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Monday, December 31
Riley: It's just not working

By Jeffrey Denberg
Special to ESPN.com

Pat Riley's world is collapsing around him and he is not dealing well with his first NBA disaster.

Pat Riley
After 19 consecutive playoff seasons, Pat Riley likely will be on the sidelines when the postseason gets started.
He lashes out at players he collected for the Miami Heat.

He marks a tentative finish to his own coaching career.

He scolds his critics, those outsiders who really can't penetrate his closed society.

None of the motivational techniques work these days.

The one man who was his best player, his ferocious beast, is ill and runs as though he has sandbags tied to his ankles and there is no oxygen in the air.

Riley came to Miami with Alonzo Mourning and they are going downhill together; Riley as a beleaguered coach who cannot find solutions for his 5-23 team and Mourning a victim of a debilitating kidney ailment.

It is tempting to blame all Miami's problems on Mourning's disease because he was such a strong physical symbol. In losses to Atlanta and Memphis heading into the weekend, Mourning missed 10 of 12 free throws and often was unable to control the ball on the second night of the back-to-back (six turnovers against the Grizzlies). These are the signs of a player who lacks stamina. A 71 percent free-throw shooter before his illness, Mourning shoots 56 percent now.

Were Mourning still a lion maybe the Heat might still be a contender. Maybe Tim Hardaway would still be in a Miami uniform. These days, Riley occasionally touches on the dissipation of Mourning, but he often speaks of Hardaway in the way you would imagine the Biblical Saul when he talked of David after the shepherd boy fled his camp.

"Tim had a special gift that none of these players have," Riley said. "He had a cannon. He had one with his arm and one with his mouth. That's what I loved about Hardaway."

Recall that Riley declined to re-sign Hardaway and Dan Majerle, two who know how to win. He ran them out of the organization as he did one of his loyal lieutenants, Jeff Bzdelik. He drained them and dropped them. It's the Riley way.

After a recent loss, Riley said of his players, "For them to lose 10 of 11 (at home) is unconscionable." Notice how he separated himself from his players.

Then hear him as he says, "The only way I can coach is I have to deeply believe in what I do in order to overcome the disbelief others have in me and the system. That's how the players have to feel, too."

This is a cult leader talking.

Riley doesn't trust kids so he brought in veteran players with losing backgrounds: Jim Jackson, who has drifted through the league like a desert nomad; LaPhonso Ellis, a nice man who has become a drifter; Chris Gatling, whom one coach said could never play in the fourth quarter for a winning team; Kendall Gill, whose game epitomized the old Nets; and Rod Strickland, whose record for driving under the influence, being late, missing games and practices is documented in our nation's capital.

Then he wonders why his players do not understand sacrifice and fundamental play. That's like the British in 1776 complaining that the Hessians speak accented English.

"It's just not working," Riley said. "We've known that for two weeks. Fumble around, stumble around. They forget plays. I've been trying to jolt them for 27 games. We can't beat these teams. It's disturbing. Unless the leadership stands up, I don't think anybody's listening."

What leadership?

And here's the news. Riley will not consider trading his $86 million babies Brian Grant and Eddie Jones. He sees them as the foundation for Miami's turnaround. But this is not going to happen until 2003-04, Riley says, when the Heat go $20 million under the expected cap ceiling.

"The notion with me is always thinking about winning while you're thinking about rebuilding," Riley said over the weekend. "We're building toward 2003. Between now and then, I would like to stay competitive. That's why I signed some of these veteran players. That's why we pulled the trigger on Eddie Jones and Brian Grant.

Out of one side of his mouth he says, "We can build around those guys with about $20 million in cap space then. That's the plan." Out of the other side he says, "I don't think you can get lottery picks (for them)." Then how good are Jones and Grant?

When you think it can't get worse, it gets
Pat Riley

It is Mourning at $20 million who comes off the cap after next season when only Jones, Grant and Anthony Carter will be on the payroll at a combined $28.5. His body ravaged, Mourning will certainly retire by then if, in fact, he does not see the light and walk away at the end of this season. Certainly, he isn't helping himself and he cannot do enough to help Riley turn this thing around.

The Heat were on the right path, Riley said, and then "Mourning coming down with kidney disease kind of put everything in arrears."

No question of that. Jones and Grant are second bananas, followers on the court and they have no one to follow. Yet, Riley clings to an unrealistic picture of a team that has lost 12 of 15 home games.

"Until we're 20 games out of a playoff spot, I don't know. It could get better quick." Riley says. "I like our versatility and flexibility as the franchise moves on."

Miami has lost two to Cleveland and one to Memphis at home, lost a home game to Utah by 39 points, lost two in Atlanta, dropped 12 in a row at one stretch. The team needs to finish 36-19 to finish at .500 and Riley doesn't want to give up.

Alternately, he has spoken about walking away as coach, giving the job to Stan Van Gundy, although there is no indication owner Micky Arison would allow that.

After his team blew an 18-point lead with 14 minutes to play in Atlanta, he was widely quoted, saying, "When you think it can't get worse, it gets worse."

Remember that. Jeffrey Denberg, who covers the NBA for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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