When it comes to NBA executives, few are more respected and none close harder, faster or better than longtime Miami Heat President Pat Riley—a man who could sell a ketchup ice pop to a woman in white gloves, bacon to a pig and a bucket of saltwater to a deep-sea fisherman over one martini lunch.
Riley tried, of course—booked a flight to Las Vegas for one last-ditch pitch to James and his representatives on July 9, per Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver.
To no avail. By all accounts, James had already made up his mind. The prodigal son was going home.
Four years ago, when LeBron first tested the NBA waters, Riley’s pitch all but wrote itself: Join up with two of your close friends—fellow phenoms from the same draft class—down here where sun and sand meet the sea.
Having a collective bargaining agreement more conducive to superstar pairings made the case a whole lot easier, to be sure. Especially when all three agree to the kind of discounts Miami’s troika took.
After two titles and three straight trips to the NBA Finals, Riley rounding out the roster all the while, it seemed impossible to think James would take his talents still elsewhere.
But then the 2014 Finals happened. Revenge fully exacted in five quick games by the San Antonio Spurs, the Heat entered the offseason awash in whos, hows and whats. Would the Big Three take yet another pay cut? Either way, would Riley be better at picking the fruits out at the free-agent fringes?
In signing Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts and drafting Shabazz Napier—the University of Connecticut standout over whom James had openly fawned—Riley was surely operating under the assumption that Miami had a heavyweight puncher’s chance of convincing his cornerstone to stick around.
Perhaps these are moves Riley would’ve made regardless of James’ decision. Perhaps he was being naive, willfully blind to the writing on the wall well before it was put to pixels.
However, judging by a June 19 press conference—featuring the following line from what Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick called "a sweeping six-minute soliloquy"—Riley had to be preparing for the worst:
I think we need to have a perspective about things. I think everybody needs to get a grip—media, Heat players, organization, all of our fans—we got to get a grip on greatness and on teams. I've been here for 45 years in the NBA, and I've witnessed dynasties, I've witnessed great teams. The '80s Lakers, five championships in 12 years. So what does that mean? Seven times they didn't win. In that run, they didn't win. You got to deal with it, you got to come back.
According to Skolnick, the "get a grip" dig didn't exactly go over well with James. Whether such sentiment was purely a product of James having already made up his mind, we'll likely never know.
Riley wasn’t just competing with prodigal parables and PR perfection, though. For all their recent struggles, the Cavaliers are just the kind of team an 11-year veteran superstar should consider: young, flexible and with upside for days.
Still, not everyone appreciated the wisdom—be it strategic or psychic—in James taking the homebound plunge. Here’s All U Can Heat’s Ryan Smith:
How James could return to such a situation is beyond me, even if it is “home.” To say that his decision went far beyond the game of basketball (as he so suggested) seems irrational to say the least. LeBron James is fighting for his place amongst the all-time greats in NBA history and is currently in the prime of his career. He doesn’t have time to wait for young players to develop, or for an organization to rotate coaches in and out year after year.
The Miami Heat gave James the best chance to win now because of the roster and the best chance to win in the future because of the stability throughout the organization from top to bottom. I honestly believe that LeBron was clouded in his decision to leave the Miami Heat and his decision was influenced solely on non-basketball related issues.
Save for a few young rotational regulars, the Heat simply couldn’t offer that—at least not right away.
Riley never had a chance. Not with this much salvation at stake, not with the heartache LeBron left in his wake. Miami was LeBron’s rightful Rumspringa—a chance to live and work and play in a place tailor-made for 25-year-old ways.
Indeed, James said as much in his announcement letter, relayed to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins:
Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.
Reading LeBron’s letter, it’s impossible not to think this was the plan all along: to silence the ring-counters enough to lighten the pressure whenever he decided to return.
Whether or not Riley was privy to James’ emotional designs, it’s impossible to say.
Convincing James to balk on the best redemption story the league has ever seen? Impossible to do.
The LeBron James Riley courted in 2010 was desperate—desperate to win over not just banners to Miami’s rafters but the countless fans for whom this supposed king would never amount to anything more than a pretender to the throne.
Riley helped make that happen. For that, he deserves credit as a kingmaker.
But four years can be a long time for a living legend. It can harden your heart or harden your will, mature or madden you, love or numb you, win or lose you. In the four years between 2010 and 2014, LeBron James won two championships, three MVP awards and secured his place amongst the NBA’s all-time greats. He’d even managed to mend burned bridges, his brilliance now too obvious for even the most heart-hardened victims of “The Decision” to ignore.
In James, Riley was wielding a double-edged sword: one steady and sharp enough to fell a thousand foes but too sharp to hold once it gained a mind of its own.
Miami will eventually make it back—bringing back two of the Big Three and netting a trio of titles in less than 10 years all but assures it. And barring boredom or health, Riley will be there to see the fourth through.
That he has to do it without the King might make it harder. Just not near so much as it would've been to keep him from his rightful kingdom.