In recent years, a school of thought had evolved in the NBA that
Pat Riley had stayed around too long. Riley's sudden resignation
last week, after eight years as coach of the Heat, surprised even
the man to whom he passed on the job and seemed to suggest that
Riley had come to the same conclusion.
Don't believe it. Even if Riley remains with Miami as president
for two more years, completing the 10-year contract he signed
before the 1995-96 season, it's hard to believe that in the
future he won't surface somewhere as coach. "Maybe Pat's legend
isn't what it once was," said a Western Conference general
manager who didn't want to be identified, "but a lot of teams
still see him as a guy who can get it done."
Riley hadn't gotten it done during the last two playoffless
seasons with the Heat, which went 61-103 over that span. (Five
times with the Lakers and once in Miami, Riley had won 61 games
in a single season.) His decision to let longtime assistant Stan
Van Gundy slide over to the pilot's chair was a wise one. Riley
had spent an enervating off-season wearing his president's hat,
continuing to remake the Heat with young players (draft choice
Dwyane Wade and free agent Lamar Odom primary among them), and he
was correct in his assessment that the team needs "a new voice"
and "a new energy." It's fair to wonder how new things will be,
considering that Van Gundy (like brother Jeff, Riley's assistant
for four years with the Knicks) learned most of his pro coaching
chops from Riley. But Van Gundy, a respected X's and O's guy and
a no-nonsense workaholic like his brother, will put his own stamp
on the Heat.
At any rate, there are myriad reasons (beyond the obvious one
that no one in sports ever retires anymore) to believe that Riley
will be wearing a whistle somewhere else. For one, Riley didn't
rule it out himself. Stan Van Gundy said he was surprised by the
resignation largely because the 58-year-old Riley had seemed
"rejuvenated" and added that "it's hard to envision Pat anywhere
but on a sideline." Moreover, the Riley name still has clout,
even with young players; Odom made no secret of the fact that he
signed with Miami because he wanted to be coached by Riley. (That
might be the first issue Van Gundy has to deal with.)
The main point, though, is that few NBA coaches have accomplished
what Riley has accomplished; Jeff Van Gundy even suggests that
his brother is following "the greatest coach in NBA history."
After winning four titles with the Lakers, Riley proved he wasn't
merely a dynasty caretaker by turning both the Knicks and the
Heat into contenders. Further, he adapted his system to his
personnel, turning from funmaster of the fast break (in L.A.) to
boss of the bully boys (in both New York and Miami). There is no
shortage of quick-on-the-trigger NBA owners who see the hiring of
a new coach as the road to salvation; it's a safe bet that a
couple already have their eyes on the Master of Mousse.