LeBron James may not need anyone to protect his reputation anymore, but that did not stop Miami Heat President Pat Riley from coming to his star player's defense over the weekend.
Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge criticized LeBron last week for complaining about officiating after the Heat's loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday. Riley fired back at Ainge on Friday night.
"Danny Ainge needs to shut the (expletive) up and manage his own team," Riley said through a team spokesperson. "He was the biggest whiner going when he was playing and I know that because I coached against him."
On Wednesday, James had told reporters that he does not think some of the hard fouls he takes are "basketball plays," a subtle critique after officials reversed a flagrant foul called on the Bulls that night. The next day, Ainge told Boston radio station WEEI, "It's almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating."
Ainge responded to Riley, conceding one point while refusing to let Riley get the last word.
"Pat Riley's right," he said. "I should manage my own team. I complained a lot to the officials. And I'm right, LeBron should be embarrassed about how he complains about the calls he gets."
We will give the point to Riley on that exchange, which will certainly add some juice to the two teams' next meeting on April 12.
After the Heat's win in New Orleans on Friday night, James reacted to Riley's defense of him. "That's who we are," James said. "We ride together, all of us, from the top to the bottom. We all protect each other on and off the floor and it was big-time to see that."
Riley isn't just defending James because he likes him. Riley is undoubtedly aware of the speculation that James may opt out of his Heat contract in the summer of 2014 (two years before it expires). The attempt by Dan Gilbert, James' former boss in Cleveland, to extend an olive branch to James shows how teams around the league view the chance that James could explore free agency next year: a huge opportunity.
By giving such a forceful rebuttal to Ainge, Riley is once again demonstrating that the Heat will take care of James (both on and off the court) for as long as he is with the team. Riley is thinking a few moves ahead, as usual, and in sharp relief from some of his sports franchise colleagues in South Florida.