The credit for this run has been spread pretty generously across the organization—largely because there’s been so much of it to go around.
LeBron James, in the public imagination, has gone from flawed superstar to maybe-GOAT. Dwyane Wade’s Hall of Fame credentials have been burnished to a gleam. Chris Bosh’s reputation has transmogrified from “that really big guy who plays in Canada” to selfless grinder. Erik Spoelstra has been elevated, in the basketball world’s mind's eye, from an out-of-his-depth company man to a genius tactician.
But Pat Riley, the near-septuagenarian architect of it all, seems to have gotten comparatively little shine. But does he deserve more plaudits for all the mighty Heat have wrought these past four seasons?
The answer is both a firm “yes” and a slightly more tenuous “no,” depending on the lens through which we look at the question.
Let me explain.
Among common fans—and, to a lesser extent, even basketball nerds—the front office never gets enough acclaim for how the team performs. In this way, Riley’s role is underappreciated.
The players, who are obviously the prime movers of success or its inverse, get the lion’s share of credit and blame. This is fair.
There are mitigating factors here, however. People rightly intuit that players—to an extent—are what they are and judge them accordingly. Their performance is, relative to athletes in other major North American sports, very stable and predictable from season to season. So while great things are expected of rosters that are loaded with stars, little to nothing is expected of the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
The rest of a team’s performance is usually attributed to the head coach. When an organization greatly over- or underperforms its projection, all eyes fall on him. This is bizarre, given that head coaches, statistically speaking, have little impact on wins and losses.
Sports economist and The Wages of Wins author Dave Berri demonstrated the impotence of NBA head coaches in a study a few years ago. Slate’s Ryan McCarthy explained it thusly:
The economists looked at a group of 19 longtime NBA coaches that had helmed multiple teams, using a Bill Jamesian statistic called Win Score to evaluate how players performed under their tutelage. Only eight of the 19 coaches had any statistically discernible effect on team performance. Seven had a positive impact, with Phil Jackson topping the chart. Next on the list: Rick Adelman, Rudy Tomjanovich, Rick Carlisle, Don Nelson, Flip Saunders, and Gregg Popovich. The only coach who had a demonstrably negative impact on his players: the historically inept Tim Floyd.
But, again, organizations don’t operate in a way that suggests they’re aware of this. When a team doesn’t reach what’s understood to be its potential, the ax falls on the guy who arguably—among the front office, roster and coaching triune—had the least to do with that outcome. In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, “Las Vegas’s preseason over-under lines predict coach turnover just as well as actual wins and losses do.”
To hammer home the point, Silver compiled a list of the 33 teams since 2006-07 that underperformed their preseason Vegas line by 10 games or more. Only 12 of those coaches kept their jobs, and five of those were fired during or after the following season.
So with the players and the coach bearing so much responsibility for what happens on the floor—rightly or wrongly—not nearly enough space is left for the front office; who, after all, construct the roster and hire its general. This considered, it’s safe to say that no front office, with the exception of Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets', gets its proper due. Riley’s impact is underrated in this sense.
The question then becomes this: Among executives, has Riley done an unusually great job with the Heat? That is, could these titles have come under someone else’s watch?
I think the answer here, with apologies to Riley, is probably “yes.” The things that make the Heat machine whir have less to do with him than with a host of other factors that fall outside of his control.
In recent weeks, an idea has gained currency in anti-Heat circles that purports to make a sort of moral distinction between the Heat and Spurs. The upshot: While San Antonio is a homegrown, authentic titan—built from the ground up, the right way—the Heat are a synthetic abomination. They cut corners on the way to the top and simply imported great players.
The value judgment implicit in this is, of course, ridiculous. Basketball is a business, its salary cap rules are abstruse and silly, and winning teams are built in all manner of ways.
But as a framework for evaluating Riley’s performance as team president and de facto general manager of the Heat, there’s more than a kernel of truth to it.
At risk of sounding reductive, the Heat are great because they have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—three star players in their primes who would run through brick walls to get better, care about one another and care even more about winning. The Heat haven’t drafted terribly well, nor have they built a dynamite player development pipeline. They merely have three stars.
These three aren’t in Miami because of some uber-clever, Daryl Morey-like wheeling and dealing—though Riley was prescient in clearing cap space for that summer with an eye on luring three stars—but because the principals themselves decided to go there.
“All three of us are ultimately going to take less money because we wanted to all play alongside each other, and we feel like we can be great together,” LeBron explained to ESPN after The Decision.
“Those are two great players,” he added, “two of the greatest players that we have in this game today."
And the rest is history.
This required skill on Riley’s part, yes. He ensured Miami had the requisite space to sign three near-max players. He had the charisma, and the stature, to close the deal. And he filled out the roster with a capable cast of role players that supported his stars’ strengths and camouflaged their weaknesses. He’s a very good general manager. But he probably isn’t a great one. Or at least, he isn’t great in proportion to his team’s success.
Consider the aforementioned supporting cast. Miami is the oldest team in the NBA this season and, despite one of the finest regular-season performances of LeBron’s career, managed only 54 wins and the No. 2 seed in a weak conference. Miami’s roster, outside of James, is as shaky as it’s been in the Big Three era. This obsolescence has occurred under Riley’s watch.
Miami’s reliance on its star was exposed in Game 1 of the Finals. When LeBron went down with cramps with seven minutes and change remaining on Thursday night, the Heat had a two-point lead and, according to InPredictable, a 62.2 percent chance of winning. (h/t FiveThirtyEight.) With James out, the Spurs ripped off a 26-9 run to take the game and a 1-0 series advantage.
It's obviously unfair to heap the blame for this collapse squarely on Riley's shoulders.
The roster is thin, yes, but partially for reasons that can't be pinned to the president. The salaries of James, Wade and Bosh greatly limit the Heat's flexibility. The low-risk bets the Heat made on Greg Oden and Michael Beasley haven't panned out. The slippage of Shane Battier and, to a lesser extent, Ray Allen, have been more precipitous than anyone expected.
But still, it's hard to escape the sense that more could have been done these past few offseasons.
Looking across the floor Thursday night, Riley watched a handful of low-cost players act as key cogs in the Spurs machine. Marco Belinelli hit a pair of three-point shots. Kawhi Leonard, even on a relatively off night, was a Tasmanian devil. Boris Diaw posted a plus/minus of plus-30 in only 33 minutes of action. According to HoopsHype, these players cost the Spurs about $9.4 million this season.
Meanwhile, Rashard Lewis, starting at power forward for the Heat, played 31 minutes without getting a rebound or assist.