Pat Riley Vs. Lebron James: the True Rivalry of the 2020 NBA Finals
Over the last week, we have seen the biggest duel the NBA bubble has seen yet: the Miami Heat vs. the Los Angles Lakers competing to take home the championship trophy to their respective cities. At the time of publication, there still has not been a conclusion of the series. The Miami Heat just claiming the win in game three, changing the score to 2-1 in the Lakers' favor. This article, however, will not discuss the nitty-gritty details of the series itself, but instead, focus on what a Championship win could mean for each of the teams.
In all honesty, the Heat can lose this championship and still claim that they have won all that they ever needed to. The Heat truly entered this playoff season as an underdog, topping off at just the fifth seed in the eastern conference finals. A seed in basketball simply is a ranking given to a team in their respective conference (either east or west). Despite this, they were able to take on the number 1 seed, the Milwaukee bucks, and bring them down with a five-game series by neutralizing their main player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two time MVP all-start player. The Heat has already proven itself as a powerhouse in the eastern conference that has good, young talent to develop in the future, like Tyler Hero and Bam Adebayo. One person who might be extra motivated to win this trophy, however, is the long-time president of the Heat, Pat Riley.
For background, Pat Riley has basketball almost running through his DNA at this point, having experienced what it's like to be a player, coach, and now president of a team. Over his career, he has been part of 17 NBA championships and being able to snag at least 8 of those as wins. What matters here, however, is that in 2010, Lebron James left the Clevland Cavaliers after 7 seasons, taking his talents to South Beach to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh as a member of the Heat. Lebron was at the heat for 4 years, where he and his squad would make it to the championship round each year and earn Miami 2 trophies. Pat Riley was confident that the Heat would be able to become a massive dynasty that would dominate the 2010's as long as his big three players stuck around. However, to Riley's dismay, this would all change at a hotel room in Los Vegas during the 2014 free agency period.
Pat, Lebron, and a few others met in a hotel room in Vegas. At this point, Pat was already nervous when going into the meeting. He knew that this meeting would probably decide whether or not his dynasty could actually morph into something greater. Without Lebron, his trio couldn't stand, and there would most certainly be some form of conflict from the players and staff that remain. Sadly for him, he would not get the outcome he wanted in the meeting. Throughout the meeting it was rather apparent Lebron did not have in interest in what the Heat was saying, constantly getting distracted by the world cup game being played on a nearby TV. Lebron would call him afterward and thank him, which was all Pat needed to hear to know what conclusion he had reached. Soon after, Lebron would announce that he was packing up his talent in South Beach and heading back to Cleveland.
Pat was apparently shocked by this information, according to an ESPN interview. He said "I went silent" and that "I didn't say anything. My mind began to just go. I was very angry when Lebron left. It was personal for me. It just was." Pat was forced to go into a rebuilding period after Lebron's departure that lasted for the next six years, concluding with their championship appearance this year. While Pat may tell you he doesn't blame Lebron for what he did, going back to his home town and winning them a title, that does not mean he has forgotten what Lebron did to his legacy. Now, he is out for vengeance. He's not here to accept the accomplishments they as a team have already done this season. He's out to win, zero exceptions. However, so is Lebron.
This is perhaps Lebron's single most important NBA Finals, the point in which the last two teams remaining in the playoffs go and butt-heads for our delight, that he has ever been in. Lebron in his career has been to over 10 finals if you count the one he is in right now, being able to rack up 3 wins out of those appearances. If Lebron wins these finals, it helps prove how he is one of the most vicious threats of this generation. Winning this would also allow Lebron fans another talking point to contest the most popular belief that M.J. is the G.O.A.T. and instead argue that Lebron is. This is because one of M.J.'s most acclaimed accomplishments is that he won 6 championships in his time at the Chicago Bulls, but if Lebron won this final, he would have 4. Also, Pat Riley may hate Lebron, but Lebron hates Pat Riley as well. Lebron has hinted in the past that Riley had doubted that he (Lebron) could ever achieve anything better then what he had done in Miami, saying, " When I decided to leave Miami - I'm not going to name names, I can't do that- but there were some people [presumably Pat Riley is the one being referred to here] that I trusted and built relationships within these four years [who] told me I was making the biggest mistake in my career." Although Lebron is very cryptic about what he says involving his past, there still seems to be ongoing beef with Riley, and it would be of great satisfaction for him to take home this win against Riley.
On the other hand, if somehow Lebron ends up blowing his lead to the Heat, it would be the most consequential point in his 17-year career. Lebron would have to deal with it as in every lasting stain on his legacy. His mantra is that he is the greatest player of all time and if not that, a close second. However, by losing to the small fifth seed in the overall easier Eastern conference, losing to the team that he once called home, losing to a man that has pushed back his retirement just to maybe one day taste the sweetness of revenge, would be a devastating blow never the less. On top of that, Lebron would also mess up what could have been one of the best ways to pay respects for the late Kobe Bryant, which is winning a championship for the team he helped bring back to full glory.
Lebron, at most, probably has about five years left before we can confidently say that he may or may not retire, but it must be stated that Lebron has already probably achieved the best longevity of any player, perhaps in the history of the NBA. That being said, he is not going to get any younger, and a decline in his performance is all but inevitable now. Perhaps this is the last year where he can be the focal point of a championship-winning team and not just an overqualified sidekick. He must win the title now, because, before long, his pure will-power and strength may not be enough to stop upcoming threats.
This is a finals series that at heart isn't about the championships or the rings, but instead about something deeper: legacy and vengeance. Pat is seeking revenge for destroying what could have been a dynasty that had the potential to dominate for the next decade or so, and making him one of the best presidents the NBA has ever had. For Lebron, he is also seeking vengeance for the ways he was doubted by his old team, but also to make him shine as one of the most accomplished players in basketball history, as well as honoring the late Kobe Bryant, one of his biggest inspirations. The purpose of this article was not to predict the outcome of the series but to let the reader understand what is at stake for both sides. Despite this, no matter who wins, both teams have had amazing seasons, and that is something worth admiring.
Sources: https://www.sportscasting.com/pat-riley-was-very-angry-when-lebron-james-left-the-heat-said-it-was-personal/, https://www.cbssports.com/nba/news/lakers-heat-nba-finals-lebron-james-and-pat-riley-face-off-in-bitter-rivalry-between-two-geniuses-now-at-odds/, https://www.espn.com/nba/player/_/id/1966/lebron-james, https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/r/rileypa01.html