MIAMI — LeBron James was too savvy Sunday night for the sneaky scribes and sportscasters, too prepared to accidentally slip and serve up any strong hint about his summer plans.
"You guys are trying to find answers," he said, after a series of probing questions related to his decision to opt out of his contract or not. "I'm not going to give you one. I'm just not going to give it to you. When I get to that point, I'll deal with it, and when it gets to that point."
And yet, before he closed his press conference, he did make one extremely salient point, one that may have been obscured with all the speculation about his upcoming decision, but one that should influence the others that Pat Riley may make in the month or two to come. Asked what the Heat need to add or change to beat the Spurs, James expanded the scope to the entire league and the need to get better at every facet and position.
"It's just how the league works," James said. "The Spurs continue to get better. Obviously, they kept those three guys intact, but they continue to put guys around them, high‑basketball‑IQ guys around them, high‑energy guys around them that fit into the system of what [Gregg Popovich] wanted to do."
That statement crystallized Riley's challenge. In order to convince his three leading men to stay and sacrifice, he must show that he can help them contend not just next season, but in the seasons to come. That may require openness to operating in a different manner. He need not abandon his core belief that veteran complements, with their basketball IQs elevated by experience, are necessary to round out some of the roster. But, as he supplements, he must also address the second part of James' wish list:
Guys who are younger.
Guys with more hunger.
These attributes are not exclusive from each other, though Riley's Heat have seemed to view them as such, rather than as intertwined. He has collected established veterans who have been willing to accept less money and reduced roles to chase a championship, and their professionalism has frequently paid off, whenever they contributed after sitting for long stretches. But this season, Miami's experience didn't equate to urgency.
In retrospect, it should have been easy to assume that some satisfaction would set in.
Eleven players on the Heat's NBA Finals squad won the championship the season before, and the four others (Michael Beasley, Greg Oden, Toney Douglas, Justin Hamilton) weren't factors when it mattered. James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shane Battier had won two straight titles, and the retiring Battier seemed to be battling his excitement about his next beginning.
Naturally, they all wanted to win again, and they even seemed to convince themselves and some of us observers that they could, especially as the East evaporated, Indiana imploded, Wade strengthened and the speed lane to the Finals cleared.
But there, they ran into a much more determined team, one largely, collectively driven by extreme disappointment—"The way we lost last year was cruel," as Tony Parker put it—but also by the proper mix of individual motivations. For the three aging staples, Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, this was about extending a legacy that has lost some luster in the seven years since the last title. For the veteran Boris Diaw, who had come reasonably close with Phoenix and then had bottomed out in Charlotte, it was about breaking through while breaking the mold.
And for first-time champions Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills—ages 22, 29, 26, 28 and 25—it was about proving worthy of the Spurs way. Those were the type of players James was referencing, and the reality is, the Heat had nothing like them.
Now they need to find some.
As that twentysomething Spurs quintet stood on the championship stage, they also stood in contrast to the Heat's recent development drought. While Popovich and Spurs GM R.C. Buford used myriad means to acquire them—means that the Heat have largely avoided—all share one thing in common: continued improvement in the Spurs' system.
Of the five, Belinelli was brought in by means the Heat have utilized lately: He took a reasonable, below-market free-agent contract to join a contender, similar to those Battier and Allen took from Miami in 2011 and '12, respectively. Leonard's rights were acquired for a proven player (George Hill), which is the opposite of the Heat's run-from-rookies approach. Splitter was a Spanish league MVP before the Spurs drafted him; the Heat were scared of foreign players following failed experiments with Sasha Danilovic and Martin Muursepp more than a decade ago.
Green and Mills?
