Miami Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley is nothing short of an NBA icon—thanks, in large part, to his success in the 1980's with the Los Angeles Lakers. Long before he ushered the Miami Heat into a dynasty of their own, he'd already won four championships as a head coach in L.A.
Less ambitious personalities might have been satisfied with that, but Riley is driven. He lives to win.
Just how famous is Riley? Imagine this: On a team led by the greatest basketball player on the planet, there's still a very real sense in which Riley is the face of the franchise. That should tell you something. Riley remains in the spotlight, as vocal as ever despite having stepped away from the sidelines.
His counterpart with the San Antonio Spurs is—by comparison—a total mystery. General manager R.C. Buford does talk to the media from time to time, but the average fan would have a tough time picking him out of a crowd. He works for a small-market organization and doesn't exactly crave attention.
Nor does he have any of the trademark signs that define Riley: no slicked-back hair or perfect tan. By all accounts, he doesn't have any trademarks, either. Riley does: "The Heat president owns four trademarks to the varying versions of the phrase 'Three-Peat,'" according to ESPN.com's Darren Rovell.
To be sure, Riley is as much about substance as he is about style. And the differences between the way these two men operate are more than skin deep.
Nevertheless, they've both managed to be extremely successful. Outside of the Los Angeles Lakers, it's been the Heat and Spurs who've defined the post-Jordan era. As you might suspect, their respective front offices have had a lot to do with it.
The Decision didn't just happen. It was the result of careful long-term planning. It was also the product of painfully prudent fiscal management. In the years leading up to LeBron James' free agency, Miami avoided long-term contracts at all costs—even accepting a less competitive team in order to take on minimal financial burden.
The opportunity to build upon the club's 2006 title would have to wait.
It was the kind of all-or-nothing gamble that less fearless leaders would have struggled to make. There was a chance James and Bosh would spurn the Heat. There was even a chance that Dwyane Wade would dart to Chicago.
Writing for Cleveland's The Plain Dealer in 2010, Brian Windhorst outlined Riley's strategy:
It was a risk to mess with Wade as he headed for his own free agency, but Riley had been watching and doing research. He knew the three wanted to play together, and he knew he had a glamour destination to offer, a history of success and Wade. Riley crunched the numbers and thought he could get close to clearing three maximum salary spots to sign all three, or at least get so close that he could sell it.
He got close enough to pull off the major score. In addition to the weather and the city's attractions for young, rich athletes, Riley knew the lack of a state income tax in Florida could help him sell it.
Per Windhorst, Riley subsequently orchestrated a meeting between James, Michael Jordan and himself when the Cleveland Cavaliers were in Miami. It wasn't to meet about free agency, certainly not officially. That would have qualified as tampering.
Instead, according to Windhorst, "During the meeting, Riley talked to James about how more modern players should pay homage to Jordan. Riley always had led this effort, retiring Jordan's No. 23 in the rafters at AmericanAirlines Arena even though Jordan never played in Miami."
It was a good time to get James thinking on the subject of legacies. Someone with that much potential to be like Mike should have some championship tools at his disposal. That would become a distinct possibility in Miami, more so than it had in Cleveland.
If the meeting is any insight into Riley's calculative capabilities, we can conclude this much: The man is a master manipulator in the best-possible sense. A meeting with Jordan to talk about greatness of historic proportions? That's not just bringing out the big guns; it's whipping out a tank.
The official presentation designed to lure James was pretty spiffy, too. Windhorst recounts:
[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.
It was also made known to James that the Heat would take care of his friends the same way the Cavs did -- special treatment at the arena, changing practice and travel schedules to allow for money-making late-night parties in various cities, and perhaps even hiring a James associate in a high-paying position in the organization.
Riley's charisma probably didn't hurt. His years' worth of experience coaching players means he understands players. If he could reach someone like Magic, he could reach James. This wasn't just about bribing a superstar with the trappings of real superstardom. This was about communicating a vision—and no one was better equipped to do that than Riley.
After the Decision, Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen concluded, "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."
Two more titles later, what Riley pulled off has come into ever-greater focus. This wasn't just a coup for the ages. It was the birth of a dynasty.
R.C. Buford was finally named NBA Executive of the Year after San Antonio's dominant 2013-14 campaign.
The Spurs have never really been in a position to recruit premium free agents. Even when they've tried to bring in secondary talent—think Caron Butler—they've often failed. It's hard to sell superstars on a team concept that really doesn't believe in superstars. Minutes, and the production that comes therewith, aren't guaranteed.
Coming to this team means accepting head coach Gregg Popovich's way of doing things, and that's not everyone's cup of tea.
As much as Popovich is respected around the league, most star egos are too big to fit into his program.
Then there's San Antonio, a destination that doesn't quite have that South Beach ring to it. No one is coming here for the Riverwalk. And while it's a fine city in which to raise a family, it has neither spotlight nor nightlife.
If you're looking to join a super-team in Texas, the Houston Rockets pretty much have the market cornered.
So it goes without saying that Buford and Co. had to find another way.
