In the summer of 2014, LeBron ended his sabbatical in the sun and returned to Cleveland. Naturally all of the focus and excitement turned to the Cavaliers as they assumed the title of heirs to the NBA throne.
The general opinion was that the Miami Heat would fade into insignificance and a future of lottery picks. Franchise hero, Dwyane Wade’s knees were shot, fellow All-Star Chris Bosh was expected to also head for the exit – to the greener grass of another title contender. For a while, it looked like the Heat were going to be on ice.
But we forgot about Pat Riley. As a coach and a GM, Riley has ensured sustained success in every role he has taken. In Los Angeles. In New Yok. And in Miami. How could we have underestimated a man who, to quote Jalen Rose, is one of the league's greatest 'Puppet-Masters'?
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Soon after James’ exit, Riley quickly set about convincing Bosh to stay and finding ways to fill a chasm so vast, it could only be have been created by of the most dominant player in a generation.
One step back, six steps forward
Although his best years appear to be behind him (though he still led the team in win shares last season), the arrival of GB’s Luol Deng provided the Heat with a savvy vet and some much-needed stability.
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Along the course of the 14-15 season, the Heat also acquired potent point guard Goran Dragic and plucked Hassan Whiteside from obscurity in one of the best pickups in recent memory.
Whilst the moves didn’t prevent the Heat from falling out of the playoff picture, they only missed the postseason by a single game. Oh and that was after Bosh was diagnosed with his first bout of blood clots that caused him to miss most of the second half of that season.
The re-build continued during the summer, with what many considered the steal of the 2015 draft, in Justise Winslow. Add to this, free agent Amare Stoudemire and undrafted youngster, Tyler Johnson and within a year of near decimation, the Heat were back as a respectable playoff contender. But Pat Riley is not content with respect. His burning desire to win is a fire you cannot extinguish.
Still got that Flash
In spite of being written off, Wade has been consistent, if not resurgent this season. It appears that the management program and minute restrictions, designed to protect his knees, are working. He’s played in 65 of the team’s 71 games so far and his per 36 averages of 22.5ppg, 4.9rpg and 5.5apg are within sniffing distance of his career averages.
Dreams of a deep playoff run were almost shattered again in February when Bosh was once again reported as a blood clot. He has since insisted he is not suffering from the same issue and is optimistic of a return this season.
The Heat have confirmed they will proceed with caution in dealing with such an issue, but providing all medical tests are passed, Bosh will likely suit up again in time for the Playoffs.
Losing an All-Star like Bosh is a massive blow for a rebuilding squad trying to gear up for a playoff run. So how do you bounce back from such a setback? Well across the 18 games Bosh has missed so far, the Heat have amazingly won all but six. Their run of form sees them sat in fifth spot in Eastern Conference, just one game back of third. Ok, let’s be fair, Miami have had some help with Bosh out…
When Joe Johnson cleared the waiver wire after being released by Brooklyn, he immediately became a target for several teams. In particular, LeBron was openly recruiting the 6-7 wing to join him in Cleveland on his quest to reach a sixth consecutive NBA Finals. But Joe turned “the King” down instead favouring Miami and the greater opportunity the team offered him to contribute - you can bet Riley got some enjoyment out of that.
Since arriving, Johnson has been revitalised by the Florida sun. The change of scene seems to be working and has seen his points jump from 11.8ppg to 14.3ppg. The Heat have accommodated him perfectly and now predominantly run with a small ball lineup of Dragic, Wade, Johnson, Deng and Stoudemire.
With this line up already giving opponents fits, including a recent 122 – 101 drubbing of LeBron and his Cavs. Don’t forget that Whiteside (the league leader in blocks) is lurking on the bench and Bosh is still to return.
Pat Riley and Miami, with little to no fanfare, have built a juggernaut that could challenge for a spot in the finals. Let’s not be mistaken here, this is a completely new team. In fact, all that remains of their 2014 Finals team is Wade, Bosh and Udonis Haslem.
Admittedly, had this squad had been put together 5-7 years ago, their ceiling would be much higher – but their potential is still fascinating. A core group of wily vets with significant playoff experience and hunger to win. Their championship window is slim though, as age waits for no man (well except Tim Duncan), so this team must have a win now mentality.
Yes, Florida is a very popular place for people to retire to, I know the comparisons you are drawing. However, you would be amiss to write this team off anywhere before the conference finals.
The Cavs, with the drama that continues to swirl around them, seem almost destined to implode. Toronto have yet to prove they can get out of the first round. So who does that leave?
Conveniently, the Heat have risen back to prominence just as two of the league’s biggest names hit free agency this summer. Could they lure Kevin Durant away from the Thunder? Yeah, maybe, maybe not. Or could they pull off the inconceivable and convince James to leave home for a second time? You’re thinking about it right?
And that’s why they call him the “Puppet-Master”. Touché Mr Riley. Touché