Wednesday April 2nd, 2008

Miami Heat president and coach Pat Riley has missed four of his team's recent games in order to scout the colleges in search of a rookie star for next season.

But this idea of scouting for the future draft pick of the Miami Heat is only a facet of Riley's larger equation. Walking out on his team at the end of its worst year is in large part an effort aimed at saving his sanity. He demands more than he can give, which is both his strength and his weakness. Simply, he cannot submit to watching every last-place minute of this disastrous season.

"I think so," agrees Celtics forward P.J. Brown, who played four seasons for Riley in Miami through 1999-2000. "That's the reason I think he's doing it.

"I know when we lost two in a row when I was on that team, he was brutal. I'm talking about two in a row. ... He's having a lot of sleepless nights. He's not dealing with it that well. He's a winner, and I know he's not dealing with it well at all."

On a number of levels it was an amazing thing to see the league-worst Heat come into Boston last Sunday to play the Celtics, owners of the NBA's best record. All of the familiar pros were around the Miami team -- the front-office staff, the assistant coaches, the athletic trainers who were invaluable to their NBA championship two years ago. They were now serving as escorts to a pickup team of players that had no business playing in NBA buildings to NBA ticket prices. Nineteen months since they were the best club in the world, they are now 13-61 (.176), or four games worse than the Seattle Sonics.

Was the celebration of winning worth the pain they're enduring now? Most NBA teams would accept that exchange -- this is, after all, the most difficult trophy to win in team sports, with the last 27 championships hoarded by eight franchises.

"What you're saying is, if you know you're going to go from top to bottom in two years? A lot of people are going to take that championship," says Celtics forward James Posey, a crucial player in Miami's run to the title. "At the same time, that's the nature of the game: Injuries happen, trades are done."

Of course it didn't have to end this way. But Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning were injured, and Riley contributed to the landslide by neither re-signing nor replacing Posey and shooter Jason Kapono, which stranded elderly Shaquille O'Neal under the basket without anyone to space the floor around him. In fairness to Riley and owner Micky Arison, re-signing those players would have created a big luxury tax bill for a team that might not have contended for the championship anyway.

Posey disagrees. "I thought I was going back there," says Posey, who insists staying in Miami was his first choice. "It was an opportunity for a lot of us to come back -- Kapono, Eddie Jones, myself, Antoine Walker, and now Shaq just got traded."

Posey believes the Heat could have been inspired after being swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Bulls last year. "We still had a nice core, it would have been nice to go back," he says. "I think this year would have been that much better. We had the best of both worlds: It would have been a wakeup call for us (after last year's sweep) to come out and grind and hustle and rededicate ourselves to try to get another championship."

Instead, the Heat last weekend dressed a rotation that included five players who had been called up from the D-League this season. The Celtics held them to an NBA record-low 17 field goals, or roughly one basket every three minutes.

"You can look at that (Miami) team and also you can look at this (Boston) team," says Posey. "A couple of years ago this team here was the team Miami is right now. That's how things can go."

Two years ago Miami went 52-30 and won the last game of the playoffs. Last year Boston was 24-58 and lost the lottery.

When Riley threw Suns president Steve Kerr under the bus last week by revealing their private conversation in which Kerr said he was embarrassed by Shaq's recent criticisms of the Heat, it was a sign of how disorienting this season has been to Riley. That was a betrayal he would not have committed in better circumstances.

One lesson the Miami calamity teaches again is that winners at the elite NBA level -- whether Riley or Shaq -- don't react well to losing. Maybe in a few years Riley will be telling us that the pain of this season was good for him, that it forced him to grow; but he'll only realize that after he's back on the winning side again.

"I was asking some guys who have been around awhile, says Brown, 'What's the worst year you ever had?' Sam [Cassell] said, '30 wins in New Jersey.' Mine was in New Orleans, 18-64 (in '04-05). That was a long, tough year, and I thought we fought, though. We had 64 losses, but I thought overall the guys that were there really gave their best.

"I look at that 18-64 year and it brought us Chris Paul (as the No. 4 pick in the draft). So in that whole debacle, we got something out of it. Once I saw him, I said it was worth it. Going through it you weren't feeling like that. But once you got that gift, you got that out of the deal, then OK, it was worth it. You look at the Hornets now, and he's transformed the whole franchise."

The possibility of history repeating in Miami isn't lost on Brown.

"You get [Memphis point guard] Derrick Rose in there with D-Wade and [Shawn] Marion," says Brown, "and how many wins would that bring you next year?"

There isn't a team in the league that can't be turned rightside up -- or upside down -- within two years. Look at Miami. Look at Boston. And, next year, look at Miami again.

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