Can Riley get the Heat over the hump?
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Pat Riley knew exactly what he was doing when he rebuilt the Miami Heat's roster this past summer. He was putting together a team that he wanted to coach.
Stan Van Gundy, who resigned suddenly on December 12th, did an excellent job for the Heat in his two-plus seasons as their general. He led them to the second round of the playoffs in 2004 and to the Eastern Conference finals in 2005. Van Gundy, despite rumblings that he was pushed out, did say he wanted to spend more time with his family.
"This has been going on for six weeks," Van Gundy said at the press conference announcing his resignation. "I talked to Pat for the first time after the second game of the year, and Pat's basically spent the last six weeks trying to convince me to think about it more and more...to make sure that's really what I wanted to do."
Van Gundy, who was an assistant under Riley before taking over as the franchise's fifth head coach on October 24, 2003, compiled a record of 112-73 in regular season games during his tenure. He was 17-11 in the postseason.
After falling one game short of reaching the NBA Finals last season, Riley was very active in the offseason. He acquired three-time All-Star forward Antoine Walker, swingman James Posey and sometimes out of control point guard Jason Williams in a blockbuster five-team trade. Miami's team president also signed veteran free-agent point guard Gary Payton and inked superstar Shaquille O'Neal to a new, lucrative multi-year contract.
Riley, who coached Miami from 1995 through the end of the 2002-03 campaign, has put together an impressive resume in 21 seasons as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and the Heat. There is no doubt that he has a history of winning. But, was this a planned move since he acquired Shaq from the Lakers back in July 2004?
When Riley coached the Lakers, he had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar help him win four titles. In New York, franchise center Patrick Ewing got Riley and the Knicks back into the finals in 1994. And during his first stint as Miami's general, Alonzo Mourning, who is currently O'Neal's backup, powered his squad to the conference finals in 1997.
By trading for Shaq, Riley felt he added the missing piece to the puzzle. The sky is the limit for budding superstar Dwyane Wade, while Miami's force down low is not getting any younger but is still a monster in the post.
Does Riley feel like he has unfinished business in Miami?
The Heat have never advanced to the NBA Finals. They played in the Eastern Conference finals twice, but have not been able to get to the next level. With Shaq and Wade leading a cast of talented veterans, the 60-year-old Riley knows he has put together a team that is built to win now.
Shaq and Wade are arguably the top one-two punch in the NBA. The 33-year-old O'Neal is still the most dominant force in the middle, while Wade is a flashy, athletic guard who can do it all. Add power forward Udonis Haslem, Mourning, Payton, Posey, Walker and Williams to the mix and Miami has an impressive team on paper.
Haslem is a young power forward who can rebound and score when needed, while Payton and Williams are a solid tandem at the point. Posey and Mourning are solid role players and Walker can play both forward spots and is an all-around good player.
Van Gundy knows basketball and will definitely be offered the opportunity to be a head coach in the NBA once again -- if he so desires. Riley has won before, but what can he do differently that is going to get the Heat past the Detroit Pistons?
If Shaq, who battled an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for 18 straight games, is not healthy, Riley is stuck with a 45-win team at best. No matter who is coaching the Heat, as long as O'Neal and Wade are on the court they have a chance to win every game.
Riley is smart, as he knows injuries are starting to creep up on Shaq and the time to win with his All-Star center is now. Even though Van Gundy has cited his own personal reasons for stepping down, do we really believe it? And if not, who was behind it -- Riley, Shaq or a combination of the two?
Van Gundy is a team player and did what he thought was right for the organization. However, the fact is the Heat will go only as far as Shaq and Wade will take them, no matter if Van Gundy or Riley is on the bench.
Miami's new general apparently had a plan and carried it out.
Even with Riley calling the shots from the Miami bench, Detroit is still the favorite to win the East.