There are a lot of ties connecting the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat as they head into an NBA Finals matchup absolutely bursting with storylines. LeBron James vs. his former team. The Lakers vs. Jimmy Butler, the player they considered in free agency, but a partnership neither side ultimately opted to consummate.
What struck me recently though, among those connections, was the one between the Lakers and Pat Riley, the legendary coach of the Showtime-era purple and gold who now serves as the Team President of the Heat.
In a profile from the legendary Wright Thompson, one of the through-lines of the story of how much Riley still feels connected to Southern California and his Malibu home. His wife calls it their “heart home,” Riley’s friend Michael Douglas says that getting back to it is “all he talks about,” and Thompson writes that Riley sometimes just looks at security camera footage of the house in his office.
In the context of this series, Riley’s love for the Los Angeles area is an interesting dynamic, and it’s even more intriguing when considering that in a different world, Riley comes back to coach the Lakers.
Does that sound crazy? Well according to Shaquille O’Neal in Jeff Pearlman’s new book, “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” Riley considered it back in 2004, when the Lakers had just lost in the NBA Finals, and Phil Jackson was on his way out.
From the book (emphasis mine):
Jackson departed the facility once again, this time summoned to Jerry Buss’s home. It was a 10-minute drive, and en route the (still) coach of the Los Angeles Lakers pondered every way this meeting could go. He also likely pondered a rumor that had been circulating for several days. According to O’Neal, at the same time the basketball world had concluded that Jackson was done, Pat Riley was telling the Lakers that he wanted the job. The Miami Heat president had played for Los Angeles from 1970 to 1975, then coached the team to four titles in the 1980s. Southern California had always been his place, his first geographical love. “We all knew Pat was after it,” O’Neal said. “He wanted to be the Laker guy.”
Jackson parked, rang the doorbell. After a couple of minutes of small talk, Buss said, “Phil, we’re going in a different direction.”
“I suppose so,” Jackson replied. “That seems logical.”
Then he left.
After Jackson departed, though, the Lakers ultimately didn’t hire Riley. Why? Because they were in the process of trading him O’Neal, which led Riley to recommit to the Heat, where he ultimately coached O’Neal and Dwyane Wade to a title as the Lakers rebuilt around Kobe Bryant, recruited LeBron James and Chris Bosh for two more, and has built back into (at least) an Eastern Conference Champion again.
Once more, from “Three Ring Circus,” emphasis mine:
Within a month, the Lakers and the Heat completed the year’s blockbuster trade. After O’Neal told Kupchak he would sign off on a swap to Miami, he was sent to South Florida for three players (Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and Caron Butler) and a pair of draft picks. The teaming of O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, the explosive guard who had just wrapped his rookie season, was a coup from Riley, who told his new center he was no longer interested in a return to Los Angeles. “Pat knew he had gold,” O’Neal recalled. “We were a lot closer to winning a ring in Miami than the Lakers were without me.”
The Lakers and Heat both probably wouldn’t change how things went — after all, they’ve both won multiple titles since and are back in the Finals once again — but it’s fascinating to think about a world where Riley comes back to coach Kobe Bryant.
How different would the Lakers have been in past years (and how differently would they have been viewed) with Riley as their consigliere? We’ll never know, but it’s interesting to imagine, especially as the two sides get set for their first ever NBA Finals matchup.
Or maybe we don’t even have to imagine, since another storyline of the bubble has been Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s slow physical transformation into Riley:
If the Lakers team Pelinka helped build wins the title, he’ll be well on his way to being viewed, if not just as highly, at least with a lot more respect that he was given last summer. And Lakers fans won’t have to spend the summer thinking a little more about this historical “What If” than they otherwise might have.
“Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” is on sale now, and it’s a must-read for all Lakers fans. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, where we talked to Pearlman about the book. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.