No NBA team with championship expectations can subsist on superstars alone. Even the Miami Heat—with their big-name Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—might well have fallen short of snagging the Larry O'Brien Trophy in each of the past two years without the proper supporting cast.
Think of the spark Chris Andersen lent the Heat in pushing their 2012-13 regular season from merely good to historically great. Think of Mike Miller's three-point barrage in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Think of Udonis Haslem's 8-of-9 shooting nights against the Indiana Pacers in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Think of Ray Allen's miraculous three to save the Heat from ceding the throne to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of this year's Finals and Shane Battier's outburst to seal the deal in Game 7.
The superstars still did the heavy lifting, but it's the little guys who put the Heat over the top. And it's in those contributions from the little guys that Pat Riley's brilliance as a builder of champions truly comes to light.
Not that there doesn't remain reason enough to marvel at Riles' free-agency coup from the summer of 2010. After all, it's not every dayan executive comes along who can convince three perennial All-Stars to sacrifice some of their on-court earning potential in order to sign with the same team. Heck, you'd be hard-pressed to find another front-office tycoon with the vision and the cojones to clear out his team's roster to the extent that Riley did ahead of luring LeBron and Bosh to join Wade on South Beach.
Nor should we discount the role of luck in all of this. Pat's plan could've just as easily soured to some extent had his pitch to LeBron not panned out. There were also questions about the wisdom of signing an aging Shane Battier to a three-year deal back in the summer of 2011, using money that would seem to have been better spent on a quality big man to shore up Miami's thin front line.
As it happens, Battier turned out to be the perfect fit for this team. It was Battier whose ability to knock down threes and willingness to body up against bigger, stronger foes on defense enabled Erik Spoelstra to experiment more freely with "small ball" after Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal injury during the 2012 playoffs. A selfless "glue guy" through and through, Battier became not only a brainy leader in the locker room, but also an integral part of Miami's unorthodox strategy.
And all for just over $3 million per season. Granted, Riley might not have so easily convinced Battier to take such a steep pay cut (he earned more than $7 million with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2010-11) without the Big Three already in place.
The same could be said of Riley's pursuit of Ray Allen last summer. The Boston Celtics reportedly offered Allen a two-year, $12 million—nearly twice the value of the $6.3 million deal on the table from Miami—for another go-round with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo.
The C's had come so close to knocking off the Heat in the 2012 Eastern Finals. They'd taken a 3-2 lead in the series, and if not for LBJ's 45-point Game 6 bonanza in Boston, the Celtics might have snuck their way into a matchup with the Thunder thereafter.
But the Heat wound up with the upper hand and the championship charm that came with it. Moreover, Riley had something to offer Ray that the C's had long ceded: a sense of belonging. As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports detailed upon Allen's switching of allegiances, the sweet-shooting swingman had tired of the trade rumors and the demotions that had marred what turned out to be his last hurrah in Beantown.
Allen wanted to feel, well, wanted and respected again. Riley and the Heat gave him that and in turn, he delivered them from the brink of elimination against the Spurs.
Miami's role players haven't always come so cheaply, though. After securing signatures from his titanic trio in 2010, Riley doled out some hefty mid-level dough to bring in Mike Miller (five years, $29 million) and retain Udonis Haslem (five years, $20.3 million).
These are the sorts of long-term contracts that have contributed to many a team's demise in years past and are all but extinct in today's NBA, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement. Both Miller and Haslem were on the wrong side of 30 when they signed those deals. Each also missed significant time due to injury during the three seasons immediately thereafter.
But while Riles likely overpaid for their services, he ultimately got out of them exactly what he needed. Miller's 23-point explosion sealed Miami's title in 2012, and his contributions as a small-ball starter in place of a struggling Shane Battier helped to keep the Heat afloat during the 2013 Finals. Haslem, on the other hand, turned in four double-digit scoring efforts and two double-doubles during the 2012 playoff run and provided some much-needed production against a stout Pacers defense this past spring.
