MIAMI (AP) — One of the last things Miami Heat President Pat Riley told LeBron James before free agency began this summer was that he would be selling potential players on the notion of playing alongside a four-time NBA MVP.
And James never made him think otherwise, Riley said – until roughly the same moment that the entire world was made aware of his plan to go home.
Riley made that revelation Wednesday, shortly after the Heat completed the signing of Chris Bosh to a $118 million, five-year contract and essentially wrapped up their roster-rebuilding project for next season, the first of the post-LeBron era in Miami.
The Heat have 12 players locked in for next season, Bosh and Dwyane Wade foremost among them, and Riley expects the four-time defending Eastern Conference champions to compete once again this coming year. But much of his first session offering in-depth remarks about free agency revolved, predictably, about James – the MVP who got away.
”I went into it with the thought and the notion that he was coming back and I was selling that to players,” Riley said. ”I believed that firmly so I was selling that to players. And that’s the only way I went into it. I let him know that. He never said to me, `No, don’t do that.”’
Riley, however, noted that he did not feel misled by James during free agency.
James is now back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that he left for Miami in 2010, four trips to the NBA Finals and two championships ago. The Heat scrambled quickly to move on to Plan B, locking up Bosh (whose signing was agreed to weeks ago) and Wade before long and avoiding what could have been an absolute disaster otherwise.
Riley said he’s become energized by the task of building a champion again.
”We are up to the challenge,” Riley said. ”We’re going to be as competitive as anybody, I think, in the Eastern Conference. I feel great, right now, today, making sure that we got Chris signed, got him under contract, and got D-Wade back and Udonis (Haslem) and the core of our foundation and we’ll go from here.”
Before he announced his decision, James and his inner circle summoned Riley and Heat general manager Andy Elisburg to Las Vegas for a meeting.
Riley and Elisburg left believing they had done well.
A day later, James was meeting with Sports Illustrated, collaborating on the first-person essay that would come out and announce his decision to return to Cleveland. The Heat were told of the contents of that essay moments before it was released publicly.
”I don’t get hurt,” Riley said. ”This is business. This is all business. As soon as something happens in this business, I had to react, we had to react as an organization, and we did.”
Riley said Wednesday that once the Heat learned that James was leaving, it was too late to get involved in the pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, who wound up re-signing with the New York Knicks.
Still, it was more than a salvage project. Wade and Bosh are both likely Hall of Fame players. The Heat wound up with some of their top free-agent targets in players like Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts, both of whom Riley raved about about.
Perhaps most importantly, the Heat not only figure to be good enough to compete now, but have the flexibility financially for Riley to go out in the already-anticipated free-agent summer of 2016 and try to build what he did when he got James, Wade and Bosh to team up.
And instead of blasting James – as Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert did when he left Cleveland in 2010 – the Heat have taken the high road, with managing general partner Micky Arison writing an open letter to fans this week reminding them that even without James, the franchise’s goal of winning more titles hasn’t changed.
”We’re going to try to make it another generational team,” Riley said.