The laissez-faire brilliance of Pat Riley

January, 6, 2011
1/06/11
1:09
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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TrueHoop reader Al e-mails:
One angle that has not received enough attention is Pat Riley's chosen course of action during the Heat's hellish November.

At the time, many were criticizing him for not coming out and throwing his weight behind Erik Spoelstra.

In retrospect, his public silence, while supporting him behind the scenes, was a brilliant move. Who knows what motivation he may have had (one can never know with Pat), but the truth is that it allowed Spoelstra to work his way through the rough spot on his own without the appearance of needing his "daddy" to stand up for him.

Had Riley came out strong in support, and things improved anyway, as they were bound to with this much talent, Spoelstra would have been diminished at the end of it for needing his boss to prop him up.

I hear you, Al. And it did work out well for all involved. But I'm torn about whether or not it was the best play.

On the one hand, I'm a fan of letting people work their way through things. Spoelstra was hired to lead the players, let him lead the players. And as Al points out, now that the team has turned the corner, Coach Spoelstra may have an extra bit of mojo that could come in handy in the playoffs, or whenever he reaches the job market again.

So, score one for trusting your people to solve their own problems, and having it work out well.

On the other hand, what is the downside of a president or owner throwing all their weight behind your coach? Why not be like Larry Miller and the Jazz, and just tell every darned player who comes in the door that it's Jerry Sloan's show, and if you don't like it there's the door?

I can only see one downside to that: You look like a clown if you say stuff like that all the time, but actually end up firing coaches as often as the next owner. In other words, Miller was, in my opinion, a little bit genius in talking like that, because he actually intended to keep Sloan through thick and thin.

If on the other hand, Miller wasn't entirely wedded to Sloan, as the vast majority of owners and leaders are not entirely wedded to their coaches, he'd be smart to speak of Sloan not at all, or in the generalities most owners and presidents use.

And that's where I could imagine Spoelstra scratching his head just a little at how it all went down. So, yeah, great OK, it worked out just fine. But Riley also missed an opportunity to remove any doubt about who would be coaching this team in two, three, or four years. And while there is a certain brilliance in how Riley handled it -- Riley preserved a full spectrum of options, from Spoelstra winning his own credibility, to Riley firing Spoelstra -- there was also a missed opportunity to make the Heat one of those rare teams, like the Jazz and Spurs have long been, where the coach's long-term welcome is never in doubt.

Henry Abbott | email

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