The Heat have already parted ways with Miller via the amnesty clause. Haslem has two more years left on his contract and isn't likely to leave his hometown team (and the only NBA squad he's ever known) by choice.
Chris Andersen should be around through the end of the 2014-15 season as well. He re-upped with the Heat on a two-year deal worth a shade under $3 million at the start of this year's free-agency period.
That may not seem like much in NBA terms, but for Birdman, any guarantee should be considered a significant step in the right direction. This time last year, Andersen was out of basketball and under investigation as part of a "catfishing" scandal that Jon Wertheim recently detailed for Sports Illustrated. Not until this past January, when the 2012-13 season was already well underway, did Riley pull Birdman off of the scrapheap with the first of two 10-day contracts.
Riley's gambit couldn't have worked out much better than it did. Birdman was just the sort of athletic, two-way big man with a sure set of hands that Miami needed to fill out its front line. Better yet, his infectious energy gave the Heat the concentrated shot in the arm off the bench that they needed to refocus on the task at hand.
The result? Two weeks after Andersen signed, the Heat kicked off a streak of 27 straight wins, the second-longest in NBA history. Birdman wasn't always smart or effective come playoff time, as his clash with Tyler Hansbrough made clear. But his contributions in the Finals, particularly on the defensive end, were nonetheless critical to Miami's eventual triumph.
Birdman will be far from the only salvage case on hand when the Heat open training camp on October 1. He'll be joined by two of Riley's shrewd (and only) pickups of the summer: Greg Oden and Michael Beasley.
Oden arrived in Miami by way of a one-year veteran's minimum contract. The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft hasn't set foot in a professional game since December 5, 2009 on account of his historically hobbled knees.
There's no telling yet whether Oden will be healthy enough to contribute in any capacity. But if he is, Oden could be just the sort of big man, with the size and strength to defend and rebound and the skill and soft touch to score from time to time, that the Heat need to fend off advances from frontcourt-heavy clubs like the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls.
Either way, there won't be any pressure on Oden from Riley and the rest of the organization to be a major contributor. The Heat already have the pieces in place to get the three-peat. A functional Oden, one stepping in for 15 to 20 minutes a game, would merely be added insurance, a layer of icing on an already formidable cake.
Beasley, meanwhile, will be attempting to work his way into Riley's good graces by making the most of a training camp invite. Beasley's career has hit the skids since Riley sent him to the Minnesota Timberwolves in order to clear more cap space for the Big Three in 2010. The Phoenix Suns, who signed Beasley for $18 million over three years in July 2012, opted to eat the rest of his salary last month following the troubled forward's latest run-in with the law.
Now, Beasley returns to South Beach, where he spent his first two years as a pro after the Heat made him the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft. A winning environment replete with veteran leadership could be just what the doctor ordered for Beasley's flailing career. So, too, could a lack of leverage; Beasley's deal isn't guaranteed and, like Oden, he's stepping into an established situation, of which he is little more than a potential peripheral part.
But if Beasley's fit and has his head screwed on properly, his young legs, top-notch athleticism and versatility on both ends of the floor could be a boon to Miami's strong bench.
And all because Riles saw fit to take a chance on him.
In truth, none of these moves are beyond the realm of the obvious. Miller and Allen both joined Miami as superb three-point shooters, the latter historically so. Haslem is a Heat lifer. Battier is a winner, in the most cliché sense of the word. Andersen, Oden and Beasley were all low-risk, high-reward signings. Oden, in particular, had been hotly pursued by a slew of likely title contenders, while Beasley's existing rapport with Riles probably made it that much easier for the two to join forces again.
But, obvious or not, these moves required someone to make them. These players needed someone to sell them on sacrificing salary for success in South Beach. In the latter three cases, they had to have someone overlook what they were or had been and to envision what they could be when dropped into a context built around LeBron, Wade and Bosh.
Pat Riley has been that someone. If the Heat defend their crown again in 2014, with Oden and Beasley playing alongside the likes of Battier, Haslem, Allen and Birdman, Riles' historic reputation as a molder of champions will only grow.
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