Ira Winderman: Pat Riley has moved from ‘obstacles’ to a Heat foundation

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — There are times with Miami Heat President Pat Riley that require reading between the lines.

A year ago, at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, Riley said at AmericanAirlines Arena of his capped-out team’s outlook, “There’s no obstacles. Well, there are tons of them, but there’s none.”

Two months later, Jimmy Butler was added.

Flash forward a year later, amid a season that may or may not be over, and Riley noted of the team’s roster, “We feel confident that the cupboard is full.”

Such is the difference between the conclusion of a 39-43 lottery season and the 41-24 record that stands in limbo as the No. 4 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

A year ago, Riley knew something had to change, even if the means for change were not immediately apparent.

“It was a some-of-the-time thing,” he said in April 2019 of the roster that featured Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters and James Johnson, “and sometimes it was a none-of-the-time thing.”

Now there seemingly is a desire to see this through, even if that means not fully realizing the result until next season.

In dealing Justise Winslow, Johnson and Waiters at the Feb. 6 NBA trading deadline for Andre Iguodala, Solomon Hill and Jae Crowder, Riley made clear it was about living in the moment, swapping Winslow’s 24-year-old promise for Iguodala’s 36-year-old immediacy.

In the wake of that trade, Riley said, “You know me. I’m all about now.”

Then, in his first expansive comments since the NBA’s March 11 shutdown, Riley essentially doubled down by emphasizing, “I don’t have much patience.”

Over the course of his quarter-century stewardship of the franchise, Riley has paused his makeover clock to afford specific alignments their opportunity.

The Alonzo Mourning-Tim Hardaway pairing couldn’t get over the hump, with the Heat moving on to something different.

The Dwyane Wade-Shaquille O’Neal team was packaged with a limited expiration date.

The Big Three of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh ultimately was on LeBron’s timetable.

The Waiters-Johnson-Whiteside trio had but a single moment in time.

And now this group, one significantly augmented at the trading deadline, a team good enough to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, one that has stood toe to toe with the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors.

Then coronavirus and COVID-19.

And now consternation that the end result won’t come this season.

But also the reality that in some form and at some time, there will be free agency. And even then, keeping the gang together won’t be as simple as re-upping with Crowder, Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard and Derrick Jones Jr., even with the ability to exceed, with Bird Rights, the salary cap with each.

Because each could want more than the Heat offer in terms of both dollars and years.

So while physical exercise largely remains on hold, the mental calisthenics have begun.

“Free agency, that’s up in the air,” Riley said. “We don’t even know when that’s going to happen. Right now, it’s July 1, and so Andy (Elisburg, the Heat general manager) and I are probably doing more machinations on the probabilities.

“You have to remember, we have six or seven free agents ourselves. But we also have nine other players that are under contract and are guys that we really like. So we’ll sort of just create possibilities, what can possibly happen. We don’t know what the cap number really is going to be, but we feel confident that the cupboard is full.”

He then expanded on “full” just as he did on “obstacles” a year ago.

“What I mean by full is that we do have a lot of very good young players, that have proven that they can play at a really high level in this game. And they’re fearless,” he said of a 26-and-under base of Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Jones. “And, yes, we’re very concerned about our impending free agents. We like all of our players. So that when we get to that time, we will know what direction we want to go in and we want to build.”

Last offseason, Riley flipped his house, parting with Whiteside and Josh Richardson and losing Wade to retirement, after previously letting go of Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Rodney McGruder.

This time, the semantics indicate something closer to minor renovations, a foundation seemingly secured, the only obstacles the unknown of what comes next for the NBA.


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