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Pat Riley: Evil Genius

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat are headed to the NBA Finals. I suspect this is not the last time I’ll write that sentence. In fact, I expect to use it quite a few times in the next five or six years.

Miami’s march to the Finals – in the first season post-Decision – certainly makes team architect Pat Riley look smart. It validates Riles’ “sign the superstars, fill in with some inexpensive veterans” concept. And as with any other successful strategy in sports or business, that’s going to inspire copycats.

Take the Knicks, for example. Donnie Walsh is a step behind Riley in the “build around three superstars” process, having added Amar’e Stoudemire via free agency in summer 2010 and Carmelo Anthony at the 2011 trade deadline. The next step in Walsh’s grand plan would seem to be a third superstar; 2012 free agents Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. Optimistic Knick fans are hoping Miami’s run will inspire one of the three to follow Anthony’s lead and force a trade to New York before next season’s trade deadline.

There’s one major problem with that scenario. The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires after this season. And just as teams like New York, the Nets and the Lakers are looking at Miami’s 2010 free-agent haul and planning similar moves, the teams that lost superstars are saying “never again.” Smaller-market clubs like the Cavs, Raptors and Nuggets aren’t keen on the idea of becoming farm teams. They don’t want to draft and develop superstars, only to lose their most marketable players to New York, Los Angeles and Miami. And you can bet they’ll make that point heard during the CBA negotiations.

With some volume behind it.

That’s one of the reasons we keep hearing about franchise tags or hard caps being added to the NBA’s next collective bargaining agreement. It’s impossible to say what the next agreement will look like, but it seems safe to assume that general managers planning to replicate Pat Riley’s Summer of 2010 will have a much harder time.

And I can’t help wondering if that was part of Riley’s plan all along.

Think about it. The only thing better than assembling a team of superstars is assembling a team of superstars just before a rule change that makes signing top free agents a lot harder. Look at it that way, and Riley makes the leap from “smart” to “evil genius.”

The core of the Miami Heat – LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony – is locked into contracts through 2014-15. Get used to seeing those guys in the NBA Finals.

Who’s gonna stop ’em?

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