A prominent NBA coach who believes his job is in jeopardy agreed to help compile a list of his peers who might be fired or might switch jobs at the end of the season. After only a few moments he realized it would be faster simply to list the handful of coaches who have job security. "O.K.," he said, "there's Pat Riley, and who else?"
Good question. The 1996-97 NBA season has been marred by a stunning lack of respect for coaches, from, to cite just two examples, the players' revolt in Orlando, which triggered the removal of Brian Hill, to the behavior of Portland guard Isaiah Rider, whose repeated violations of team rules have helped put P.J. Carlesimo on the hot seat.
No such antics have gone on in Miami. At week's end the Heat had won 11 of its last 12 games and. with a 56-18 record, appeared to be peaking as the playoffs approached. Miami has also regained the services of swingman Dan Majerle, who was out from Jan. 8 to April 1 while recuperating from back surgery, and center Alonzo Mourning, who had missed 13 games with a torn plantar fascia tendon in his right foot.
The Heat's success is remarkable, considering that it was written off as a serious contender last summer after commissioner David Stern nullified Miami's contract with coveted free-agent power forward Juwan Howard and Riley failed to win over point guard Gary Payton, who re-signed with the Sonics. Riley replaced Howard with a free agent with much more modest credentials, P.J. Brown, who has responded with a career season. Riley also challenged point guard Tim Hardaway to dispel his image as a malcontent with a bad right knee. Hardaway regained All-Star status and at week's end had missed no games because of knee pain.
Riley rounded out his roster with hungry players like Isaac Austin and Voshon Lenard, who have had a huge impact on the performance and personality of this close-knit team. Why do the Miami players listen to Riley, when many of their peers around the league aren't listening to their coaches? "Because he makes you the best you can be," says Mourning. "The last thing you want to do is disappoint him. I'd do anything for him, because I know he'd do anything for me."
The Heat's ability to win on the road has been amazing. Last Thursday's 92-78 victory over the Pacers upped Miami's record in away games to 29-9, the best in the NBA through Sunday, and enabled Riley to establish a career high in wins on the road. Even his storied Lakers teams didn't win 29 road games; the champion Lakers of 1986-87 came closest, going 28-13 outside the Forum.
One reason for the Heat's great road record may be that Riley whipped the team into excellent condition early in the season, while most other teams were playing their way into shape. During a six-game road trip in November, Miami went 6-0. But the Heat has continued to play well on the road all season.
Riley was feeling so good about his team last week that he mentioned in passing that he wanted Miami to finish the season with a better record than that of the Western Conference-leading Jazz. By doing that, the Heat would have home court advantage in the playoffs against every team in the West—assuming Miami got to the Finals.
There is, of course, a little obstacle called the Bulls, who were on pace for another 70-win season and had all but clinched home court advantage throughout the postseason. The Bulls may have even given themselves a boost last week by signing center-forward Brian Williams for the remainder of the season. Williams was a big loser in last summer's free-agent bidding: He asked the Clippers, his former team, for a seven-year, $101 million contract, but their final offer was $16.8 million over four years, which he rejected. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in September and, because no team felt comfortable offering him an overwhelming deal, he sat out until joining Chicago.
Riley, who had pursued Williams, says he was surprised by the signing. "We talked to him a month ago. He told us he was not going to come back this year at all," Riley told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last week.