MIAMI - JULY 09: Head coach Erik Spoelstra (L) and President Pat Riley (R) of the Miami Heat talk during a press conference after a welcome party for new teammates LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh at American Airlines Arena on July 9, 2010 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
When Pat Riley pulled off the feat of signing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh last July, speculation erupted that he would usurp the head coaching role from protege Erik Spoelstra and lead the Big Three to glory.
Within days of signing the Big Three, manyjournalists began openly predicting that this would come to pass. As the Heat stumbled to an uneven 9-8 start, this chatter only accelerated. And when ESPN's Chris Broussard reported at the end of November that multiple Heat players "[were] questioning whether he is the right coach for their team," it became conventional wisdom that Riley's return to the bench was only a matter of time.
After all, said the conventional wisdom, Riley did this before when then-coach Stan Van Gundy resigned abruptly in 2005 to "spend more time with my family." Few observers believed then that Van Gundy resigned of his own volition, and few believe it now.
But Riley's sacking of Spoelstra and assumption of coaching duties didn't come to pass in November, nor will it now, after a stretch in which the Heat have distressfully lost five out of six, all to likely playoff teams. In fact, we can think of a few reasons why Riley will stay put and let Spoelstra ride out the current storm.
Riley is old. Granted, he's only turning 66 this month, which is not that old. But having coached in all or parts of 24 seasons, one would think he's had his fill of coaching. During the 2006-2007 season, Riley took a 48-day leave of absence from the Heat, citing hip and knee problems. He's in good health for a man his age, but the NBA season is a grind, even for the coaches, and it begs questioning whether he has the stamina for it at this stage in his life.
Coaching might not be the Heat's biggest problem. Spoelstra is not shooting 1-of-16 in crunch time shots, his team is. Spoelstra isn't forgetting to play defense against the Spurs. Spoelstra isn't going cold from three-point range (cough, Mike Miller, cough). You think Riley is going to will LeBron's game ending misses into the hoop? He's Pat Riley, not Yoda.
Riley has little to gain but plenty to lose. Let's just assume that Riley does fire Spoelstra, name himself coach, and the Heat wins a title this year. You know what everyone outside of Miami will say if that all happens? That's what was supposed to happen. After the fact, a Heat title will be treated as an inevitability (even despite the recent stumbles). Sure, that might just be a petty swipe at the Three Kings, but we don't think you'll disagree that to non-Heat fans, a Heat title proves nothing about Riley or the Three Kings. But if Riley takes over and the Heat do not win a title? That will go down as one of the biggest failures in NBA history. We can already hear the pedantic told-you-so's from Bill Simmons and Charles Barkley (the mere thought of Simmons' gloating made us throw up in our mouth a little). This dovetails with the final reason we won't see Riley coach the Heat in 2011...
The Three Kings experiment is not a one-year deal. James, Wade, and Bosh are around at least another four seasons beyond this. Even if the Heat flame out in the playoffs this year, they can still achieve their goal of winning multiple championships with the Three Kings in their current contract periods. If Riley assumes the helm now, what is his end game? Will he stay through 2015, when he is 70 (see point 1)? Firing Spoelstra opens up an entirely new can of worms, right when the Heat are facing their most trying test yet.
Changing horses midstream in 2011 runs the risk of derailing the team completely (as opposed to only being partially derailed at the moment). Of course, our basketball experience is limited to two seasons of JCC ball in middle school, so we could be wrong. Even so, with the playoffs only a few months away, we can't help but think that if Riley has not fired Spoelstra yet, then it would take a much bigger debacle than what we have witnessed thus far to make him pull the trigger.
But if the Heat don't win a title in 2011, all bets are off.
David Hill is a Miami native and former owner of a youth replica Rony Seikaly jersey.