The question, about the Heat's offseason plans, was innocent.
Pat Riley's answer, though, was loaded.
"No more smiling faces with hidden agendas," Riley said. "We'll be going in clean."
It was a reference to last year, when the organization entered the offseason with one eye on convincing LeBron James to stay. Before the draft, James had taken to Twitter to praise UConn guard Shabazz Napier. The team traded three draft picks to move up three spots to draft Napier, who has been so-so at best in the NBA. The Heat also signed Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger -- players designed to fit around James, should he return.
Riley says he is over James' decision to ditch Miami for the Cavaliers. But comments like that suggest otherwise, and that there's something about LeBron that Riley is still not getting.
Riley might be even better running a front office than he was as the legendary coach who won 171 playoff games and a fistful of title rings. He's obsessive about winning, shrewd, visionary, ruthless, an expert on the game, experienced in nearly every situation in the history of the league, patient when needed and aggressive at other times. He's the league's preeminent motivational speaker with the ability to use mind control on his audience, whether in public or private.
But surely Riley is not the man to cock an eyebrow at ruthless business decisions.
James has burned one bridge, to Riley, in Miami. Riley has burned several.
It was only five years ago that the Cavaliers were the apoplectic ones, with owner Dan Gilbert demanding an investigation into LeBron's joining Riley's Heat.
At that time many saluted Riley's brilliance in assembling a team that would go on to appear in four straight Finals, and win two titles. And at that time it was understood that if the Cavs were bruised, it was only because they didn't understand the ruthlessness that so often accompanies winning at the highest level.
Riley's career defined it. He made a name for himself as a coach thanks to an incredible opportunity to steer a loaded Magic Johnson-led roster as his first NBA job. Then he bolted the Lakers when a prime broadcasting job opened up at NBC.
Consider Riley's summer of 1995: After four largely successful years that saw the Knicks come to the brink of a title, the Knicks offered Riley the richest coaching contract in NBA history. Riley got a deal he liked better from Miami, though -- it included a slice of ownership, and total control of the basketball operation.
Riley resigned from the Knicks out of the blue, via fax. It was cold-blooded and conniving enough that the Heat later had to send the Knicks $1 million and a first-round pick to get out of tampering charges.
And while surely loyalty is a valuable thing, it's iffy that it's a thing Riley would harp on. His brilliance has very often been in creating and seizing opportunity -- for all of Riley's cutthroat maneuvering with the Knicks, Heat owner Micky Arison has proved to be a marvelous partner for Riley, and that partnership had led to three titles over the last 20 years.
Riley has been similarly calculating with players. He sold Miami on the idea that Alonzo Mourning was a team legend, then moved him in 2003 in part because he didn't feel he could match the $5-million-a-year guaranteed deal the Nets were offering. Riley moved on to the younger and healthier Lamar Odom. (Mourning, who felt he was closer to a ring in New Jersey, later returned to the franchise and won a title.) After Tim Hardaway proved to be the pivotal player that helped Riley turn everything in Miami around, Riley shipped him to Dallas for a second-round pick when both sides agreed to move on as part of a sign-and-trade. Riley was right to move on, Hardaway was past his prime. And Hardaway also returned to work for the Heat after his playing days.
Riley and the Heat currently point to Miami native and 12-year Heat veteran Udonis Haslem as a symbol of their "Heat Lifer" campaign. But sources around the league know Riley has offered Haslem to any number of teams in trade talks in recent years. With the right deal, of course Riley probably would've done the right thing for the franchise and made the deal. He'd save the crying for later -- and quite possibly hire Haslem back after his playing days.
On Sunday night, LeBron fell asleep having watched his new 23-year-old co-star Kyrie Irving score 30 points in his playoff debut. Irving is signed to a five-year contract extension that kicks in next season. It's hard to imagine that at that moment James was loaded with regret about leaving Miami.
Dwyane Wade is one of James' best friends in the league, but missed 20 games due to injury this season and turned 33 years old as the Heat missed the playoffs after an injury-plagued season. James' decision looks shrewd, in retrospect.
But how cold-blooded was it? Did James know all along he was headed for Cleveland, even as he made positive noises about the long-term future, with Shabazz Napier, in Miami?
Only James and perhaps two or three other of his closest confidants truly know. But we have several clues that don't serve Riley's claims of victimhood:
James never told the Heat directly he wanted them to draft Napier. He never talked to Napier about it, in fact he had no relationship with him, unlike numerous other college players he's become friendly with over the years from his annual Nike camps. If the Heat read James' tweets and comments to the media and made an assumption, then that is on them.
James likely couldn't have decided to leave the Heat until after their Finals collapse last season when they looked old and outclassed by the San Antonio Spurs in losing three straight games. On the record, James has said he would've returned to defend a title had the Heat won, which is both natural and once looked possible when they had the homecourt advantage after winning Game 2 in San Antonio. It seems unlikely James would've walked away from trying to win four in a row, something Michael Jordan never accomplished.
If there was a conspiracy, the Cavs didn't seem to be in on it. When free agency started they didn't even have enough salary-cap space available to sign a max player like James. When the Cavs signed Irving to a contract extension on July 1, having James as a teammate was not a part of the pitch. They were getting ready to make a maximum contract offer sheet either to Gordon Hayward or Chandler Parsons, both small forwards like James, and even flew Hayward in on owner Dan Gilbert's jet. Only when James' agent called looking for a meeting several days into July did the Cavs slam on the brakes, and direct that same jet for South Florida. They ended up having to make a quick and costly move -- sending out prospect Tyler Zeller and a future first-round pick to get Jarrett Jack off their books -- to make cap room for James.
Riley and the Heat were equally in the dark as they made the McRoberts and Granger moves with the intent to complement James. After they had their free-agent pitch meeting with James in Vegas, they still thought he was in the fold, even after Riley's bizarre and mildly insulting Finals press conference, where he said: "stay together if you got the guts."
Obviously, at some point James decided to leave, and when he did he certainly did spend a few days being exceedingly calculating.
You want to talk callous, consider the period James spent last July with Wade in Las Vegas. They had meals together. They worked out. They took a four-hour private jet flight. And the entire time, James didn't say one word about his future, even though by that point he'd already given his "Going Home" interview to Sports Illustrated.
James was leveraging his considerable power for maximum money, while making a decision that was based on both personal and basketball business for the future. Few personalities had the talent, cache and guts to do.
Riley, who used to call James the BOAT for "best of all time," is himself one of the best of all time. How odd that even now he seems not to recognize the fuzzy mirror image.