of rebuilding the Heat. It started with the draft, when Miami was able to select a young, athletic guard out of Marquette University named Dwyane Wade.

Generously listed at 6'4", Wade was considered too small for shooting guard and not as adept a ballhandler to play just point guard; stories abound that Riley was strongly leaning toward taking the underwhelming Chris Kaman with the fifth pick in the draft. Instead, Riley drafted Wade, who would go on to have a Hall-of-Fame career in his own right.

But, in addition to selecting Wade, Riley made one of the shrewdest moves of his career by taking advantage of another team's mismanagement. The L.A. Clippers were an up-and-coming team, with a number of high draft picks and talented players on the roster. However, in 2003, they also had a number of restricted free agents to negotiate with, among them Elton Brand, Andre Miller, Corey Maggette, and Lamar Odom.

The Heat were intrigued by the possibility of adding Brand to the roster, a possibility due to a mixup with Anthony Carter's contract. Carter, a decent but offensively limited guard, had only to inform Miami that he would be exercising a player option on the last year of his deal; instead, his agents failed to make the deadline and Riley found himself with unexpected salary cap space.

Brand would sign an offer sheet with the Heat and the Clippers, unwilling to risk losing a potential All-Star, matched the offer. However, the move basically forced them to choose between Brand or Odom, a point-forward who had yet to reach his potential. Riley swooped in and signed Odom; thus forming a young, versatile nucleus in Miami that included Wade, Odom and Caron Butler, along with Jones and the undersized Grant.

The '03-'04 season, led by newly-installed head coach Stan Van Gundy, ranks as one of the greatest in Heat history. The team has potential but suddenly found themselves in a late season playoff push, which they'd reach in dramatic fashion by winning 15 of their last 19 games. A first-round upset of the Hornets established Wade as a true superstar in the making and paved the way for Miami's first taste of championship success.

2004 - The Big Diesel Stops on Biscayne

The true impact of Carter's contract snafu wasn't evident until a year later, when Riley made a biiiiiig move by packaging Odom, Butler and Grant for Shaquille O'Neal. It was, perhaps, a bittersweet moment for Heat fans as the departing trio had been part of a special season in Miami. The move was, like so many of Riley's orchestrations, seemingly out of the blue. Grumblings that O'Neal was unhappy with the Lakers (where he'd won three-straight titles from 200-2003) were well known but Miami's interest was not.

And, almost instantly, Riley once again placed the Heat at the center of the NBA universe.

O'Neal was, at that point, a larger-than-life figure, an unstoppable juggernaut and one of the best players in the league. Although the rest of the roster was, in truth, rather unspectacular, the combination of Wade and O'Neal was an immediate success. An injury to Wade kept Miami from reaching the NBA Finals in '05 but a yet another retooled roster the following season would lead to much better results.

2005 - Return of the King

Van Gundy had achieved great success in his two years along Miami's sideline. He took a young team into the playoffs in '04 and was able to guide a more veteran cast the following season. But there were rumblings that O'Neal didn't respect him enough to follow him and Van Gundy resigned from the team at the start of the '05-'06 season. This could be, even more than his exit from the Knicks, the biggest blemish on Riley's reputation. Years later, both Van Gundy and Riley have stipulated that SVG's departure was by choice but many felt that Riley, craving the spotlight once again, forced his ouster in order to take over the team.

Many Heat fans would like to believe the decision was mutual, others simply don't care. Whatever the truth might actually be, Riley returned as the team's head coach and would soon have the team reaching unparalleled heights.

The roster included some of the most unique and memorable players in franchise history. Along with O'Neal and Wade, Riley had acquired Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey to form a formidable starting lineup, along with a bolstered bench that included Payton and, perfectly, a now-healthy Mourning. It was, in truth, a difficult group to manage but Riley, always able to understand the intricacies of varying personalities, was able to form a collective unit that simply kept winning. Wade's incredible talents exploded in the '06 Finals and the Heat were able to win their first title.

Riley's contributions to the championship can't be understated - whether it was the "15 Strong" motto that cemented the team's focus or his incomparable line when the Heat traveled to Dallas for the last two games of the championship series. Behind Wade, the Heat had built a 3-2 series lead and had one of two games to pull out the deciding victory. Riley, confident in his team, told reporters that all he was packing for Dallas was "one shirt, one suit, one tie," meaning he'd only need one game to emerge as a champion.

