What does your imagination conjure when you think about Pat Riley, the executive? Is it the silver-foxed Riley dumping the nine championship rings he won as a player, executive, head coach, and assistant coach onto the table and letting their presence speak for itself? That finalized LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2010. Few executives in the league can commit such a mindfuck. Riley is written like a David Mamet character, devoid of sentimentality or moralism. In the NBA universe, Miami’s team president and former coach is an avatar of American materialism, merit, and meritocracy. No league executive has leaned so hard into predatory aggressiveness as the commonplace operation of NBA business.
But in today’s age of political correctness, Riley’s “fuck you, that’s my name” no longer plays. Simply put, the Miami Heat are no longer closers.
Despite a hard-earned Finals run in the 2020 Bubble, the Heat and Riley are no longer the threat they used to be. And like any form of toxic masculinity, it will take an intervention for Miami and Riley to come to terms with their current situation. So what went wrong?
Let’s start with the current salary cap situation of their “core” players:
Miami is paying $28 million for the bloated body of Lowry, who gave them 13.4 ppg last season. Yuck. An ascending four-year deal for Robinson, who was so one-dimensional that head coach Eric Spoelstra benched him in the playoffs? Is Herro really worth an average of $30 million a year on a career-scoring average of 16.8 ppg? Hell no.
The Heat have been, and still are, the pinnacle of player development. Year after year, they are able to scrounge the bottom bin of the second round and undrafted pool to find players that become immediate contributors. Max Strus and Gabe Vincent are great examples of this. But Herro and Robinson reveal Riley’s hand as someone who has become afraid to make drastic changes needed to improve the roster. His arrogant belief in Butler as a franchise player and Adebayo as a superstar has kept this roster an over-achieving symbol of NBA purgatory.
As long as it stays intact, they will be too good for roster-changing Lottery picks and too low-ceilinged to make deep runs in the playoffs. Before their erroneous contracts, Robinson and Herro were the perfect trade bait for Riley to swing for a third star, perhaps even a real first option. But now that both are locked into overpaid, long-term deals, the potential promise of either player improving is overshadowed by the financial commitment.
The last two seasons have exposed Robinson as nothing more but a specialist. No one will doubt his ability to hit a three when wide-open, but ask him to facilitate, rebound, or defend? He’s the proverbial box of knives Alec Baldwin’s character in “Glengarry Glen Ross” promises second place. In short, he’s a bum. Herro is a more well-rounded player but is also the model of inconsistency. No one overrates Herro more than himself. And Riley paid the price for what dreams may come, not reality. Herro, like Riley, believes in the power of having brass balls. But to what end?
The Heat have minimal improvement options and rely solely on internal development. Therein lies the problem. This roster might be overpaid, but it’s also capped out in terms of potential. Who on this team is getting better? Butler has already over-achieved for what the expectations were for him. Adebayo as well. Neither can become a perimeter threat (Butler for his career is 32 percent from three, while Adebayo has shot 13 percent). But at an average annual salary of $45.5 million a year, Riley is predicting Butler can lead them to the promised land. Riley believed it so much he committed to paying Butler an ascending total of $52 million when the forward will be 37 years old.
The Heat are without their first-round draft pick this summer (owed to the Clippers in the Jimmy Butler trade) and only have one second over the next three seasons. They need to rely on something other than draft capital to bring in more talent. With their role players priced out, where will the recovery come from? The 36-year-old Lowry is owed another season beyond this one ($28 million this year, $29 million next), representing perhaps the worst move of Riley’s recent tenure. So unless Butler and Adebayo develop a three-ball out of thin air, the hope falls on the great white hype: Herro.
Herro looks to be a consistent 20 ppg scorer, which is fine as the third option on the championship team. But Miami doesn’t need a third option; it needs a first. Riley has over-committed financially and organizationally to Butler to fill that role. Unfortunately, the 2020 Cinderella run to the Finals overinflated the worth of the Heat’s core. At 77 years old, Riley doesn’t have much time to build another contender out of this roster. No one will argue with Riley’s legacy — he is a Hall of Famer after all — when it’s all said and done. But the adage goes, “you’re only as good as your last performance.” Even Mamet’s brand of brass balled arrogance fazed out of Hollywood, and Riley’s Heat are beginning to age from an $80,000 BMW into a Hyundai.