The NBA Finals are set to tip-off Wednesday night, and when they do, they will come with a decidedly Kentucky feel.
Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro – two of the great success stories of the John Calipari era in Lexington and two of the breakout stars of the 2019-2020 season – will lace up their sneakers for Miami. Anthony Davis – the best player on the best team of the Calipari era – will play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Joining Davis in the starting lineup is Rajon Rondo, who played for two seasons under Tubby Smith. Coaching those Lakers will be Frank Vogel, who spent years as a student manager under Rick Pitino.
Then of course, there is Pat Riley. A man who first burst onto the scene as a Kentucky All-American in the 1960’s and has spent the last 50 years (50!!!) establishing himself as one of the greatest minds in basketball history. If he isn’t No. 1, he’s on a short list Mount Rushmore that includes Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Jerry West and not much else.
Yet as I watched the Miami Heat advance to the NBA Finals this year, I started thinking about something. Is it possible that Riley can be two things at once? Could he be both an all-time great basketball mind, who is also underrated as well?
It sounds preposterous. But before you call me too crazy, hear me out.
Pat Riley has now clinched an NBA Finals appearance in six separate decades
1970s: Lakers player
1980s: Lakers Head Coach
1990s: Knicks Head Coach
2000s: Heat Head Coach
2010s: Heat President
2020: Heat President
— Heat Nation (@HeatNationCom) September 29, 2020
For starters, there are the raw numbers, which are simply staggering. First off, I saw this stat following the Heat’s Game 6 win over Boston the other night, and it blew my mind: The 2020’s will mark the sixth straight decade that a team Riley is involved with will be part of the NBA Finals. He won a title as a player with the Lakers in 1972, then coached in nearly every Finals in the 1980’s with the Lakers (more on that coming). In 1994 he coached the New York Knicks to the Finals, in 2006 he did the same with the Miami Heat, and as the team’s top executive, he took Miami to four Finals in the 2010’s (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). Now, he is back again in 2020. If you want to go back to his college days where Riley made a Final Four at Kentucky, it means he has been on either college or pro basketball’s biggest stage at least once in every decade since the 1960’s. Which is absolutely insane.
Now, to quote those old commercials: But wait, there’s more!!!
With Miami’s trip to the NBA Finals this year it means that since he took over the Lakers in 1981-82, he has made 17 conference finals appearances and now 14 NBA Finals appearances during that stretch as well. So essentially, over the last 38 years, his teams have made it to at least the conference finals nearly half the time, and made it to the Finals about a third of the time as well.
Oh, and his teams have also won seven NBA titles total over that stretch. Riley alone has more titles than every NBA franchise but the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. Which again, is insane when you think about it.
Still, what might be even more impressive is how he has done it. Sure, he got a break by being given the head coaching job of the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1981-82 season. Then again, there was a reason that he got the opportunity in the first place, after the Lakers were bounced from the first round of the playoffs the season before. From there, Riley won a title in his first year and went to the Finals in each of his first four years in Los Angeles. Overall, he went to the Finals in seven of his first eight years with the Lakers. UN. REAL.
From there, Riley went, and took over two franchises with minimal success before he arrived and completely flipped them. In 1991 he arrived to coach the Knicks following a 39-win season, and they immediately jumped to a 51-win squad. By year two he had them in the Eastern Conference Finals (where they couldn’t get by Michael Jordan and the Bulls) and by year three he had them in Game 7 of the NBA Finals where they ultimately fell to the Houston Rockets.
Before I go any further, I just want to re-emphasize what I just said.
Pat Riley… had the New York Knicks… within ONE GAME OF WINNING AN NBA TITLE!!!! Forget the Basketball Hall of Fame, that probably deserves a Presidential Medal of Honor or something.
Then after four years left with the Knicks he went to Miami. Oh, and within two years of getting there, led the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s worth noting that the team had never even won a playoff series before he arrived. And within two years he had them playing for a trip to the NBA Finals.
Which might be my favorite stat of all: In a span of eight years from 1989 to 1997 he took three different organizations to the conference finals. Like, what? That is absurd!!!
Really though, what has impressed me most is what Riley has done in Miami through the years. Anyone can luck into a group of superstars and get the most of them, like Riley did in Los Angeles. Anyone can take a good team and make them great, like Riley did in New York.
But what he has done in Miami is simply inconceivable.
In thinking back on his time with Miami, this is a guy who has rebuilt the Miami Heat franchise not once, not twice, but FOUR times. When he arrived (and again remember, the Heat had never won a playoff series when he got there) Riley built the team with stars Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Then, when those guys got older, he rebuilt it with Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade (who won him a title in 2006). Then after Shaq left, it was LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Now he has rebuilt another title contender with his current group.
As a follow-up to this tweet ????, since Pat Riley became a HC in 1982, here are the years his team (as coach or GM) went to AT LEAST the conference finals:
2020 (*if Miami wins this series)
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) September 5, 2020
More importantly, he has done it without tanking or actively trying to lose. In the 25 seasons since Riley arrived, the Heat have missed the playoffs just six times (for comparison’s sake, the Lakers missed six seasons in a row coming into this year) and they’ve had just four Top 10 picks. Instead, Riley has built a consistent contender through shrewd drafting and managerial decisions. On this year’s team for example, there are Adebayo and Herro, two players that many believed Riley “reached” for in the draft. One turned into an All-Star this year (Adebayo) and Herro clearly looks like he is on the way in the future.
As usual Riley got the last laugh, and now he might get the ultimate last laugh by winning an NBA title with this team.
Whether they get there or not is independent of the fact that after a lifetime in basketball, this team might be his crowning achievement.
A crowning achievement for a guy who is one of the greatest minds in basketball history, a guy who began his career in Lexington all those years ago.
And is somehow still underrated.