When Pat Riley told the world he was stepping down as coach of the Miami Heat to focus on his job as president of the organization, it brought to mind so much NBA history over the past 26 years most of it positive. It's sad that his swan song has come on the heels of a 15-67 record.
But it also begs the question of what it will be like for successor Erik Spoelstra with Riles still sitting on his perch in the front office. Never mind the irony of this nightmarish season coinciding with the induction of the 63-year-old Riley into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He knows it is time to leave the bench.
This is the second time he's retired from coaching to focus on his front office gig with the Heat. Hopefully it's the last time, considering the conflicting overtones of the last one. RIley appeared to be finished on the bench in 2003 following a comparable 25-57 season with the Heat, handing the reins over to then-assistant Stan Van Gundy. But after drafting Dwyane Wade and trading for Shaquille O'Neal, the rumblings grew that Riley wanted back in. Consequently, after two successful seasons of rejuvenating the team, Van Gundy stepped down 21 games into the 2005-06 season, Riley returned to the bench and the Heat won the 2006 title giving Riley a fifth ring to go with the four he earned as coach of the Lakers.
Things have gone downhill ever since, culminating in Riley's unprecedented decision to abandon the floundering Heat while there were still games to be played so that he could scout conference tournament games.
That being said, it would be a shame for a few difficult seasons with the Heat to taint a brilliant legacy, if only because there are so many young basketball fans that are unaware that Riley is one of the coaching greats of any sport. In 24 seasons with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat, he ranks third on the NBA's all-time regular-season list in wins (even after this season's debacle, his all-time coaching mark is 1,210-694, a .636 clip), and is first all-time in playoff victories (171-111, .606) with a record 19 consecutive playoff appearances. Just consider he won a league-record 18 division championships, including 16 in his first 18 seasons as a coach and with three different teams, no less.
There are many more accolades that can be tossed his way, with a variety of numbers to illustrate his accomplishments. But that's not really the point. Now it appears he has come to grips with how the game and the player of today just don't fit into his blood, guts and pop psychology approach. That O'Neal quit on him and was traded to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks isn't really reflective of the problem. O'Neal has quit on a lot of people.
The issue here is whether or not Riley can be satisfied (or even capable of) translating that greatness into the front office and repair the Heat. Nobody has ever done a better job of driving his players to the brink of insanity and raising their level of play to its peak at the same time. Now that time has passed. What we don't know is if he still has the passion to drive the franchise and the patience to let Spoelstra develop as coach.
Both the Heat and his legacy deserve it.