MIAMI — Pat Riley has won accolades, admirers and hundreds of games during his more than four decades as an NBA player, coach and executive. But as the league and society have evolved, he has lost some stuff, too.
Little has changed the game for him quite like the loss of control.
Riley used to rail about the "peripheral opponents" that competitors needed to block out to be their very best, and no other NBA figure mastered media manipulation quite like he did. No one kept the seal on information so tight, in order to keep every possible plan of action on course.
But the peripheral opponents multiply much too quickly in the modern media age, taking the form of rumors, sources, tweets and blogs that tip off competitors to his intentions in a way that subjects them to sabotage.
"It's very difficult when everybody knows that you're zeroing in on somebody," the weary Heat president said just after 1 a.m. Friday morning.
It's very difficult when everyone knows—largely due to a pre-draft ESPN report—that you're targeting the most recent NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, as well as the object of LeBron James' affection, and you're doing so while selecting in the No. 26 slot in the first round.
It's very difficult when teams are aware you see Shabazz Napier as a perfect fit for your system due to his competitiveness, big-game experience, pick-and-roll prowess and shooting touch—especially when you have limited assets to acquire all of those attributes.
"You can't keep anything (inside) anymore," Riley said.
"We used to be able to work guys out and nobody ever knew about it. Go visit guys and nobody ever knew about it. I mean, I was under two olive trees in an SUV with blacked-out windows, trying to get in the facility.
"It's just sort of funny, it's humorous, but it's where we are in today's world that you just can't keep things quiet and private and try to get some work done and do your due diligence without all of a sudden it getting out—and that could hurt us in this process. So that's just the way it is."
It is, and it will only get worse, but that made it all the more impressive and significant that Riley got his man anyway by trading up two slots with Charlotte and tossing in a couple of second-round picks.
He can't change the times, but apparently he can still adapt to them. Even if James didn't directly influence him to draft Napier, surely LeBron took note of Riley's guts and skill in maneuvering to add a player. And surely, that can't hurt as James considers whether Riley will be capable of doing the same again in the veteran market, when free agency opens.
Thursday evening, the draft didn't fall as Riley expected ("a little bit out of whack," he said), so he knew he couldn't wait. He and his Heat helpers (Adam Simon, Chet Kammerer and others) worked the phones, feeling "like you're on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange," and feeling energized and a little queasy at the same time as he encountered what he jokingly called "extortion."
"We wanted this player," Riley said. "I fell more in love with him the closer we got to the pick, and I didn't want to get left at the altar."
So he did what he has typically done.
"Even if you have a bad hand, just go all-in and take it," Riley said.
That's what he did, giving up two assets, albeit modest ones, to grab Napier before someone else did.
Why did he want Napier so badly?
Some will certainly trace it back to James' tweet during the Final Four, the one in which the four-time MVP gushed about the UConn point guard.
Now James is a free agent, first having declared that the Heat needed to upgrade at every position and then opting out of his contract—before teammates Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade—in anticipation of Riley filling some of the Heat's holes.
Riley insisted, however, that James didn't call him "or make a point to me about anything," and that, in fact, James never has.
"The point is, if LeBron and I have the same taste in talent, so be it," Riley said.
If their interests align in this case, all the better for the Heat. Napier certainly fits the profile of a Riley player in terms of maturity, intelligence and durability (playing an NCAA-high 1,404 minutes last season).
"Winner," Riley said. "He's a winner. I think he's a winner, and he's talented and he's skilled. You have to watch him play the game, and you see there's a competitive level that we all liked."
He also would appear to fit the Heat's current offensive structure, declaring on a conference call with reporters that he is "super comfortable" playing off the ball. That is a necessity for Heat point guards, as Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole both know. So is shooting ability, and Napier made 40.5 percent of his three-point attempts as a senior, albeit from the shorter stripe.
Riley was able to acquire Napier without giving up Cole, the only veteran on the roster who doesn't have the power to opt out, and he said that Napier and Cole would compete. Where does that leave Mario Chalmers?
"Mario's a free agent, so we got to deal with that," Riley said. Thus, the entrance of one NCAA tournament hero may expedite the departure of another.
There's also still a chance that Miami goes hard after Toronto's Kyle Lowry, with Cole's contract one of the casualties. Cole and Chalmers have played nine NBA seasons between them, and while Napier's four years at UConn can't quite compare, at least he'll come in more prepared than the average rookie.
"I want to win now," Riley said. "And we all want to win now. We're in the present moment. The more maturity that you get, experience you can get, the better off you are. It happened one time when we turned down a four-year player and took a very, very young player. And so you remember those things."
He was likely referencing 2004, when he took Dorell Wright over Jameer Nelson, and then sent Wright to the end of the bench when he traded for Shaquille O'Neal and accelerated the championship chase. This time, there's no need to make a major trade to contend for the title. He just needs to retain James, Bosh and Wade, ideally at lower average salaries, so he can add another piece.
Not everything is under his control.
But as he just showed LeBron James again, that alone won't necessarily stop him.
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