PAT RILEY, GREATEST COACH EVER?

                                                             Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas       

Pat Riley’s time to retire not only is here, but was actually here two years ago right after he stole an NBA Championship from the Dallas Mavericks (and it looks like the Mavericks won’t get another chance).  Rather than go out on top, he chose to struggle along for two more years before he saw the light.

But it says here that Pat Riley is one of the greatest coaches ever, maybe the greatest coach ever.  Preposterous, you say?  Wait just a minute.    

Riley enters the conversation because of his four titles with the Lakers.  Of course, many believe that anybody could have coached the Magic-Kareem-Worthy Lakers and, while that’s a decent argument, the reality is that to be a great coach and win NBA titles, you need great players (Red Auerbach – Russell, Cousy and the rest; Phil Jackson – Jordan and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, to name two great coaches).    

But Riley’s ability goes way beyond four titles with the Lakers (plus a fifth with the Heat).  What he did, which puts him in the conversation for greatest coach ever, is CHANGE THE WAY THE GAME IS PLAYED IN THE NBA.      

Now, we may not have liked it, but when Riley coached first the Knicks and then the Heat, he changed the league from the up tempo “Showtime” Lakers to the defensive “let’s make the game a rugby scrum” New York Knicks.  People still actually believe there was a “rivalry” between the Bulls of Jordan and Pippen and the Knicks of Patrick Ewing and … well, not that much else.  There really wasn’t, yet Riley made everybody in the league, including the Bulls, scratch and claw for every basket.  If he had coached the Knicks the way he coached the Lakers, the Knicks would have been non-contenders.  But he did great things with the Knicks during the regular season and at least made the Bulls sweat during the Jordan years.  He even got the Knicks to a Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Rockets (in a Jordan-retired year, of course).    

He then worked similar magic with a Miami Heat team that also wasn’t really that good.  When Tim Hardaway could play on two legs, Alonzo Mourning wasn’t quite yet ALONZO MOURNING.  By the time Mourning became a star, Tim Hardaway was essentially playing on one leg.  The only time the Heat could beat the Jeff Van Gundy-coached Knicks was when half the Knicks got suspended in 1997.  Again, a “great” rivalry that really wasn’t as great as it was cracked up to be.    

So, the reason that Riley is in the conversation as greatest coach is because he’s the most diverse NBA coach ever (Showtime Lakers v. Scrum Knicks) and, the icing on the cake, his delivery, as promised, of a title to Miami, another franchise he turned from pretenders to contenders.    

Does Riley have his downside?  You betcha.  Faxing in his Knicks resignation was bush league, to say the least.  Cutting the legs out from under Stan Van Gundy to replace him as coach (right when Shaq was coming back from injury) during Miami’s title season in 2005-06 was nauseating, especially to those of us who always thought Stan Van Gundy would be an excellent NBA coach (he’s showing that now with Orlando).  But in the big picture, this guy won five titles and did even better work with two franchises that simply didn’t have a talent level high enough to realistically compete for an NBA title.    

To stay for this final 15-67 disaster in Miami was another mistake.  But I don’t think you can find another coach with Pat Riley’s success who made teams that he coached better and literally changed (for better or worse) the way the game was played in the NBA in the 1990s.    

Pat Riley, greatest coach ever?  You can certainly make a case for him.       

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved. 

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3 responses to “PAT RILEY, GREATEST COACH EVER?

  1. Riley certainly has an impressive record, but I don’t think he would get my vote for greatest coach ever. The ingredients that he had to work with in his championship teams make his personal contributions and accomplishments in those results a bit less impressive. I suspect that a lesser coach might have scratched out some of those Laker championships, and the same could be said for his one in Miami. The “greatest” title ought NOT go to a guy who was largely at the right place at the right time, which could characterize Riley’s coaching history insofar as championships are concerned. When his teams have been bad, they have been very very bad. The greatest coach ever, ought to have a record that suggests he can overcome adversity brought about by injuries, poor players, or bad management, or whatever other excuses exist. But you may be right, you’re the sports expert.

  2. The reason Riley is arguably (key word) the greatest coach ever is because, just like you said, he changed the way basketball was played. He may not have won championships with the Knicks and the “earlier” Heat, but he made them into contenders and defensive-style basketball teams when they were probably not as good as their results were. The post above me states the main argument as to why he may not be the greatest, but no other coach has changed the game like Riley, but he, just like all other great coaches, had help from great players. The greatest coach question is one that probably does not have a “correct” answer, but Riley deserves some votes for it.

  3. Charlie Engelberg

    Not sure if Riley rates as best ever, but I agree he’s at least in the conversation. Your write-up raises an interesting question, though – – you only mention 2 others who can legitimately be in the conversation for best ever (Auerbach – who’d probably be my pick – and Jackson). I never really thought about this before, but why is it that there are so few NBA coaches who would be in that conversation and yet, if you had the same conversation about say, MLB or NFL, you would probably have 2-3 times that number of coaches/mgrs immediately spring to mind for each. Even if you leveled the playing field in terms of time, and only considered the last 50-60 years, I still submit that there would be many more names in the conversation in those other sports. Any theories as to why??

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