We have reached a compelling intersection of what is and what could be. The fact that the protagonists are Pat Riley and Phil Jackson makes it all the more intriguing of a case study.
At the very moment when the Riley-as-front-office-sage approach is coming under fire 200 miles south on Florida’s Turnpike, there is increased clamor in Orlando about Phil Jackson possibly arriving to provide direction.
The lesson of the moment is the limitations of coaching greatness relocating to the out-of-view reaches of the front office.
Because at this very moment, perhaps even more than in 2006 when he stepped in as coach to lead the Heat to the franchise’s only championship, it can be argued that Riley has never been needed more on the Heat sideline.
At this point. For this upcoming game. To find a way to keep Doc Rivers from making coaching the central issue for why the Celtics advance and the Heat collapse.
Because for everything Erik Spoelstra has been in this Big Three remix, a championship-moment coach has not been one of them.
He simply lacks the rings. The rings Riley used to seduce LeBron James. The rings Jackson can use to leverage Rich DeVos into the type of riches that Jerry Buss simply would not consider.
Perhaps Jackson’s Zen ways will resonate from the Magic front office in a way that Riley’s driven disposition has not over this past week (have the Heat ever looked less like a Riley team?). Perhaps this is more than a money grab by Phil or an act of desperation from the desperate Magic.
But a great coach who is not coaching only serves to remind of what could have been, and what isn’t.
This is not to say Spoelstra is impotent. Riley, in fact, has kept his distance so as not to create appearances of usurping his coach’s influence.
But the more Riley has moved to the shadows, the less assured the approach on the sideline.
What Riley has been from the front office is a master recruiter, be it luring James or Chris Bosh, or getting supporting players to take less as free agents.
Phil Jackson would provide similar cachet. Perhaps Orlando no longer would come off as such a distant outpost to free agents.
But when considering the impact of all-time great coaches as front-office game-changers, consider one essential element:
They aren’t doing what they do best. They aren’t coaching.