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Daily Babble: Not Enough Coddling From Riley?

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Apparently setting rigid standards and expecting players to uphold them is no longer cool with today's players.

Or that's the word from a recent poll in Sports Illustrated, in which Pat Riley was the easy victor for "Coach players least want to play for."  As reported by the Palm Beach Post's Chris Perkins:

That kind of hard-nosed approach - which in the past also manifested itself in unusually exhausting practices - might be why NBA players questioned recently by Sports Illustrated said Riley was the coach for whom they would least like to play.

He was No. 1 in a runaway. Riley received 28 percent of the votes among 242 players interviewed. Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and former Chicago Bulls coach Scott Skiles were next at 12 percent each.

Riley, who has won five NBA titles as a head coach, said he isn't bothered by the unscientific poll.

"Two years ago I was the most favored guy to play for," he said, referring to the Heat's championship season of 2005-06.

Perkins' piece goes on to express concern about Riley's ability to bring talent in this summer after what is shaping up to be a horrendous season for the Heat.

For my part, I'm not buying.

Sure, Riley will have his detractors, and he may lose a few players who don't want to be part of his system, but that won't make enough of a difference to prevent him from building a winner or force him to change his style. 

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It's easy for players to say that they don't want to play for a guy whose team currently sits at 11-46.  It's also easy for players sent away from Miami into bad situations of their own to come out and shoot their mouths off.  Disgruntled Timberwolf Antoine Walker did just that and was quoted several times throughout the Perkins article.  Oddly enough, it's hard to remember 'Toine doing too much complaining on the subject when he was a member of the 2006 title team.

Even in a league often stigmatized for how little its players actually care about anything besides the bottom line, the consensus remains that those in the business tend to abide by the old 'Game recognizes game' creed in addition to the "What have you done for me lately?" mantra.  That explains why of the top four coaches in this poll, one has been fired this season (Skiles), one is headed toward a firing (Thomas), and three have records well below the .500 mark.

Riley is only the guy who has coached for 24 seasons and compiled career winning percentages of .642 in the regular season and .606 in the playoffs, to go with five NBA titles, including the one he is just two years removed from winning.  The players may not know all the particulars, but they know what this guy has accomplished and what he can do with the right assets.

They also know that Riley has two major assets in Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion.  And when on-the-market players call those two this summer -- as players often do -- chances are, they will be told that coming to Miami would be more than worth it for them and that playing for Riley is manageable.  Wade won a championship doing it and has never registered any complaints.  Marion has only been around for a bit but seems to be enjoying his time in South Beach for now  When Flash shows prospective free agents the remnants of the 2006 run on his ring finger, that will go miles farther than any rumors around the league could.

When Wade gets completely healthy, he and Marion will fight to make this team look a lot better than it has thus far this season.  Once that happens, those around the league will remember all the more clearly that Riley is an extremely successful coach who happened to be in a horrendous situation this year, albeit one that he didn't handle particularly well.  But they will also remember what happened when Wade was healthy and had a team around him.

The types of guys who Pat Riley wants will think about what they could gain from playing alongside a superstar as selfless as Wade has shown himself to be, and they will begin to see the potential benefits of joining the Heat on both a team and individual level.   And by that point, they will be willing enough to sign on board to play for a coach who is not only demanding but one of the best in the business as well.

Riley is by no means a saint.  It certainly seemed like he cared a lot more when his team had the talent to compete for a championship, and his treatment of underlings (see: Van Gundy, Stan) has led to viable questions about the manner in which he operates.  But the bottom line is still this: Two years ago, with a healthy team, Pat Riley made his style work to near perfection.  Since then, the health and ability level of his roster have changed a whole lot more than the culture of this league has.

The ol' Riles has nothing to fear.