"This stuff is hard. And you got to stay together, if you've got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it," Riley said, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, putting the onus on his star players to buckle down and recommit at a time when spirits were lowest.
It was a shrewd move, one designed to put pressure on the Big Three by presenting them with two options: Fight or flight. Obviously, Riley hoped their competitive instincts would mean selecting the former.
Now, though, the Heat stars are tossing a challenge right back at Riley, making it clear that for them to buy in completely, he has to use this summer as one hell of a successful shopping trip.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, the Big Three will afford Riley "a window to recruit a supporting cast and close deals with them."
In other words, James, Wade and Bosh want to be sure they'll get more help than they got last year before officially re-upping with Miami. Wojnarowski also reported that the Big Three already have rough parameters for their own contracts in place, which give Riley a fair idea of how much spending power he'll have on the free-agent market.
"Everybody has their [contract] number and has left a little bit of room to let [Riley] maneuver," a source told Wojnarowksi.
Shifting responsibility back onto Riley is only fair. James and his pals held up their end of the bargain, getting Miami to the Finals in every season since coming together in 2010. As anyone who watched knows, it was the failure of the supporting cast that wore down James in the regular season and ultimately sank the Heat against the San Antonio Spurs.
Riley has never been one to shrink from a challenge, but you have to wonder if the Big Three laying down what feels very much like an ultimatum will work out in the end.
The Benefits of Pressure
We're all more productive with a deadline, and a little urgency never hurts either.
So while Wojnarowski's report doesn't quite portray the Heat's big guns as telling Riley "fix it, or else," it does raise the stakes on this summer's proceedings.
Riley has plenty of indications that the Big Three will all return, including Bosh's vacation during the negotiating period, James not attending meetings with other suitors and the simple decision to opt out by Wade.
All of those point toward maintenance of the status quo in Miami, but nothing's certain.
Perhaps Riley will be motivated in an unfamiliar way. After all, things have been pretty darn comfortable for him and the Heat over the past four years. If the challenge laid down by James and Co. forces him to improve on the substandard personnel evaluation that brought on the likes of Greg Oden and Michael Beasley last season, it can only be a good thing.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst reports the Heat have been telling free agents they have around $12 million to spend this summer, and John Canzano of The Oregonian provided some actual numbers for Wade and Bosh—numbers that represented major pay cuts but were summarily debunked by the agent for Miami's secondary stars:
Agent Henry Thomas, on report clients Bosh & Wade will take $12M/per & $11M/per, respectively: "all the BS you are reading is just that."— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) July 1, 2014
Whatever the numbers ultimately are, it seems we can reliably conclude the Heat are all on the same page. There probably are salary figures out there to which everyone involved with Miami have agreed, and Riley knows it's up to him to make sure contracts get signed on July 10.
Given his track record of confidence and success, we should probably expect Riley to relish this challenge. And if he meets it by reeling in a couple of huge names, we shouldn't be surprised.
Gumming Up the Works
Then again, other teams are watching the Heat, and they all know the conditions under which Riley is working. Competitors, particularly in the East, could try to take advantage of the pressure applied by the Big Three.
How? By being more aggressive with targets Riley and the Heat covet.
Teams like the Toronto Raptors, who figured to make a strong push to retain Kyle Lowry in the first place, might be willing to overpay him significantly if doing so also increases the likelihood that the Heat might disband.
That's the implied consequence of Riley not bolstering the supporting cast, isn't it?
There's been incredible interest in Luol Deng from the very outset of free agency too, which isn't surprising because he's a great competitor who will help whichever team he lands on. But couldn't that supercharged interest also stem—in some small measure—from the fact that he's believed to be among Miami's key targets, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel?
Luol Deng is right there in the popularity contest: I'm told Miami, Dallas, Atlanta, Lakers, Clippers and Chicago have registered interest.— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) July 1, 2014
Kyle Lowry and Luol Deng believed to be Miami's top two free-agent targets. Neither, though, seems especially attainable for Riles and Co.— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 1, 2014
Sure, it sounds far-fetched.
It's hard enough for teams to navigate free agency without working toward the additional goal of muddling up the Heat's plans. But when you sit back and look at how wide open the East could be without the Heat and their unassailable supremacy, you really can't rule out how much other teams might be motivated to throw up roadblocks for Riley.
Look, the Heat have things other teams can't offer: a chance to play with a star-studded core led by James and an almost certain ticket at least as far as the conference finals, to name two. Those selling points have been attractive to free agents in the past, and they should allow the Heat to make bargain acquisitions again.
If a motivated Riley can snag some help by leveraging Miami's built-in advantages, the pressure applied by the Big Three will have paid off.
If he can't, it's possible we'll see the entire league turned upside down as James, Wade and Bosh reconsider their plans.
Your move, Riles.