Supposedly this has been a redemptive year for the Miami Heat's reputation.
Their championship, their team-wide sacrifice of everything from money to minutes and their conciliatory attitude about their 2010 arrogance has improved their Q-rating with the general public. It is now common for the Heat to be cheered, rather loudly, in visiting arenas.
But now for a big test: will the NBA's front offices give Heat president Pat Riley consideration for the Executive of the Year Award this season?
In a year where some once splashy acquisitions have gone flat, Riley has earned serious consideration for the honor. Perhaps he's also earned the right to have a petty move from 2011 be corrected.
Riley is not the frontrunner. That would probably be Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey, who made the trade that had the most impact by acquiring All-Star James Harden in October. Morey also took advantage of a loophole allowing Houston to create "poison pill" offer sheets that helped land restricted free agents Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik last summer while retaining cap space for this summer.
Overall, Morey made 10 trades over the last year that have reshaped the Rockets and turned them into a playoff team. It was lots of perseverance and incremental progress that finally paid off. Morey has certainly earned praise and recently got a contract extension from team owner Les Alexander.
Nonetheless, Morey himself is deflecting toward the juggernaut Riley has assembled.
"Pat Riley should win every year for getting LeBron James," Morey said. "They shouldn't even hold the vote anymore."
Technically, Riley was the co-Executive of the Year for the 2010-11 season, but really he wasn't. He tied with the Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman by getting 11 of the 30 votes, one cast by each team (you cannot vote for yourself). But Bulls president John Paxson, who leads Chicago's executive team, got three votes himself. That meant Riley's peers voted the Bulls had done a better job than he did by a score of 14-11.
Last fall, it was assumed this Executive of the Year was headed to Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. After making the most stunning move of the summer when he landed Steve Nash, Kupchak finally "won" the Dwight Howard sweepstakes in a blockbuster in August.
But the Lakers and their Hall of Fame lineup have become one of the biggest underachievers in history. Not all of this is Kupchak's fault; injuries have ravaged the team. Bottom line, though, his moves have not worked as planned and therefore the award is up for grabs.
The Philadelphia 76ers' front office of Rod Thorn and Tony DiLeo with input from coach Doug Collins also looked like contenders at the start of the season after they made a deal for All-Star Andrew Bynum. But Bynum and Jason Richardson, also acquired in the trade, had their seasons wrecked by knee injuries and the 76ers have been a significant disappointment.
Riley's case isn't nearly as compelling as it was two seasons ago, but he's still deserving. His two biggest transactions were signing Ray Allen and taking a gamble on free-agent big man Chris Andersen, who has made one of the biggest impacts of any mid-year addition.
Riley sold Allen on taking a smaller role and half as much money as was on the table in Boston. With Andersen, he took a risk on a player with a troubled past, who had been amnestied by the Denver Nuggets. After researching Andersen's legal issues and watching him work out for two weeks in Miami while the Heat were on a long trip, Riley decided to sign him. He has provided the Heat with the type of energy big man they'd been chasing for three years.
Adding to Riley's résumé is the fantastic signing Shane Battier has turned out to be, turning into a vital cog in the Heat's small-ball lineup that has devastated the opposition this season. When Riley signed Battier before last season he was criticized (including by this reporter) for not targeting a big man with his limited free-agent resources.
But Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra were going away from using traditional lineups and Battier, who has played most of this season at power forward, has turned out to be one of the most versatile and efficient dollar-for-dollar players in the league. The Heat are where they are because they start three All-Stars. But they probably don't win the title and they don't win 27 consecutive games if Battier isn't playing a role no one, including Battier himself, could've predicted when he signed after the 2011 lockout.
On Sunday during a Heat function Riley said the team he has assembled this season is "the ultimate dream for me."
There is, of course, other competition.
The New York Knicks are finishing strongly and getting good seasons from J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton. The Knicks' front office, led by GM Glen Grunwald, signed (or re-signed in Smith's case) all four last summer when they made the controversial decision to let Jeremy Lin leave in free agency. Their in-season addition of Kenyon Martin also has been a major bonus after Rasheed Wallace and Amar'e Stoudemire went down with injuries.
The Nuggets, who have been one of the surprise teams in the league, and GM Masai Ujiri get credit. He traded for Andre Iguodala and signed veteran Andre Miller. He also locked up young guard Ty Lawson to a long-term deal and looks to have gotten a steal in the draft with Evan Fournier. The $44 million deal he gave to JaVale McGee isn't looking as good at the moment.
The Los Angeles Clippers, who clinched the Pacific Division Sunday, also will get votes. The Clippers added Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes in free agency and have developed one of the best benches in the league. But the Clippers' moves to re-sign injury-prone Chauncey Billups and trade for Lamar Odom haven't worked out as well. Also, there is a chance they will get split votes. The Clippers' front office operates by committee with president Andy Roeser, vice president Gary Sacks and coach Vinny Del Negro all playing a role. You could even argue that Chris Paul should get a vote considering he has been an acting member of the front office for the past year.
Looking with perspective, though, Riley's moves with the Heat continue to look more impressive.
Overall, 18 teams didn't vote for Riley in a year when he signed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in free agency and convinced all three to take less than the maximum salary so he could free up more cap space to sign other free agents. It was the completion of a plan Riley had been executing for two years.
The Bulls had a great season that year, earning the No. 1 seed in the East after signing a bevy of lesser but effective free agents after Wade, James and Bosh had told them no. They also hired Tom Thibodeau to be their coach, which was a home run.
But looking objectively, that did not equal Riley's generational coup of hitting a grand slam with the biggest free-agent class in history. The Heat made themselves extremely unpopular that year with their gloating. There was also an undercurrent of jealously and whispered suggestions of conspiracy within the league that helped lead a majority of Riley's peers to reject the notion of voting for his performance.
There will probably not be many complaints if Morey is the one honored later this month. But it's also possible when future generations look back on this era they will question a reluctance to recognize what Riley has done.