The significance of the moment emerged not from the action itself, but from the man who made the gesture and his intended target. It was the day after LeBron James' cramps sidelined him for the end of the NBA Finals' opening game against the San Antonio Spurs, and as James walked past a sitting Pat Riley before the Miami Heat practiced, Riley looked up at his team's superstar and patted the chair next to him with his left hand. I don't know if the exact words were used, but the message was clear:
"Have a seat, son. Let's talk."
Given James' stature, how many people in the world can get away with that simple imperative and have it be obeyed? Maybe Warren Buffett, the investment guru James has befriended, could do it. That man's words move markets. Jay Z, perhaps. The point is, Riley can get James' attention in a way few others can. It's Riley's ability to use that power that sets up the most intriguing story of the NBA offseason.
In their first meaningful meeting four years ago, Riley brought a bag with his collection of championship rings and urged James to try one on. At that point Riley was in the position of power. He'd shown he could get what James so badly desired to obtain. LeBron needed Riley more than Riley needed LeBron.
If James decided to go elsewhere, Riley's legacy would be secure. Riley still would be the guy who won six championships as a player and coach with the Lakers, coached the Knicks to their first NBA Finals in two decades and turned the Heat into a championship franchise as an executive and a coach. James needed a path to a championship. He was the best driver on the track, but he required the right race car owner and pit crew to get the checkered flag. Riley provided it for him.
Now the roles are reversed. Riley needs to keep James in Miami in order to stay relevant, to show that he's still a factor in today's NBA, that he can stay a step ahead of a collective bargaining agreement designed to keep him from maintaining what he put together in 2010. Ironically, Riley's decision to go old school and cite the examples of the 1980s Lakers and 1990s Bulls in his public appeal for the trio of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to stay together only showed Riley's risk of obsolescence. At times, Riley's references to great teams of yesteryear sound just as stuck in the past as when he expressed his fondness for listening to James Ingram's song "Just Once" on a vinyl record.
This Heat team was assembled strictly because today's players don't feel the same need for blind obedience. You could argue that Riley contributed to this back in 2004, when he helped Shaquille O'Neal reverse the decades-old course of great centers joining the Lakers and started the new trend of centers leaving the Lakers, which continued last summer when Dwight Howard made the Rockets his third NBA team before his 28th birthday.
If Riley ever checked Twitter, he'd see it was one of his own players who once tweeted "Loyalty hahahahaha."
- THREE (@DwyaneWade) March 15, 2012
This summer, Carmelo Anthony could join his third team before age 30. So could James.
The NBA helped devalue loyalty as well by continually shortening the maximum lengths of contracts, from seven years down to a maxiumum of four years for a free agent joining a new team. The owners didn't want to be stuck in long-term deals with players who underperformed; the flip side is there's higher frequency of roster churning, even for players they'd love to keep for their entire careers. This is the world Riley now inhabits, in part from his own making.
It's possible that he can be persuasive enough -- with his own players and other free agents -- to keep his core together and also provide the infusion of youth it so clearly needs. It just won't be easy to attract younger players with that win-now-for-less-money approach that worked with veterans such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier.
Any attempt at increasing roster flexibility entails asking his main men to take less than maximum money. Riley must make them understand that avoiding the luxury tax is more a matter of practicality than frugality. The Heat used the amnesty provision on Mike Miller last year to avoid the luxury tax, and they missed his shooting and determination in the Finals. But keeping him wouldn't have merely triggered the luxury tax -- it would have made the Heat eligible for the even harsher repeater tax for being in tax territory three consecutive years.
The other practical benefit of staying below the tax: It allows the Heat to use the non-taxpayer midlevel exception with a first-year salary of $5.3 million, as opposed to the taxpayer midlevel of $3.3 million. That could be the difference between landing the missing part or not.
Speaking generically -- but clearly targeting Wade -- Riley said, "You have to reinvent yourself," during that classic news conference last week. "What reinventing is, is the concept of what does he have to do mentally physically and spiritually to get him to another level at that age of 32?
"It's a matter of, is there something that will allow him to become physically better? And at the same time, the roles in all players' careers change. But he's too smart, he's too good, he's too talented to not be able to play for years to come. Those changes, he and I will sit down and talk about."
There's a lot for Riley, Wade, James, Bosh and their agents to discuss. The course of those conversations could go a long way toward shaping the immediate future of the NBA. One thing Riley has going for him: At least he knows he can have the ear of the league's best player, on demand.