Well, they embody what the Heat used to do exceptionally well:
|Year||Player||Round (Pick)||On 2013-14 roster?|
|2004||Dorell Wright||1 (19)||No|
|2004||Pape Sow||2 (47) Traded on draft day for No. 30 Albert Miralles||No|
|2004||Matt Freije||2 (53)||No|
|2005||Wayne Simien||1 (29)||No|
|2007||Jason Smith||1 (20) Traded on draft day for No. 21 Daequan Cook||No|
|2007||Stanko Barac||2 (39) Via trade and then traded on draft day||No|
|2008||Michael Beasley||1 (2)||Yes|
|2008||Mario Chalmers||2 (34)||Yes|
|2008||Darnell Jackson||2 (52) Traded on draft day||No|
|2009||Marcus Thornton||2 (43) Traded on draft day||No|
|2009||Robert Dozier||2 (60)||No|
|2010||Dexter Pittman||2 (32)||No|
|2010||Jarvis Varnado||2 (41)||No|
|2010||Da'Sean Butler||2 (42)||No|
|2010||Latavious Williams||2 (48) Traded on draft day||No|
|2011||Norris Cole||1 (28)||Yes|
|2012||Arnett Moultrie||1 (27) Traded on draft day for No. 45 Justin Hamilton||No|
|2013||James Ennis||2 (50) Via trade||No (In Australia in '13-14)|
Discover and develop discards.
During Riley's early Miami years, the Heat mined and polished the likes of Isaac Austin, Bruce Bowen, Anthony Carter, Mike James, Malik Allen, Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem; 11 years later, Haslem endures, which is a tribute to his tenacity, but also evidence of Miami's inability to find anything resembling a younger, sprier version of him.
Miami has already cut ties with several undrafted or second-round prospects (Jarvis Varnado, Dexter Pittman, Terrel Harris, Mickell Gladness, DeAndre Liggins), while '12 second-rounder Justin Hamilton is widely viewed as a back-end pro at best and '13 second-rounder James Ennis will need to prove that stints in Australia and Puerto Rico reduced some of his rawness. The higher-profile reclamation projects, with the exception of Chris Andersen—such as Eddy Curry, Michael Beasley and Greg Oden—have generated little impact, even if Oden appears worthy of another opportunity.
All these modest failures have mattered more for Miami than they might for other organizations due to the scarcity of draft picks. After hitting on Caron Butler and Wade in the top 10 in '02 and '03, Riley had a rotten run of first-rounders, and he's recently treated the selections as little more than sweeteners in exchange for something else.
Sometimes, Riley's sought a quick fix, such as when he tossed an '09 first-rounder into an '07 trade for the regrettable duo of Ricky Davis and Mark Blount, only to see Ty Lawson later chosen in that slot. Sometimes, he's needed salary-cap space, which explained the giveaway of stalled '07 first-rounder Daequan Cook and a '10 first-round pick for more room to make a run at a Big Three; that ceded spot, No. 18, is where budding star Eric Bledsoe got snapped up. Sometimes, he's been compelled by the organization's luxury-tax concerns, as partly explained by his dealing No. 27 overall in '11 for a conditional future first-rounder, which was later gifted to Boston to get Joel Anthony off the books.
And sometimes, it's merely been the cost of doing championship business. That was the reason for including a slew of choices as part of the sign-and-trade agreements with Cleveland and Toronto for James and Bosh, respectively. That strategy made sense at the time, not only for the incoming stars (who were able to earn higher annual raises and an extra year on their deals) but also for the Heat, who started them at a lower first-year number—and had the opportunity to add another proven part in Mike Miller. Miller played a role in the Heat throwing two parades that they certainly wouldn't trade; still, it's possible that one or two of those picks would have paid off, with a 2015 first-rounder still owed to Cleveland.
Or maybe they wouldn't have, based on the Heat's recent spotty draft history and the tendency of even the success stories to stall. After all, the Heat's two best choices since '03—'08 No. 34 overall Mario Chalmers and '11 No. 28 Norris Cole—both regressed as the '14 postseason progressed, to the extent that Erik Spoelstra trusted neither to start the season's final game.
Riley may use their unreliability—in their sixth and third seasons, respectively—as more reason to pursue even creakier parts at a variety of positions. He shouldn't. He may view the No. 26 overall pick as his most expendable asset, citing its salary cap, luxury tax and roster spot cost, with the Heat still in "win now" mode. He shouldn't do that either.
He should trust the Heat scouts to find him someone who can help soon but may truly blossom later, the way Leonard blossomed into something special for San Antonio. He should save at least couple more spots for flawed players with promise, as the Spurs did for those Cleveland (Green) and Portland (Mills) throwaways, and he should push the coaching staff to make sure they eventually matter.
Riley needs to reinvigorate the culture. That means reinventing his philosophy, so it looks a bit more like the one that spawned the squad that just schooled his. A squad that was younger. A squad with more hunger.