And they did.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski recently described San Antonio's front-office procedure aptly:
Buford drafted Ginobili with the 57th pick, and he became a Hall of Famer. They drafted Tony Parker with the 28th pick and hoped he could become a starting guard. He turned out to be an All-Star and an NBA Finals MVP.
Buford and Popovich are two of the greatest roster builders in NBA history, because they're forever finding the perfect blend of talent – the shooters and passers to make the system go, to make a symphony out of squeaking sneakers. They rummage through the bargain bins and Goodwill, finding the missing parts and reboot them as Spurs. They see a lottery pick dropping on draft night [Kawhi Leonard] and make a play that changes everything for the franchise.
When you think about all the teams that passed on Parker and Ginobili, it gives you some sense of how good Buford and his staffs have been.
In addition to finding talent that others overlooked, he's found the right talent. As good as Riley has been at getting what he wants, there's something uniquely virtuous about how Buford and Co. have decided what they want in the first place. He knows that players like LeBron might leave a place like San Antonio behind.
But that's neither Parker's style nor Ginobili's. While they too have had plenty of opportunities to win, sticking around has still required a lot of trust on their parts. Maintaining that culture has required Buford to find guys who buy into the Spurs' culture.
You can't fault Riley for making the most of what he's had at his disposal. If you can get someone like James or Bosh to sign with your team and make runs at multiple titles, of course you do exactly that.
All the same, there's something admirable about the job Buford's done. Despite the confines within which he's had to work, he's assembled winner after winner.
Even ring-chasing role players are a rare commodity in San Antonio. There's been Robert Horry and Michael Finley—and Tracy McGrady in 2013—but by and large, this team's supporting cast is comprised of internally developed youngsters like Danny Green, Tiago Splitter or Patty Mills.
The only decision in San Antonio that's ever approximated LeBron's "Decision" was the one made by Tim Duncan in 2000—profiled beautifully by Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. Duncan almost left the Spurs for the Orlando Magic, ostensibly to join forces with Grant Hill and build a star-driven project sure to produce a Disney-like fairytale ending.
That never happened, and the rest is history—a history with R.C. Buford's fingerprints all over it.
The Heat and Spurs both find themselves at potentially critical junctures this summer, a fact that surely hasn't been lost on Riley or Buford. The members of Miami's Big Three could conceivably opt out of their contracts if any believes his chances of winning a title are actually better elsewhere.
Riley hopes that doesn't happen, according to USA Today's Adi Joseph:
We feel we have the best organization in the league for those players to stay, and to also attract others to want to come here. With our three guys, we hope that this turns into a generational team. And that it's not just we're at the end of this four-year run right now because players have some options this summer.
He continued: "It would be very hard for me to think anybody would walk away from the possibility of making this a long-term happening that can go for 10 or 12 years. But you never know. You just don't know."
If anyone could survive a departure of epic proportions, it's Riley. If there's one thing he and Buford have in common, it's patience and appreciation for the bigger picture. Whatever happens, Riley will have contingency plans. And, of course, he'll have a vision.
Meanwhile, Buford may be facing the end of the Tim Duncan era. If it doesn't happen now, it will happen soon enough. The 38-year-old still looks spry, but the real variable is how interested he is in continuing to play. Should the Spurs win the title this season, it's easy to see Duncan wanting to go out on a high note. Moreover, his incentive to go through another 82-game grind (plus playoffs) would be significantly reduced.
Ginobili's retirement isn't all that far off, either.
San Antonio could get another five good years out of Parker, and 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard is showing signs that he'll indeed become one of the franchise's principal faces.
But Parker and Leonard alone won't keep this team in the title conversation. That means Buford will have to pull some more rabbits out of his hat—perhaps via trades like the one that netted Leonard, perhaps via improbable draft steals like the ones that produced Parker and Ginobili.
In the end, the faces will change, but the principles won't.
The Spurs will look to cultivate role players, integrate them into a system and see what happens when it all comes together. The Heat will attempt to keep the Big Three together for as long as possible, while remaining prepared to target external talent in the event that something goes awry.
We know the Spurs don't like to make many changes. They don't make many trades; they don't reshuffle the roster more than they need to. Life after Duncan will require the organization to do some things it's not very accustomed to doing.
As it turns out, that belief in institutional knowledge isn't entirely unique to San Antonio. Riley is a big fan of minimizing change as well. He explained as much in an interview with IndexUniverse's Drew Voros:
I've always tried to establish continuity, even when I went to New York, and now I’ve been here for 19 years.
Players see the continuity. And you can sell family. You can sell the fact that the culture is one of people who don’t want to leave. They get promoted. The two head coaches that I’ve had since I’ve been here were assistant coaches for me. They worked a long time just laboring away. Then one day I called their name, and they were the next in line to be the head coach. Continuity goes a long way in being successful as an organization.
Despite their differences, there are important similarities between these two franchises—cultures of continuity among them.
When it comes time to face the ends of these respective eras, at least one thing will remain the same. Riley and Buford will again do what they do best.
Even if they do it slightly differently.