- The Washington Times - Friday, December 16, 2005

Unlike Chef Boyar Van Gundy, Pat Riley has the slicked-back hair, Armani threads and the four championship rings from his coaching days with the “Showtime” Lakers to grab the attention of the dysfunction-in-waiting known as the Miami Heat.

Chef Van Gundy was not so much the victim of a conspiratorial Riley as he was the victim of the human condition.

NBA players respond to a weak boss not unlike the average working stiff sitting in an office cubicle, which is to say they don’t have the same work habits, persistence and dedication as they normally would under a strong leader.

And the Heat players knew Chef Van Gundy was occupationally wounded the moment Riley suggested in the summer that he planned to take a more hands-on approach with the team this season.

That told Shaq, Dwyane Wade and all the rest that Riley was itching to return to the sidelines.

Perhaps Riley did not intend to undermine the authority of his coach. Perhaps he really meant what he said, and only that, but that would mean Riley is hardly the expert in team psychology and dynamics as most NBA observers believe him to be.

Give a team the perception of an outgoing coach and you will have a team lacking in energy, conviction and intensity on defense, and that kind of summed up the Heat in the first 21 games of the season. Shaq’s 18-game absence did not help either.

Perhaps coincidentally, Shaq looked mostly stationary against the Wizards with Chef Van Gundy on the bench, but then two nights later in Chicago, with Riley on the bench, Shaq flashed some of his old dunking form and finished with 30 points in 27 minutes.

Riley is certainly the right coach of this particular Heat team. He is one of the few coaches in the NBA — the Zen master, Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich are the others — capable of resolving a potentially volatile mix in the locker room.

And what a strange mix it is, with Shaq and Wade as the lead players and Gary Payton, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams as the mercurial supporting cast.

Payton no longer can defend his shadow but still gripes about every call that goes against him, Walker wants to hoist 20-plus shots a game, and Williams can bring a coach to tears once or twice a game with an ill-advised, Tourette’s syndrome-like 3-point attempt.

This goes down one of two ways for Riley. His either will be a victory cigar or an exploding cigar, and the outcome will be all on him.

It was Riley who elected to dismantle what was arguably the No. 1 team in the NBA last season until injuries limited the effectiveness of Shaq and Wade in the Eastern Conference finals.

It was not difficult to grasp Riley’s urge to shore up the parts around Shaq and Wade. But Walker, Williams and Payton? Was Ruben Patterson unavailable?

Riley and the Heat are destined to be the No. 1 story line in the NBA the rest of the way, because theirs is destined to be either a spectacular finish or crash.

Riley is long known as someone who knows how to coach only one way, with the pedal pushed to the metal, but that hardly acknowledges the adjustment he made from Los Angeles to New York, from coaching pretty ball to downright ugly ball.

Riley is no one’s fool, and he undoubtedly knows it would be foolish to push Shaq in the regular season, if only because Shaq’s body would not hold up to it. One of Riley’s principal assignments is to have a totally healthy Shaq in the playoffs.

That is the only way the Heat can expect to challenge the Pistons, and even then, a healthy Shaq might not be enough to overtake what has been the No. 1 team in the NBA in the first quarter of the season.

Of course, as basketball announcers often point out, there is a whole lot of time left.

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