Welcome to Pat Riley vs. LeBron James. Executive vs. player. The teacher vs. the student -- with the student, now a guru himself, eying a final takedown of the former Big Man in charge.
There is much to be excited about as the Finals get underway Wednesday night. There's LeBron James' continued pursuit of Michael Jordan's hallowed place as the game's greatest all-time player. There's Anthony Davis' opportunity to help lift the Lakers to a title, and his own stature to another level. There's an incredibly deep, well-coached Miami Heat team more capable of an upset than some might suspect.
Just don't lose track of LeBron vs. Riley, a rivalry for the history books, and one shaped by each man's association and soured relationship with the other.
Just as LeBron James may end his career regarded as the best player in NBA history, Riley, too, can lay claim to trying to chase down a singular distinction: The NBA's greatest winner, ever, when his basketball career is taken in its totality.
Some context: LeBron, beginning tonight, will have competed in 10 NBA Finals out of 74 played in the game's history, winning three. That's an astounding 13.5 percent of all Finals having involved LeBron.
Yet Riley's grasp on the game's most important event is longer and more impressive. As a player, Riley reached three Finals, winning one. As a head coach, he led his teams to nine trips to the Finals, and came away with five championships. Riley was also the top executive for the four Miami Heat teams that made the Finals, which won two more rings, after luring Chris Bosh and, of course, LeBron James and all that talent to South Beach.
That's up there with Bill Russell, though for Riley, at least on the coaching end, he competed in an era with many, many more teams in the way. It's up there with Phil Jackson. With Jerry West, too, however you'd like to tabulate his post-playing effect on teams who have been here.
All told, Riley teams -- played for, coached, and led from the front office -- have participated in 17 NBA Finals, winning eight. That's just about one-in-four NBA Finals ever played left with Riley's fingerprints upon them.
Yes, LeBron's impact on the game is absolute. But just because Riley's successes haven't always been on the floor doesn't mean his presence hasn't been felt, and overwhelming.
Riley raised up this Heat culture. He molded Erik Spoelstra from a video room guy into a celebrated, stunningly great head coach. Riley inherited when he arrived in Miami a long-time Heat official named Andy Elisburg, who, under Riley's guidance, became one of the game's top cap experts, and now the general manager under whose own tenure the Heat drafted Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro with mid-first-round picks. Riley took his own personality, his own vision of winning basketball, and distilled it down to the very specific Heat culture and approach that defines this team. He was the mentor to other masters, and the creator of the Heat Way.
These are LeBron's Lakers, no doubt. But this is equally Riley's Heat.
Riley's intensity, vision, approach, charm, knowledge and absolutism on how the Heat culture operates, and how to go about winning through it, helped pave the way for the arrival of LeBron and Bosh in 2010. What followed, with those two players paired with Dwyane Wade, ushered in some magical basketball and two titles.
Then, LeBron left. In, for Miami, an abrupt, brutal -- and they'd tell you in private, ungrateful -- fashion. LeBron, conversely, had grown tired of a condescending nature, a feeling exacerbated by how Riley responded to the exit.
So the glory of that time together turned to acrimony. The breakup, as they do, ended up defining them more than the relationship itself.
LeBron James hasn't been hated within the league -- loathed, mocked, rooted against by fans and organizations alike -- since 2011, when he closed out that emotional and turbulent first year with the Heat. That'll change tonight.
The Heat, as an organization, do not like LeBron. The fans do not. The media in South Florida does not. It is its own amazing irony that those who most aggressively defended LeBron against critics in that first year -- including me, who as a beat columnist covered that season with a large amount of fault-finding directed aggressively to King James -- will now pull us aside and bemoan LeBron in so many ways. What he was like to manage, the behind-the-scenes difficulties of an emerging superstar, and, ultimately, how rudely he left. A wink at how, yes, some of you mean writers were right all along.
LeBron in many things is a paradox. Remarkably kind and emphatic in private, but at times shockingly callous in a locker room. One of the great postseason players in NBA history, but someone who got there not by his infallibility but by the lessons learned from his inability and epic fail in that 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. A master of the media and his brand who is beloved now because he experienced the raw fact of what it was to be truly hated. Hungry to learn and grow his game, but jealous of anyone who might infringe on his views of how things should be done.
And -- the one that was too much for Riley, and the Heat -- a basketball Midas that turns all things he touches to gold, sure, but only until he leaves. In his absence all that shined can turn as quickly to dust.
LeBron will not force his way out -- he will honor his contract, because he strives to be honorable -- but he will leave you with the cupboards bare, the future bleak, your heart broken, your team set back years.
He did it to Cleveland, twice. But they do not hate him as Miami does. If beggars can't be choosers, it's equally true choosers feel a particular sense of bitterness when they suddenly find themselves having to beg. That was Miami when LeBron left, when Riley offered up his ill-advised "if you've got the guts" comment.
Don't believe the idea Riley and LeBron have moved on. Competitors of that level do not forget. It's the remembering, often, that can help drive them.
Plus, Anthony Davis gave that game away Tuesday while speaking to the media when talking about LeBron.
"To be back in the Finals against Miami, I think, means a lot more to him winning this than anyone else," A.D. said. "I think this championship is probably second behind Cleveland, being able to get this one for him."
Yes. That Cavaliers championship was LeBron's ode to love, a real love for that part of Ohio. This championship, if he claims it, will be much more an ode to revenge, mixed in with the power of another title and honoring Kobe Bryant in the most Mamba way possible: Victory. LeBron is complicated, and part of that fact will be in the duality of winning this title for two starkly different reasons.
Riley and LeBron have both done what a few years ago seemed impossible. They have taken their teams -- a Heat team that seemed destined to irrelevance and short-lived playoff runs, the Lakers a team chronically and culturally broken -- and brought them to the brink of the kind of Renaissance only a ring delivers.
And now each is in the other's way. That one is a player and one is a 75-year-old executive makes them no less rivals for what both covet: Another championship, this one to tell the tale they want told.
For LeBron, that includes the narrative he can win anywhere and against anyone, that his gift of greatness requires only one consistent ingredient: Himself. For Riley, that he was the crafter of what the Heat did with LeBron -- its genius -- with the proof plain in taking a deserted team that LeBron left traumatized, building it back up through the draft and adding Jimmy Butler, crafting it in Riley's image, and stopping LeBron James himself in the 2020 NBA Finals.
You'll also have Erik Spoelstra -- who likes LeBron, but knows, like we all did that year in Miami, that his star player tried to have him fired that season -- as the best-positioned head coach to scheme against LeBron because he knows him, on and off the court, better than any head coach the superstar has ever gone up against. They, too, have a complicated history, one that will add fodder to the furor of these Finals games.
The best stories have enemies who started as friends. You can decide between LeBron and Pat Riley who is Superman, and who is Lex Luthor. Either way, they know each other deeply and personally, and that will play out on the court.
Riley told as much in his biography a few years ago. LeBron told us as much when he talked about the Heat as the place he got an advanced education in winning basketball games.
Riley vs. LeBron: Turns out one of the best rivalries in the game just needed six years time for two basketball geniuses to find themselves together again -- and now at odds -- in an NBA Finals shaped largely by how each impacted the other.