We are now 27 years into Pat Riley's tenure with the Miami Heat. The franchise existed for just seven years before he left the New York Knicks for a situation in South Florida where he would have more control, which he had craved ever since he became one of the NBA's most winning-obsessed, mafioso-posing freaks during the 1980s, with the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers. There, his championship success eventually morphed into folly, with his hard-driving id lapsing into a parody of itself during his final season in the Great Western Forum, and the team grew tired of his madness. That specific insanity was a miracle for the Knicks, who pushed the first iteration of Michael Jordan's famed Chicago Bulls of the 90s closer to the brink than any other team, and Madison Square Garden shined with life it has never seen since.
Over what is nearly three decades with the Heat, Riley has turned his overbearing vision for basketball into a company-wide edict, rich with cultish lore and numerous back-texts. There is a demand upon players to skim their bodies down to ridiculous, probably unhealthy levels of fat percentages, most hilariously described via Jermaine O'Neal's vivid story about going to war with the Oreo cookies in his pantry. There are anecdotes about beautiful ocean views being obscured during practices, so that players would not feel too generous in their minds. Most recently, there was a mid-game fight, between the team's star player and its coach, on live television—an incident considered more virtue than defect in Riley's kingdom, where intensity reigns and anyone afraid of the passions of winners should kindly redirect themselves to elsewhere.
It has all undeniably worked. Over those 27 years, the Heat have missed the postseason just six times. They have had nine Eastern Conference Finals appearances, six conference championships, and three NBA titles. A paragon of basketball effectiveness, the Heat are so expected to do well by now that when the 2021-22 version of the team held down the top seed of their conference for much of the year, no one really even noticed. Same for when they beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, and the talented but dysfunctional Philadelphia 76ers in the second; of course they did, because they're the Heat. It took a gutty, injury-inflected seven-game push against the heavily favored Boston Celtics for people to start paying much attention to them again.
And no one is more responsible for the latest round of Miami Heat respect than the aforementioned player who got into a spat with coach Erik Spoelstra: Jimmy Butler. Both Butler and Spoelstra are legendary come-up guys, but Spoelstra has been the Heat's coach since Riley—typically reluctant to cede power at any level in the franchise—gave him his blessing in 2008. This was after he'd spent 13 years working up in the organization, starting as a video coordinator. Now revered as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, Spoelstra's gravitas and authority are essentially never questioned, except for by Butler. Famously homeless for parts of his youth, the Heat's best player is simply different from other members of the NBA fraternity—so much so that his exit from his previous three teams carry with them more than just whispers of those transitions having to do with people around him losing their tolerance for his singular energy, however good he may be at his job on the court.
Sound familiar? Butler and Riley are a match made in heaven, which for everyone else around them is hell. The Celtics barely clawed their way through it, surviving just enough of the Heat's persistent ball-swipes and passing lane takeaways to move on and face the Golden State Warriors in the championship round. Boston got three of their series victories in the series by way of blowout, looking like the obviously superior team; but straight-forward talent appraisals have a way of getting muddled against Miami. Theirs is an approach to basketball both more physically and mentally taxing than anything easily described, and best understood by watching all the ugly attrition of a long series they're a part of, with bodies literally falling by the end of it.
It took a lot for the Heat to drag Boston to that point, especially while they themselves were falling apart. That struggle vortex is the domain they've been conditioned to live in, though, and Butler strung together several record-book performances this postseason by just often enough having the legs to rise up and make jumpers in such a compressed, brutal terrain. He is more at home in this torture dungeon. Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker complemented the Heat's sludgy approach in the front court, as did Kyle Lowry at point guard, and Max Strus emerged as the latest Heat Culture development trophy to round out the lineup that very nearly made its way to the NBA Finals through sheer brash resoluteness.
What faces Miami, next, if they are to add another title to their illustrious shelf, probably involves hunting down some kind of talent upgrade this summer. They will need more youth, athleticism, and shotmaking to give the Celtics, or the Milwaukee Bucks they lost to in 2021, another serious go. Sixth Man of The Year Tyler Herro, who missed most of this year's loss to Boston out with injury, can provide some of that, but he has yet to turn into anything at all resembling the kind of demonic mud monster on defense that his franchise demands all their players to be. Riley likely loves the young man's unmistakable chutzpah, but he may soon grow tired of his lack of bullying skills.
Regardless of how the Heat build out the team around Adebayo and Butler—as Butler's career inches closers to its latter phase and his status as one of the league's better players without a title grows louder—the team's ethos will remain strong as long as Riley is alive, and as long as Spoelstra (who is better than ever) is willing to do his head coaching job. There is clearly some money being left on the floor, though, given how impressive Butler looked in this postseason; it would be easy to argue that no player has been more impactful in this tournament. Throughout Riley's outstanding, long term running the team, better players have come and gone (there was, you know, LeBron James), but none have more epitomized his mission than Butler, and giving him the help he needs to bring another Larry O'Brien trophy to South Beach could be the perfect capstone achievement for one of the sport's most accomplished architects.