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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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