Miami Heat fans have had plenty to cheer about over the past several weeks. They went from a most uncertain future—the possibility losing their centerpiece Dwyane Wade to free agency and the prospects of having to completely rebuild their team from scratch, from the bottom up—to where they are now.
They went from agony to ecstasy over the course of 24 hours. First, learning that not only Wade would be returning, but would be joined by elite big man Chris Bosh. The biggest 'Decision' though, is what whipped them into delirium; LeBron James announcing to a nationwide audience of 10 million viewers that he would "be taking his talents to South Beach."
Pat Riley had succeeded in doing what other general managers could not, he signed the single greatest NBA free agent motherload the league had ever seen. To contracts at less-than-market prices, mind you.
Riley had assembled the NBA's newest super-team, and transformed the Miami Heat from also-ran to championship contender, essentially over night.
Taken individually, Wade, LeBron and Bosh are each top 10 NBA talents, with Wade and LeBron likely top three. Former Finals MVP Wade would now couple with reigning two-time regular season MVP LeBron to form the best swing-man combo the NBA may have seen since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Bosh, the all-time leading Toronto Raptor in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and minutes played will anchor this terrific threesome, adding frontcourt stability and an inside presence.
But was this the best three players that Riley could have put together?
The success that Riley has had in the NBA has been achieved coaching teams that were led by dominant centers, whether it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the Lakers showtime era in the '80s, coming oh so close to titles with the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks in the '90s, or coaching Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning most recently with the Heat.
In Chris Bosh, he has a very nice big man that puts up great numbers. He's an experienced scorer and excellent rebounder. However, he is less than dominant when compared to the Kareem/Ewing/Shaq level of dominance.
Riley had a chance to put together a truly great frontcourt tandem, something that other championship teams have had, most recently the Lakers with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but he passed.
Amar'e Stoudemire was the best player to compliment Wade and Bosh.
One could only imagine the headaches that a Stoudemire/Bosh frontcourt would have caused opposing teams. It would have arguably been the best center/forward twosome in the league, better even than the Gasol/Bynum frontcourt with the Lakers.
Riley himself has famously said, "no rebounding, no rings"—well a Stoudemire/Bosh starting lineup would have been excellent at rebounding, as well as scoring, and would have dominated the paint.
Most championship teams dominate the paint, Riley knows this better than anyone.
I don't blame Riley for bringing LeBron in. He is arguably the single best free agent player ever available. LeBron will power Heat marketing and sell seats for the duration of his contract.
The fact is though, Riley is bringing in a player in LeBron that played a similar role for the Cavaliers as Wade has played for the Heat.
It's like signing Derron Williams when you've already got Chris Paul.
Riley is definitely rolling the dice and hoping that there will be no ego problems. Riley is also hoping that who will be taking the last shot in close games will not be an issue.
As it stands with the Heat, both LeBron and Wade's roles will change. LeBron most likely will be taking more of a distributor role on Miami, Wade will surely see less possession time. How the two play off of each other will be the key to their success.
Since both of their games overlap so much, accepting complimentary roles at times, maybe even on alternating possessions, will be crucial.
LeBron is seen as taking the Pippen role to Wade's Jordan, or the Alex Rodriguez role to Wade's Derek Jeter. He is a player that has essentially acknowledged he was unable to win on his own. The way most people look at it is that LeBron is needing to come to Wade's team in order to get that elusive first title. That he is throwing up the white flag, and admitting defeat in trying to win a ring being the primary, dominant player.
Sacrifice sounds like a great way to win games in a team sport, but it doesn't translate to off the court marketing.
LeBron has experienced more criticism and bad publicity these past couple weeks than he's ever had. He's tainted his reputation by choosing to join Wade on the Heat. Over time, this will only increase the pressure on LeBron to exert himself, to place himself out in front, for "branding" reasons or otherwise, to make himself the focal point.
So, down the line, which player will get the last shot in close games?
LeBron knows that reaching the level of success he desperately craves can be attained only by being "The Man"—not a role player. The player hitting the clutch shots, the game winning shots, not the hustling role player.
It's Jordan that sells shoes, not Pippen.
Riley might have been shortsighted if he failed to acknowledge that this can become a possible problem. He's placed two top-dogs, or at least top-dog wannabes, on one squad playing a similar position with mostly a similar skill set.
This is something that could have been avoided entirely if Riley had instead signed Stoudemire. Furthermore, this would have allowed Wade to play his game unfettered and unchanged.
Erik Spoelstra is no Phil Jackson when it comes to sorting egos. Jackson successfully kept Kobe "restrained" within a triangle offense that featured Shaquille O'Neal as the focus. Can Spoelstra be expected to do the same if problems arise?
Riley is waiting in the wings, possibly eager to jump back into coaching much like he did when the Heat traded for Shaq in 2005 and he promptly replaced Stan Van Gundy only 21 games into the '05-06 season. Riley knows that winning a sixth title as head coach would serve to further cement his legacy and give him the credence to be mentioned with the best coaches behind Jackson and Red Auerbach.
Riley has been known to stroke his own ego at times. He had Jordan join him in a game last season against the Cleveland Cavaliers and orchestrated a meeting between LeBron and Jordan that many in Cleveland viewed as tampering.
Most recently, Riley gave an ego-driven response to a reporters question, stating that NBA general managers don't want him to come back and coach the Heat, insinuating his coaching would put them over the top. This was basically a warning-shot fired across Spoelstra's bow, who was sitting right next to him, and at the same time an ego boost for himself rolled into one reply.
Riley has had trouble in the past dealing with other ego-driven personalities and has gained a reputation of being unable to deal with star players. Most recently Alonzo Mourning stepping in and breaking up a confrontation between himself and Shaquille O'Neal.
Riley's age is also factor if he were thinking to take an active coaching role, him being even older than Phil Jackson, at age 65.
Overall, Riley is hinging overall Heat success on LeBron, banking that he can keep James controlled sufficiently. Will LeBron be able to suppress the need to demand the ball, to dominate possession at the end of close games, much like he did with the Cavaliers? Will LeBron overcome the inevitable feeling that in order to be "The Man" he needs to take the clutch shots? Can LeBron stymie the need to redeem himself in the eyes of NBA fans?
All these questions will be answered in the months and years ahead. If the "Big-Three" succeeds, Riley will be vindicated. However, if this team fails to win, NBA fans will be assessing what went wrong. The first place to lay blame would be at the feet of Riley, who assembled the flashiest team, the glitziest one, but not necessarily the best team.
Ultimately, it looks like they may have just picked the wrong complimentary player to their championship puzzle. Between LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire, they took flash and glitz over the best chance of winning.