The Heat won't be the same without their heart and soul, but they still have a chance to be much better than advertised. With Chris Bosh reportedly returning on a five-year deal (per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski), Miami appears to have averted an immediate collapse.
The Heat also have something 29 other teams don't—namely Riley himself.
It was Riley's vision that brought James and Bosh to Miami in the first place, and that will also be the way he saves this franchise from total disaster.
Before embarking upon the next grand experiment, Riley's task will be to stop the bleeding.
His first order of business will be proving to Dwyane Wade that this isn't as bad as it looks. It's tempting to say, "Good luck with that," but a few short-term deals with the right free agents could convince Wade that the 2014-15 campaign won't be an entirely lost cause.
Yes, there will be a fair amount of starting over involved. But this is also an opportunity for Wade to return to the fore, to do the things that made him a superstar in the first place.
It's easy to confuse the Wade of late with a player who's declined, but it would be more apt to describe him as a player who's deferred. With James around, he had plenty of good reasons to do just that. Now he'll be liberated to operate as the primary scoring option.
He'll just need some help.
And some good fortune when it comes to his health.
In the long term, that help could come in any number of superstar forms—perhaps Kevin Love in 2015. Perhaps another disaffected big name will come out of the woodwork. It's too soon to make any firm predictions, but nothing can be ruled out either.
Though Wade wouldn't like it, there may be some sense in tanking away the 2014-15 season in order to secure a premium draft pick in 2015. If that pick doesn't fall among the top 10 selections, it belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers. So there's some incentive for the Heat to be really, really bad.
Should Miami draft its own star, it would have an affordable rookie contract on the books rather than the kind of max deal that top-shelf free agents will seek. In turn, such a prospect—along with Wade—might make it easier to recruit other elite free agents in the first place.
There's some danger that limited improvement (i.e. that requisite strategy for tanking) would turn Wade off and that he too would consider leaving, but that could be a risk Riley has to take. The worst thing he could do is overpay for second-tier talent in a bid to keep Wade happy.
Tempting as that might be from a short-term standpoint, it would all but guarantee that Miami becomes a middling franchise for the foreseeable future. Worse yet, it could limit the organization's financial flexibility to extricate itself from such a path.
If Miami is going to make strides, it may first have to take a step back.
And if Wade has enough faith in Riley, he'll stick around for the ride. Wade is already 32, but he could remain effective into his late 30s—especially if his minutes are carefully monitored for the remainder of his career, as they're likely to be.
In the event Wade decides to leave, this rebuild will pretty much run itself. Miami will be awful for one or two years, only to rise from the ashes with help from the draft and Riley's genius alike.
But let's assume Wade stays. This is the only franchise he's ever known, and he's become inextricably linked to it by now.
Signing another choice role player or two this season—e.g. Mo Williams or Trevor Ariza—would send the right message. Unless Wade is on board with tanking, that message will be crucial. It should signal that the organization is committed to laying a foundation upon which the next superstar coup can take place.
No, landing stars doesn't just happen. But few are better equipped than Riley to sell prospective talent on his operation—even if that didn't happen the last time Riley met with Mr. James himself.
It certainly worked the first time.
That's when Riley cemented his status as a master salesman.
Writing for The Plain Dealer in 2010, Windhorst recounted that Riley "packed up his seven championship rings, had his salary-cap specialists create displays to show how Florida taxes could save James money and brought along Alonzo Mourning to make an emotional pitch about how the team backed him up as he recovered from a kidney transplant."
That was the pitch in a nutshell.
Come to Miami, and we'll take care of you while winning plenty of titles. Come to Miami and build a legacy within a stable, professional environment.
The message is simple enough, and it's one that will resonate in the future just as much as it did in 2010. If anything, recent history has only served to prove Riley correct. His Heat have been immensely successful, as much because of the grand plan as any single component—including James.
Where would James have been without Ray Allen's iconic three-pointer in Game 6 of the NBA Finals? How far would he have gone without head coach Erik Spoelstra's calming influence throughout the down times (few though they were)?
Riley knows how to build a winner. He's done it before, and he'll do it again. Communicating that message to the next would-be centerpiece is a matter of time, a question of "when" more than "if."
As Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen put it in 2010, "James would not have come to Miami if not for Heat president Pat Riley. It is a certainty that only Riley—among all of the executives who were trying to recruit James while constructing championship rotations around—had the credibility to pull this off."
Credibility goes a long way in a business where most of the messaging sounds pretty monotonous. And that will be the case the next time a game-changing free agent considers Miami.
That said, such an option doesn't immediately present itself. Even Love would ostensibly prefer other situations to joining Wade in Miami.
So Riley will probably need to check some boxes off his to-do list in the meantime. That to-do list begins and ends with the acquisition of assets, young pieces that can either develop into in-house talent or serve as trade bait.
Every little bit helps. You never know when a second-round draft pick will materialize into something special.
It's what the Boston Celtics have been working toward since the dissolution of their own Big Three. And it's the journey Miami is about to embark upon as well.
A journey with one of the very best at the helm.
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