By Questioning Superstar's Guts After Finals Loss, Heat GM Enabled His Departure

By Steve Silverman
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Those who have followed this column regularly — or even just once in a while — know that I have rarely ventured into writing about the NBA.

Don’t think for a second that it has anything to do with a lack of interest or love for the sport. Like many of you, basketball was the primary sport of my youth. It was the sport that we ventured to play every day — EVERY DAY! –after school or in the summer.

While we were working at developing our skills, there was a great love affair out there with the New York Knicks. More than 40 years have passed since the team’s heyday during the 1969-70 season with players like Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett and Dave DeBusschere, and the strength of that bond only grew stronger when the great Earl “The Pearl” Monroe came over from the Baltimore Bullets. You know that team today as the Washington Wizards.

It has been a long, nasty dry spell for the Knicks since the 1972-73 season, the last time they brought home an NBA championship.

It seems like the team basketball and voracious defense that Red Holzman used to preach have long been forgotten by the Knicks, but the championship won by the San Antonio Spurs just a few weeks ago shows that those concepts are still valid.

The individual talent of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is undeniable, but it’s the meshing of their talents with players like Kawhi Leonard (perhaps the game’s next superstar), Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Ryan that made it all work so well.

If there’s anyone outside of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson who should know this, it’s former Knicks boss and current Miami Heat general manager Pat Riley.

Perhaps Riley was still hurting when he challenged the manhood of LeBron James shortly after the Heat lost the NBA Finals to the Spurs in five games. As the series ended, Riley knew that James could decide to opt out of the contract he signed with the Heat four years ago.

If Riley was interested in furthering his partnership with James, he sure had a strange way of showing it. Instead of talking about the future he was going to build for the Heat, he said James shouldn’t take the easy way out.

“This stuff is hard. And you’ve got to stay together, if you’ve got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it,” Riley said.

If you want to run your superstar and the best player in the game out of town, Riley just wrote the book on the subject.

James is clearly the most divisive athlete on the national stage today, as he has more detractors than anyone not named Alex Rodriguez.

James may have brought all this on himself when he decided to take his talents to South Beach, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he is the best all-around player in the game and that the Heat would become a shell of a team without him.

If there’s anyone who should have appreciated LBJ, it’s Riley. Instead, he was wondering if James had the guts to stick it out.

This would have been a stupid game plan for any executive, but for the guy that pulled James out of Cleveland in the first place, it’s an incredibly infantile move.

James delivered the Heat four NBA Finals appearances and two championships in four seasons. He doesn’t owe that franchise a thing.

James, it appears, may be on his way back to Cleveland. I don’t have James’ sources who are close to the scene feeding me decisive information like so many of  the experts you can see online, on the air or in today’s newspapers, but that move could be the best thing that ever happened to James.

His image was in superb shape before he decided to leave Cleveland via free agency, and a move back to his hometown would undoubtedly bring him the love that disappeared with his departure.

The Cavs, by virtue of Wednesday’s three-team trade involving the Nets and Celtics, appear to be clearing the cap space to bring James aboard.

If that happens by Thursday or Friday, Riley will be standing open-mouthed and wondering how that happened.

He will have only himself to blame.

Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy

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