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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Life of Riley

Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley issued a statement on Monday reaffirming his intention to stay with the team until his current contract expires in three years. Riley wanted to silence speculation that he will leave his post prior to that time. As he put it, "I don't want to be a 'one and done' guy every year. In conversations that I've had with (Heat owner) Micky Arison, I have three years left on my contract and I will coach those out. I will try to coach those out unless someone else makes a decision on me. That's a commitment that I want to make to the organization."

Hip and knee surgeries caused Riley to miss 22 games during the 2006-07 season and the Heat's dismal title defense certainly made it seem possible that he might call it a career. Although he is still going to be around for a while, now is as good a time as any to take a brief look at one of the most exceptional coaching resumes in NBA history. Riley spent most of his nine year playing career with the L.A. Lakers and he was a member of the 1972 championship team that won a then-record 69 games. After he retired, he spent a couple seasons as a Lakers broadcaster before a quirk of fate landed him on the bench as an assistant coach; Lakers' Coach Jack McKinney was seriously injured in a bicycle accident during the 1979-80 season and he was replaced by his assistant Paul Westhead, who then tapped Riley to be his assistant. Early in the 1981-82 season, Lakers star Magic Johnson made it clear that he was not happy playing for Westhead, so owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead. Buss wanted Jerry West to be the new coach but West had gotten his fill of coaching during a three year run on the Lakers' bench during the late 1970s, so Riley took over instead. The Lakers had started 7-4 and they went 50-21 the rest of the way under Riley. They really hit their stride late in the season and that carried over into the playoffs, where they swept Phoenix and San Antonio before facing Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers stole home court advantage by winning game one in Philadelphia and eventually captured the championship in six games. Riley had gone from journeyman player to broadcaster to assistant coach to head coach of the world champions in six years.

Riley led the Lakers to three more titles in the 1980s, including back to back triumphs in 1987 and 1988, the first time that feat had been accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics did it to close out the 1960s. Ironically, Riley did not win his first Coach of the Year award until 1990, a season when the Lakers did not win the title. That was also his last year with the team. Riley became an NBA commentator for NBC for one season before becoming the coach of the New York Knicks. Riley's Lakers teams were known for playing a "Showtime" brand of basketball that was masterfully choreographed by point guard Magic Johnson. The Knicks did not have the right kind of personnel to play that way, so Riley preached a slow down, physical brand of basketball that received a lot of criticism in various quarters. In 1993, Riley won his second Coach of the Year award and the next season he led the Knicks to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1973. Houston won that series in seven games. The Knicks also lost in seven games in the 1995 playoffs, this time to Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Riley resigned after that season and almost immediately took over the Miami Heat. In 1995-96, the Heat tied the franchise record for wins (42) before losing to the powerful Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Riley's Heat obliterated that mark in 1996-97 by winning 61 games, earning Riley a record third Coach of the Year award (Don Nelson has also won three). Riley guided Miami past his old New York team and all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before again falling to Chicago. However, the Knicks got their revenge by knocking Miami out of the playoffs in each of the next three seasons. After Riley suffered the first two losing seasons of his coaching career in 2002 and 2003 he stepped down as head coach to focus on being the team's general manager.

Riley successfully rebuilt the Heat's roster and in December 2005 he reappointed himself the team's coach, guiding the team to a 41-20 record down the stretch. Like some of Riley's previous teams, the Heat hit their stride in the playoffs, eventually overcoming a 2-0 deficit to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals to claim the franchise's first NBA title. Miami went just 44-38 last year and got swept in the first round of the playoffs by Chicago, one of the least successful seasons of Riley's coaching career. However, he is optimistic that he can turn things around. "We hope that over the next three years ... that we're going to be a contender," Riley said when he announced his intention to stay on as coach for the duration of his contract.

Whether or not Riley wins another championship, he has to be considered one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Riley's five NBA titles as a head coach trail only the nine won by Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. Riley, Jackson and Alex Hannum are the only coaches to lead two different franchises to NBA titles. Riley is the only coach to twice take over a team in mid-season and win that year's championship. His 1195 regular season wins are third on the all-time list behind Lenny Wilkens (1332) and Don Nelson (1232) but his .647 winning percentage is much better than Wilkens' .536 and Nelson's .572, ranking sixth all-time behind Jackson, Billy Cunningham, Gregg Popovich, K.C. Jones and Auerbach.

Riley's critics try to diminish his accomplishments by mentioning that he inherited excellent teams on a couple occasions, a point that is also often made about Jackson--but there have been a lot of very talented NBA teams that never won anything. A talented roster is certainly a prerequisite to winning a championship but it hardly guarantees it; every championship team needs a great leader who provides strategy, direction and motivation. Also, while Riley walked into good situations in L.A. and New York he was the architect of the Miami team that won the 2006 championship. In addition, it is particularly noteworthy that Riley won Coach of the Year with three different franchises and that he led each of those franchises to at least one NBA Finals appearance. He initially was successful with a fastbreak style in L.A. but in New York and Miami he proved that he could also win by employing a slow down, grind it out style; the latter approach was not aesthetically pleasing or particularly popular outside of his team's fans but few other coaches have displayed such flexibility in their thinking. Riley's arrivals and departures from various teams have been messy at times but no one can argue with the results once he is on the bench: a Riley-coached team plays hard, plays smart and usually wins a lot of games.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM



At Tuesday, August 14, 2007 10:35:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I dont believe him.

At Tuesday, August 14, 2007 7:14:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

One thing which I really like about Riley, which you mentioned, is the versatility in his coaching. He uses whatever style best suits the talent on his roster, as can be seen in the radically different styles of Riley's Lakers and Knicks. This is one area in which I like Riley over Phil Jackson (who, in my opinion, tries too hard at times to fit players into his system rather than adjust the system a bit to play to the strengths of his places).

Interesting fact about Alex Hannum. It's strange that with Hannum's accomplishments (2 NBA titles, 1 ABA title, only non-Celtics coach to win titles during Russell's career) he was snubbed from the NBA at 50 Top Ten Coaches list. He probably deserved to be on that list more than Ramsay, Nelson, Daly, Fitch, and maybe Wilkens.

At Wednesday, August 15, 2007 3:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Two things could be mentioned in Jackson's defense: (1) he has won nine championships and (2) his system--which, if you are referring to the Triangle Offense, is really Tex Winter's system--allows room for different kinds of players to flourish; it was originally designed to focus around a low post presence (which is what happened in L.A. with Shaq) but in Chicago the focus obviously was on Jordan. That said, I think that Riley deserves more credit than he gets for leading three different franchises to the Finals using different styles of play and different types of players. Several of his departures and arrivals have been acrimonious and perhaps that contributes to him getting less credit than he probably should.

Hannum is very underrated in my opinion. Not only is he the only non-Celtics coach to win titles during the Russell era, he beat the Russell Celtics in the playoffs twice, with two completely different teams.


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