First, Pat Riley became obsessed with getting LeBron James on his team. Now his focus is on securing his loyalty.
That was at the forefront of the Miami Heat president's unusual and cutting trash talk he fired off at Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge on Friday. It may have sounded flippant when Riley told Ainge, via an informal statement delivered without warning, to "shut the f--- up," when it came to discussing James. But even when Riley curses it is deeply measured and considered.
The centerpiece of Riley's pitch to James in 2010 was to dump his bevy of championship rings onto a conference table in James' Cleveland offices. The message Riley sent Friday was he was going to be just as brash in making sure he retains James with another free agency period now peeking over the horizon next summer.
The retort to Ainge, issued in the same manner it as it might've been delivered on the court, was probably more meaningful to James than anything Riley could've told him behind the scenes. It certainly contained more teeth than an angry memo to the league objecting to Ainge's commentary would have.
"It was big-time to see that," James said after the Heat blew out the New Orleans Hornets Friday night.
Star players are used to their coaches and executives having their back; it's a job requirement in the modern NBA even for a man as decorated as Riley. When Ainge called James' recent complaints about hard fouls "embarrassing" on a Boston radio show, it was a slight breach of decorum as executives usually refrain from doing anything but praising opponents in public.
But for Riley to fire off that missile complete with a slap at Ainge's mouth during his playing days -- Riley probably saw that as a fun little bonus to toss in there -- was a message meant for James' ears first and foremost. Most of Riley's peers don't like him anyway -- that was firmly established when they didn't vote him as the outright Executive of the Year in 2011 after he trumped them all in the free-agent game -- even if they all begrudgingly respect him.
Riley has not held a press conference since last June. He's made a habit of staying out of the spotlight and letting protégé Erik Spoelstra be the voice of the franchise. Spoelstra, meanwhile, has used every cliché in the book and even created a few of his own to encourage his players to ignore outside opinions on his much scrutinized and oft-criticized team.
Riley did the exact opposite with this maneuver, blowing up a minor news item that James himself was trying to ignore and turning it into an all-out feud. All with a purpose in mind.
This is the second time this season Riley has issued an unexpected and strong statement in defense of a star player. Both had such specifically targeted underlying messages.
One was in December when Dwyane Wade was suspended for kicking Charlotte Bobcats player Ramon Sessions in the groin area. Riley quickly issued a statement slamming the decision, an uncommon practice, and he further complained that opposing teams were "taking privileges" with Wade. That one toed the line a bit as it publicly hit at the league offices and vaguely referred to officiating. But it sure did make Wade feel like the organization was backing him up.
Now this, Riley lowering the boom on Ainge, complete with unneeded profanity, for what was generally an innocuous comment on a local radio show. Ainge is no stranger to gamesmanship, he was once fined for throwing a towel in the air from his courtside seat to try and distract an opposing player at the foul line during a playoff game.
Ainge was so taken aback by the Riley blast that he oddly issued a statement saying Riley was right. But he must've thought better of it when a reporter approached him later and he went to the old trusty line of mocking Riley's hair.
Truth is, Wade had gotten away with several borderline fouls over the last two seasons and the league got fed up with it and finally suspended him after he kicked Sessions. Furthermore, those Bulls fouls on James Wednesday were not dirty and definitely were not flagrant.
James was just frustrated at the way the game had gone and that the winning streak he'd invested so much in was gone. So he slipped into one of his few bad habits, which is to pout.
He did it first by committing an ill-timed cheap shot of his own that hurt his team when he flagrantly fouled Carlos Boozer. Then he complained about the Bulls' tactics afterward, which did cause eye rolling around the league. Ainge might've been the only one who said something about it -- why he felt the need to poke the bear, who knows -- but he wasn't the only one thinking it.
The merits of these defenses don't matter to Riley as much as the mission does. That mission is to keep Wade and James motivated in the short term and to keep James committed in the long term.
Whatever fallout there might be, Riley wins on this one in the Heat locker room. James was both surprised and impressed at how aggressive Riley was in going after a rival. It's the sort of thing you remember.
That's what Riley, a master of the long game, has been planning all along.