Even with LeBron James gone, don't bet against Pat Riley

As long as Pat Riley is around, the Heat are not to be taken lightly, even without LeBron James.

It's important to remember in the aftershock of the earthquake LeBron James made on Friday that no one was really sure just what Pat Riley was up to four years ago, either. During the summer of 2010, Riley cleared cap space with a vengeance. But lots of teams were doing that, then. Hell, the Knicks basically took out front page ads declaring their intentions.

Riley, as is his style, was far more secretive. He wasn't betting on just getting a meeting with LeBron James. He wanted the whole three-ring circus: Bron, Dwyane Wade and as it turned out, Chris Bosh, as well. Riley strode into his meeting with James, quite literally dumped his championship rings on the table and told him that he could make this happen. It was the ultimate Godfather move and it caught everyone off guard.

One can imagine Riley cackling maniacally as it came to pass. This was the culmination of everything he had learned over the years, and by focusing his pitch on winning the ultimate prize, he played it exactly right. The Heat went to the Finals four straight times and won twice. Maybe people wanted more, but that's about as much as anyone could rightfully expect, especially when the opponent was the rejuvenated San Antonio Spurs.

Still, this was, and always was, a marriage of convenience as much as anything else. Once the ancillary pieces started to break down, there was little else that Riley could do. And once the financial realities came into play, the clock started ticking.

Over the four years in which he had LeBron, Riley rightly focused on adding veterans to help him win championships. That came at the expense of developing young players that might help carry the Heat through the dog days of winter and into the postseason. There was never much of a Plan B, unless you count the likes of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden as a viable alternative.

It has been suggested by those plugged into the Heat scene that dumping Mike Miller and Joel Anthony did not sit well with the three stars. A strange consensus emerged in the days after "The Decision" that it was arrogance that brought the Heat together, but this team was always a story about friendships, and much of the joy seemed to evaporate as friends were kicked to the curb and the locker room changed.

Four years later, Riley couldn't offer an overwhelming chance of winning championships anymore. LeBron, Bosh and Wade would still probably be the favorites in the East, but there was no real way to match or pass the Spurs this offseason. Capped out and hamstrung by the collective bargaining agreement -- an agreement their owner voted against -- the best Riley could do was add role players like Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger.

Riley was still offering Riley, however, and that meant a stable organization. As one GM said a few days before the landscape of the league changed, "I just don't think LeBron will be able to say no to Pat."

In the end, though, Riley couldn't offer what LeBron apparently craved, which was a happy homecoming and the chance to mentor young talent. Back in May, when the Heat were playing the Nets, LeBron opened up a bit during an expansive off-day session. Among the many things he touched on, something stood out more than the rest.

"You guys always ask why do I give back to Paul George, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Durant and those guys," he said. "Because I've seen it all. I'm still learning. I'm going to give back what I can. There's a group that's going to come behind me and a group that comes behind those guys. This beautiful game has to continue to flow the right way. If I can make an impact I'm going to do it. It's not just about basketball for me."

A strange consensus emerged in the days after The Decision that it was arrogance that brought the Heat together, but this team was always a story about friendships.

For all that he could offer, Riley couldn't offer the chance to do that sort of teaching.

So now the Heat are stuck, but it would be unwise to dismiss them, just as it was unwise to dismiss them back in 2010. With everyone opting out of their contracts, Riley has a chance to make it right again quickly. He can still offer Chris Bosh more than anyone else, and while Bosh is no LeBron, you can build a competitive team around him quickly. He still has Dwyane Wade, probably, and he still has South Beach, the weather and Pat Riley.

Long before LeBron, Riley landed Alonzo Mourning and made the Heat instant contenders. Just as that team was breaking down, he was able to get Shaquille O'Neal and win his first title.

It may not happen this year or even next, but Riley isn't one to sit back and take defeat lying down. If history has taught us anything -- and the last few days should have taught us all a lot -- Riley will come up with something. He pulled off the greatest coup the league had seen since Jerry West swiped Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant while everyone else was sleeping. Don't bet against his ability to do it again.

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