With his suits, his hair and his style, Miami Heat team president Pat Riley has long presented a Hollywood image. But those who have worked for him know his mindset is closer to that of a general.
Riley’s life has been in basketball, but as someone in his teens and 20s during the Vietnam War, he has always respected those who served. He made sure the Heat didn’t simply run like an army but also honored military servicemen, a huge priority for the franchise over the years.
Within the NBA, there is a saying among some old-school executives that comes from Gen. George Patton: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
“You know me, I’m all about now,” Riley said earlier this season. “We’re going to press on and we’re not going to stop.”
The Heat do not believe in three-year plans.
This is in opposition to how many younger executives have operated teams over the past 10 to 15 years. Numerous rebuilds have been designed to be low and slow, through high draft picks and player development. It was most personified, fairly or not, by former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie’s approach, labeled “The Process.”
Riley is more Patton than Process. It’s typically how he has operated since taking control of the team 25 years ago. That philosophy is the basis of one of the most remarkable one-year turnarounds in recent league history.
Last season, the Heat were 39-43, one of only three losing seasons in the previous 17 years. The other two came when Dwyane Wade was sidelined because of a season-ending injury and when Chris Bosh had blood clots that ended his season.
So Riley traded, cut or opted not to re-sign nine players from last season’s team, executing a one-year build that has the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. A good plan, violently executed now.
“Every team’s situation is different, that’s just a fact,” one league general manager said. “But there are probably owners out there who will look at what the Heat have done and think, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ instead of bottoming out, then building back up.”
Said another longtime front-office executive: “There’s a lot of different ways to win. But the Heat did make this turnaround happen faster than normal, and that doesn’t go unnoticed by people who have been sitting through losing.”
Looking at what the Heat have done this season is polarizing around the league, especially in parts where slow rebuilds have worked. This includes the potential conference finalist Boston Celtics, who were primarily built through top-five draft picks (courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets) before adding stars in free agency.
Playoff teams like the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies and the Process-driven 76ers are some of the franchises that have landed multiple stars via the draft after periods of rebuilding.
The Heat have drafted inside the top nine only twice in 18 years. The highest draft pick on their roster is Andre Iguodala, selected ninth in 2004 by Philadelphia.
“Miami’s strategy is always to be as good as possible every season,” a league executive said. “They are studs at team building. But you have to acknowledge that strategy also led them to miss the playoffs in three of the last five years.”
It is true, Riley’s style leads to big swings and sometimes big misses. He chases the top free agents nearly every year, even when the Heat don’t have salary-cap space. Riley persuaded free agent Jimmy Butler to pick the Heat last summer even though they lacked sufficient cap space. It’s the same thought process that led him to pursue the 36-year-old Iguodala at the trade deadline.
Part of this strategy is made possible by the Heat’s scouting and development system. Riley moved players out from last season’s team because there were reinforcements coming from the lower ranks. Recent picks Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro — the only players he has ever selected from his alma mater, Kentucky — have quickly outperformed their draft position, as have undrafted prospects Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn.
One reason Miami was able to get Butler was that Josh Richardson, a former 40th overall pick, had developed into an asset Philadelphia wanted.
But Riley traded Richardson and would probably be willing to trade some of the other young talent on his roster to go after another big fish. Because that’s how Riley rolls.
Riley is not alone on this path. Both the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers went into warp drive to build their teams, swapping the future for the present.
The Lakers traded two recent No. 2 picks, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, and two future picks for Anthony Davis. The Clippers traded their best young player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and five first-round picks to get Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. And all season, the two L.A. teams looked to be on a collision course for the Western Conference finals.
Those were moves after the heart of the Miami general. And Riley would like nothing more than to get a shot at either team in the Finals.
“You gotta take some risks,” Riley said. “You never know if they’re going to work out, but we want to win.”
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