The Miami Heat had just defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in a game whose ugliness set back the sports decades.
Following the 66-57 victory, which came the night before the 1996 trading deadline, first-year Heat coach Pat Riley stood in a hallway in the old Philadelphia Spectrum and declared nothing was happening with trade talks.
Less than 24 hours later, Riley traded away five players in three separate deals, acquiring Tim Hardaway, Chris Gatling and Walt Williams among others.
The rebranding of the Miami Heat was in full swing.
When Riley, now the team president, declared the Heat were rebuilding this season, all that meant is one of the most successful coaches/executives in the sport’s history was back in his comfort zone. Few have torn down and rebuilt in any sport with as much success as Riley in the last two decades. The Heat have gone through four major rebuilds, the three previous producing at least one trip to the conference finals, and two resulting in three combined championships.
Now the challenge is for Riley to match that success with this reconstruction, which should hit full force this summer.
“He’s one of the great visionaries in the history of this game,” Heat coach, and Riley protégé, Erik Spoelstra said. “I don’t know if there are many people in this business right now who have as much winning experience as he does. You’re talking about decades of winning with three different franchises. That’s great experience.
“He thinks much bigger than anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Riley has set the bar high. He has turned the Heat into contenders three times by acquiring Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway; drafting Dwyane Wade and trading for Shaquille O’Neal; and signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh. All “whales” as Riley likes to label them.
Now, he’ll be expected to reach those heights as soon as this summer.
“He’s got a big challenge ahead,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who has gone against Riley’s teams as a player, executive and coach. “They’ve had some really difficult things happen over the last year or two and it’s a really hard thing to do.
“But that’s what makes his accomplishments so special, he’s done it multiple times with different franchises. You have to get lucky and you have to be good.”
Riley, who as a coach won four titles with the Lakers and got the Knicks to the 1994 Finals, was brought in by owner Micky Arison in the summer of 1995, one the two most impactful hires in South Florida sports history along with the Dolphins adding Don Shula. In two years he nearly doubled the Heat’s win total from 32 the year before he arrived to 61 in 1996-97.
That team was stonewalled, first by Michael Jordan and then by the Knicks and it was time to break it down. The Heat went from 50 wins in 2000-01 to 25 two years later. And then, after drafting Wade and making another blockbuster deal for O’Neal, Miami was back in the 60-win range (59) in 2004-05 and captured the franchise’s first title the next season, after another flurry of moves to surround Wade and Shaq with the right pieces.
“A lot of people think rebuilding is easy,” said Derek Harper, who was raised in West Palm Beach and played for Riley in New York. “But people don’t like going down that road is because it’s a difficult challenge.
“That is a tough, hard-nosed, hardworking intelligent freaking guy,” “He’s smart beyond smart.”
That 2006 title team had a short shelf life and two years later Miami was in the midst of its worst-ever season, finishing with 15 wins. But by then Riley already was scheming for the summer of 2010 and had started making moves – shipping Shaq to Phoenix – to land the biggest free agent score in history.
Welcome LeBron and Bosh.
“If he’s a card player he’s always going to double down, triple down,” Spoelstra said. “If he’s playing Hearts he’s always going to shoot the moon.
“That’s one major quality of his brilliance his ability to think bigger than almost anybody.”
Harper, who starred at the old North Shore High School in West Palm Beach and then Illinois, now is a television analyst for the Mavericks, is confident that Riley will have the Heat among the elite again.
“He is one of the most intelligent people when it comes to building a team,” Harper said. “He knows what it takes to win and he certainly knows talent. He has an uncanny ability to make mediocrity great.”
One reason – and there are many – the Heat are not the Knicks or any other team stuck in prolonged stretches of losing and mediocrity is the stability from the top on down. For the last decade and a half New York has made poor decision after poor decision with trades and free agent signings, adding short-term fixes to a long term problem.
But Arison has full confidence in Riley who has full confidence in Spoelstra that if a reset is required and that results in a losing season, nobody’s job is at stake.
“When you have the track record of somebody like Pat you have more trust, from the organization, from the fans, from the media,” Kerr said. “He’s earned as much trust as anybody could possibly have.”
Riley’s game plan to improve this team likely will not be completed until the season’s ends not that Miami has ripped off 14 wins in its last 16 games and suddenly are in the playoff hunt.
One month ago the Heat appeared headed toward a high draft pick and possibly a dizzying trade deadline. Now players like Dion Waiters and James Johnson and even Goran Dragic, at one time thought to be expendable or commodities, could be playing their way into Riley’s future plans and Thursday’s trade deadline may not be as exciting.
But this much is known: With Miami expected to receive cap relief from Chris Bosh’s salary, the Heat could be looking at $40 million minimum of cap space this summer.
Pat Riley has done more with less.