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SKOLNICK: Riley needs to put out the fire he started

Ethan J. Skolnick

July 13, 2005

If Pat Riley really did not recognize the flammability of a semi-provocative statement during a slow sports time, at least the Heat president has considerable experience extinguishing such fires.

So why hasn't he?

This is a man so word-conscious that, a decade after saying he "envisioned" a parade, he reminded a reporter that he had never actually "promised" one.

So why hasn't he clearly, definitively, angrily, and -- here's the key -- publicly said that Stan Van Gundy is the Heat coach for the foreseeable future? Why hasn't he listed reasons for that decision, however obvious: Van Gundy winning 101 games with two different rosters and styles, preparing his team exhaustively, rarely slipping against underdogs, and rising within a rib strain and thigh bruise of the NBA Finals? Why was Van Gundy vague about his status Monday? Why did Van Gundy's brother, Jeff, recently say strange things on WFAN, like "Stan deserves an answer" and should be given time to "hook on with another team" if the Heat doesn't want him?

At first, this controversy appeared short on credence. Even after Riley suggested June 17 he might take a more "active participation" while again speaking wistfully of coaching, the frenzied reaction seemed just a time-killing, logic-twisting, mind-numbing media obsession borne of summer boredom. "Active participation," after all, could have simply and innocuously meant serving as a sounding board for players and coaches. As such, you could understand Riley's refusal to grant subsequent sensational inquiries the dignity of thorough on-the-record responses. Further, you could understand why he wouldn't rule out any option, to avoid being accused of breaking his word if unforeseen circumstances someday warranted sideline change.

Mostly, you had to assume Riley had reassured his protégé in private.

Now we're weeks past "at first."

So is this, at last, resolved?

If Van Gundy is vague about his status? If Alonzo Mourning is saying on 760-AM Tuesday that he didn't know who would coach, but that the Heat couldn't go wrong with either?

Shouldn't they be clear, even if we're not?

While Riley's handling has been vexing, the public has responded predictably to the obvious question:

Would it be reasonable and forgivable for Riley to shove his long-time loyalist aside, now that the roster is more attractive than when he quit in October of 2003?

Of course it wouldn't be. It would be ego-driven treachery of the greatest degree. But fans and media usually side with the bigger name, so many have found a convenient rationalization to answer that question affirmatively: "Riley, as team president, must do whatever he deems in the best interests of the franchise."

Yet, why are they so certain it is in the franchise's best interests for Riley to coach?

Could there be wisdom in the current structure, with Riley focusing on supporting and equipping Van Gundy?

Could Van Gundy actually be the better coaching choice for this team at this time?

Yes, he could. Forget the pedigrees and the presentation, and consider that.

Van Gundy lost Game 7 on his home floor. Still, no one called for change when Riley lost deciding games at home in 1998, 1999 and 2000. While those Heat rosters were not as talented, Riley wasn't coaching against defending champions.

Van Gundy has made some curious in-game decisions and does not claim the strategic and motivational expertise of his master mentor. This, however, is about a process, not a single game. The locker room is far looser now, for the better. The young, athletic, quicker-paced players get more rope. Many have questioned why Van Gundy sat Dwyane Wade for the final minute of the 2004 postseason. Ask this instead: would the rookie Wade, with his defensive deficiencies, have played enough under Riley for the Heat to get that far? Would Riley have allowed go-go guards Rafer Alston and Keyon Dooling to fill critical roles? And, with a need for more athleticism in support of Shaquille O'Neal, would Riley be sufficiently patient with Qyntel Woods and Dorell Wright now?

Van Gundy's "pedal to the metal" philosophy can exasperate, such as when Wade gets garbage minutes in winter blowouts of the Clippers. This season, when the Heat clinches its soft division, it would be best if he let O'Neal escape to some remote island, far from stray knees. But who set the organizational agenda? You know who.

Van Gundy, a screamer, could channel more criticism toward his stars (as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does) rather than role guys such as Udonis Haslem and Rasual Butler. But this controversy has only served to undermine the authority required to do that.

The story, strangely, still breathes, feeds, burns.

Extinguish it, Pat Riley.

Unless you'd rather not.