It's the outfit he wore, now soaked in celebratory champagne, during his last title as a head coach.

2010 - The Biggest Free Agent Coup in NBA History

Riley lasted two more seasons as the team's coach but the team that had achieved championship success had quickly fallen apart. Riley's constant drive was too much for an aging and bloated O'Neal and the two nearly came to blows according to some reports; Shaq burned every bridge possible on his way out of town and Riley seemed never to recover. Injuries to Wade and Mourning (in the latter's case, career-ending), kept the team from ever gelling and, in 2008, Riley turned over the team to a young, unproven coach named Erik Spoelstra.

Spoelstra had worked his way up the ranks, showing the same tireless dedication that Riley once had. He kept the team in playoff contention for two post-Riley seasons (mostly due to Wade's brilliance) and emerged as a very capable coach.

But if talent was a problem, it wouldn't be after the summer of 2010, when Riley was able to lure LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Wade on the Heat.

It seems needless to rehash so recent an event in the team's timeline but, in context of Riley's career, it can't be overlooked. You can't say for certain whether Riley was really able to exercise any influence on James but, after 15 seasons in Miami, Riley had created a culture of success in Miami that was more alluring than anything he could have actually verbalized. In basketball, two franchises stand out as the most stable and accomplished in recent memory; the Spurs and the Heat.

And Riley is central to that stability.

There's an incredible dedication to the franchise that is required at every level, from the front office to the 15th man on the bench. -

There's an incredible dedication to the franchise that is required at every level, from the front office to the 15th man on the bench. If you don't pass muster, you'll soon find yourself elsewhere. And while that seems perhaps a bit harsh, it's led to such success that it's hard to argue against it.

After building this version of his "Big 3", Riley was able to build another cast of complementary players that helped result in two championships and four-straight trips to the Finals.

2014 to ??? - Retooled, not Rebuilt

When James departed for Cleveland after four years of success in Miami, you could certainly imagine Riley having nothing left to prove after building one of the best teams of all-time. But Riley is still challenging himself and seems incapable of knowing when to quit.

Without James, Riley was able to retool the team (as he told reporters in 2014), re-signing Bosh and Wade, as well as luring Luol Deng to the team. It was, on paper, a team more than capable of challenging in the Eastern Conference, especially without James' talents on the roster. Unfortunately, injuries limited last season's team but not before Riley was able to pull off two major acquisitions: Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic.

Whiteside had been discarded and overlooked by a number of teams yet Riley, almost out of necessity, brought him into the fold. The result was a historically great season from a player that had been basically unemployed a year ago today. In Dragic, Riley added a point guard that can transform the team from a slow-moving sedan to a Ferrari, a premise that will be surely tested as Miami finds itself as a potential title contender yet again.

Many will criticize Riley's moves as short-sighted; he trades away draft picks and unproven players with a reckless abandon. But, as one rival executive revealed to Grantland's Zach Lowe, "If they weren't the Miami Heat, we'd all be laughing at them."

If they weren't the Miami Heat, we'd all be laughing at them. -Zach Lowe

It's the kind of larger-than-life reputation Riley has earned after two decades in Miami and one he's likely to capitalize on once more before finally fading away toward the sunset. He's assembled a team on mostly short-term contracts, and is poised to enter next summer's free agency with quite a bit of salary cap space. Kevin Durant is the ultimate goal and, while that seems far-fetched, as Lowe points out, "Rail against the Durant rumor mill if you want, but you're kidding yourselves if you don't think Riley will set Miami up to make a run at him."

Heat fans wish for luck in next year's Durant sweepstakes, but Riley is a man that doesn't just rely on good fortune. Rather he's willing to accept an opportunity when it presents itself and combines that with a precise vision of what he wants and the necessary ruthlessness to make it a reality. It's an exciting combination of factors that has led to never knowing exactly quite what will happen next when it comes to Riley, other than twenty years of striving for greatness.

If only Heat fans could be treated to twenty more although somehow, one gets the feeling it still wouldn't be enough.