It could have been a demolition derby. To listen to Pat Riley tell it, the twists and turns of the Miami Heat's offseason have been devastating, daunting, deceitful, briefly demoralizing.
And based on the days that preceded LeBron James' NBA free-agency departure to the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this month, apparently diabolical, as well.
While the focus of Riley's teleconference Wednesday with select media members was to sum up a Heat offseason that was resurrected by the re-signing of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem, the free-agency additions of Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, and the signings of draft picks Shabazz Napier and James Ennis, it also was just as much about the player who won't be there when the 2014-15 season opens.
"After 45 years, I think I’ve been around at least 15 transcendent players that have walked out the door -- either left the team, retired, got traded, went somewhere else -- and you move on," the 69-year-old Heat president said in a measured but firm tone. "We were shocked, but we recovered."
James' July 11 announcement came just two days after Riley met with his franchise cornerstone in Las Vegas, as he continued to operate in free agency believing James would be back and the Heat would be unable to land other high-end free-agency targets.
"There wasn't anything in that meeting that told me that wasn't going to happen," Riley said of the anticipated return by James. "I've moved on quickly from that, 'We are going to build another championship team and that's it.'
"This business, as we find it, is tough. Sometimes you have those tough calls and sometimes things happen to you that you don't like but you’ve got to move on."
Never, Riley said, were the Heat dissuaded from the belief that James would return, even with it later revealed that James had met in South Florida with Cavaliers management prior to James' Las Vegas meeting with the Heat.
''I went into it with the thought and the notion that he was coming back," Riley said, "and I was selling that to players, 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.' ''
"I don't think I was misled. But I don't think I was encouraged either. That's business."
Instead, there was silence.
"I sent him a lot of emails and texts," Riley said. "I was communicating a lot with him. No response."
The Heat advanced to the NBA Finals in each of James' four seasons in South Florida, the 2012 and '13 titles the lone championships of James' career.
In late June, after the Heat were blown out of the final three games of the NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs, ending the Heat's two-year championship run, Riley urged his players to return to fight a better fight, in what many took as a direct challenge to James.
"You know how I react when things don't go well. I get upset," Riley said of that June diatribe from a podium at AmericanAirlines Arena. "We all get upset. That's how I was after the particular loss. It wasn't about making a direct comment to any one player, because everyone on our team was a free agent or ready to become a free agent, except Norris Cole. My message was we are going to come stronger than ever."
Instead, weeks later, it came apart, with James choosing to return closer to his Akron, Ohio, roots, back to his original NBA franchise, with what many view as a stronger supporting cast going forward.
That had Riley scrambling, circling back to Deng after cap space suddenly opened, upping his offer to the league maximum to retain Bosh, holding on to commitments made by McRoberts and Granger when the expectation was that James would be returning.
"Nobody," Riley said, "tried to back out of this thing and tried to move somewhere else."
Riley also tried to make a late run at Carmelo Anthony, who eventually re-signed with the New York Knicks for far more than he could have received elsewhere.
"That dance card had been punched," he said of the too-late push for Anthony. "We were a little bit late to that party. I made a call, but we were late in on that one."
So instead, the focus turned to remaining competitive in a restructured Eastern Conference, while also remaining flexible to rebuild in 2016, when the next wave of major free agents are set to hit the market. That had the majority of Heat contracts, beyond those of Bosh and Granger, limited to two-year offers.
"We were always looking at 2016 as a possibility to be a player," he said of a long view that would have been in place even had James returned. "All of our players were aware of that. We always wanted a window in 2016.
"In 2016, just about every team in the league is going to have more than $10 million in room. It tells how teams are positioning themselves for the future. The way the NBA is today, you always have to look ahead of the time at those possibilities."
As for the sting of July 11, Riley said what cut deepest was not being able to push forward with the rare opportunity to become a staple in the NBA Finals.
"The process didn't take anything out of me other than this one notion: You have a chance to build a generational team. . . . That chain has been broken prematurely. We are going to try to make it another generational team. That's what my objective is."
He said he will push forward. Without malice. Scarred but not scathed.
"I don't get hurt," he said. "Very rarely do I get hurt. My wife will hurt me. My daughter might hurt me. You have an instinct about certain things. As soon as something happens, I had to react and we did. The hurt didn't last very long."
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