MIAMI — The decision was antithetical to everything that we now understand about Pat Riley, all that he readily admits. But that was a different time, back in 2004, when he wasn't coaching the Miami Heat, but had just watched the team surprise under Stan Van Gundy, with a core of three budding prospects (Dwyane Wade, Caron Butler, Udonis Haslem), one revived talent (Lamar Odom) and two steady hands (Eddie Jones, Brian Grant) pushing a strong Indiana Pacers squad in the second round.
And so, with the 19th slot in the draft, and with more seasoned prospects such as Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen still available, Riley reached into the prep ranks, for a relatively unknown 18-year-old prospect named Dorell Wright.
More fresh, spry legs for the Heat's lively, youthful group.
And then, less than three weeks later, Riley fast-forwarded the Heat's roster development considerably, trading for Shaquille O'Neal, turning the Heat into an instant contender, and creating a greater need for veterans—or at least, more mature collegians—than some green kid.
Wright played just 159 minutes over his first two seasons, wasting on the bench for an organization that had understandably gone in another direction, when he wasn't toiling for the Florida Flame.
Such is the nature of the NBA's scheduling of its major offseason events—with the draft coming prior to the opening of free agency and the busy trading period. That scheduling is the reverse of what happens in the NFL, in which teams have established the veteran backbone of their rosters before the draft begins. And it is of note again now, as the Heat enter the proceedings with as much uncertainty as any NBA operation.
In fact, what occurred Wednesday afternoon at the Soho Beach House, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh conducting their anticipated semi-formal meeting about free agency, was infinitely more material to Miami's ongoing championship chances than anything that occurs Thursday night.
This may be more valuable for us, for clue collection, than it is for the Heat, for talent collection.
After all, the most important person on the Heat's acquisition board is James, now that he's opted out, and can't officially re-sign until July 8. Between now and then, he's scheduled to attend his trainer's wedding and take his family on another vacation, but he'll also have his eyes on Heat headquarters.
And, while it's always dangerous to cater too much to a superstar's teammate preferences—more on this later—Miami has little choice at this point.
If James wants it, Riley must try to get it.
In that context, the ESPN.com report that the Heat were stalking Shabazz Napier, even if it meant including Norris Cole to move up from No. 26, made some sense. And it's not just because, at nearly 23 years old and with extensive big-game experience, Napier fits the profile of a ready-to-play prospect. James was so enamored with the Connecticut point guard that he tweeted his admiration back in April.
So, if the Heat take Napier, that's at least, in part, to send a signal to James that they value his opinion and are trying to accommodate his preference. But what if the Heat trade out of the first round entirely? They did so the last time they entered the evening with a first round selection, in 2012.
Well, that's a message of another sort.
Perhaps they just don't like anyone enough to pull the trigger there. Or perhaps they don't want to waste the cap hold (roughly $1 million) on an unproven prospect, when they could add that to the pile of cash that the Heat's star trio (and Udonis Haslem) may create by all opting out to extend their contracts and take lower 2014-15 salaries.
If Miami dumps No. 26 for a second-round choice and future considerations, it doesn't guarantee that Wade and Bosh have all agreed to join James in the opt-out club, or that all three have agreed to part with a healthy chunk of cash. But it makes you think that Miami thinks that something is in the works.
All of this—whether appealing to a superstar or clearing cap space for more veteran help—may not seem like a conventional approach to a draft. But this is the Riley way. He has customarily used his picks as chips, either to dump a bad contract or facilitate something grander (such as the sign-and-trade agreements for James and Bosh), and his current circumstances may compel him to do the same again. He's 69 years old, in a hurry to win again, and he'd prefer players closer to one-half or one-third, than one-quarter, his age.
Just listen to his line of thinking, when he was asked last Thursday about the risk of taking a young, skilled teenage big man.
"I think an 18, just-turned 19-year-old is risky as the top pick in the draft," Riley said. "I don't care who he is. Unless it was LeBron or Kevin Garnett or Moses Malone... Kobe (Bryant). There's about four guys in the history of the draft who came out of high school who were that young, who became superstars. Quite frankly, I wouldn't want to be in the lottery, I really wouldn't want to be, because it's a crapshoot...."
Riley spoke of preferring a "mature 25, 26, 27 year old guy," even if that guy had bounced around some.
"But because there is a draft and there is a lottery," Riley said. "And most of the kids are one-and-done kids, or maybe two years at the most, that you really don't know what you're gonna get, and how that's going to translate to the NBA."
It's not hard to figure out how that philosophy—wanting the tree and not the seeds—will translate into action.
Napier is nearly 23. Wichita State's Cleanthony Early already is. That would seem to make them viable Riley candidates, in the way that Wade (at 21) was, and in a way that Wright really wasn't, though Riley has tried just about everything once. (That includes foreign players, way back with Sasha Danilovic and Martin Muursepp, but after the latter misstep, Riley has run from overseas options.)
There's another consideration now, though, beyond whether a player fits the Riley profile. It's whether the players also complement James, enough to sweeten the Heat's pitch ever so slightly. And yes, as noted earlier, it can be tricky to trust a player's eye for talent, or his take on roster composition.
Michael Jordan may have been the greatest player of them all, but he wasn't much of an evaluator even before his extreme troubles as an executive or owner. Early in his Chicago career, he was angered by the Bulls' trade of his friend Charles Oakley for a player he called "Medical" Bill Cartwright. He realized his error later, after Cartwright helped him win his first three rings.
Kobe Bryant wanted the Lakers to trade Andrew Bynum before Bynum started on two championship teams; the rebuke of Bynum only looks better now as the center's knees, attitude and career have all fallen apart.
Wade was a proponent of the Heat drafting O.J. Mayo in 2008. That wouldn't have been much better than what the Heat did instead, taking Michael Beasley second overall, while Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Brook Lopez, among others, were still on the board.
James believes in his own basketball IQ to such an extent that he also believes he can identify great gifts in others. Perhaps his enthusiastic assessment of Ben McLemore during last year's draft will prove prophetic, even after McLemore had an uneven rookie season. Perhaps he will prove the scouts wrong, when most have Dante Exum, Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ennis ranked ahead of Napier at the point guard position.
But it almost doesn't matter.
Nor does it matter that the Heat could make moves Thursday that could look misguided if James ultimately leaves, and Riley really needs to go to a youth movement—the opposite of what occurred in 2004.
All that matters, for now, is giving James something close to what he wants, so, with another stroke of a pen, he does what the Heat need.
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