Ainge Deals Riles a Body Blow
This is a big defeat for the Miami Heat and a very personal one for Pat Riley.
You can try to spin Tuesday's news — top prize Gordon Hayward picking the Boston Celtics over the Heat and Utah Jazz — any way you wish, but it is an unequivocal loss for Miami. Period. It means an ultimately disappointing summer of free agency in South Florida.
Hayward chose the Fourth of July to declare his independence from Utah, his longtime NBA employer, but in doing so essentially told the world he thought Boston was closer to competing for a championship than Miami, his very decision making that a reality. The Celtics had a built-in edge: Brad Stevens, their coach, coached Hayward in college. Riley tried to overcome that but could not, losing what amounted to a 1-on-1 duel with Celtics counterpart Danny Ainge to convince Hayward where his future would be best spent. Ainge and Riley have had a professional animus since the 1980s, one that in 2013 led Riley to publicly tell Ainge to "shut the f--- up."
It was a needed victory for Boston, which hoped to both trade for Paul George and then sign Hayward but missed out on the first half of that dream.
The Heat and Celtics both offered Hayward what Utah could not: An easier Eastern Conference. A more reasonable path to the NBA Finals that did not include the gargantuan roadblock of reigning champion/dynasty Golden State.
Now the defeated Heat are left to prioritize retaining and re-signing their own two top free agents, James Johnson and Dion Waiters, keeping the core of the team that went 30-11 in the past season's second half, and tinkering from there. By signing Hayward, Miami might have been unable financially to keep both Johnson and Waiters and might even have lost both.
Heat fans of the glass-half-full variety will go there now, seeing the bright side, convincing themselves that keeping Johnson/Waiters (if they can) will outweigh losing Hayward.
That's dubious. Hayward was not a tinker. Miami was aiming big with him. He was the top available free agent out there. He was not a “whale,” no, but he's an in-his-prime 26-year-old versatile forward coming off a 22-point-average season. He made the 2017 All-Star team. He can shoot the 3. He'd have been a great add for Miami, a budding star, not to mention a big personal triumph for Riley.
Now, the Heat is left to parse the disappointment and hope to salvage the summer.
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