At the top of his game: Pat Riley defied the odds to build a championship team

Many organizations can point to one defining moment behind their success. For President Pat Riley and the Miami Heat, that came in 2010 when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade signed as free agents.

That trio led the Heat to the NBA finals three years in a row, winning championships the last two seasons. Speaking in November at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif., Riley says he’s often asked how they were able to pull off the trifecta of signings.

Preparation was a crucial factor, Riley says. From 2008 to 2010, Heat executives knew how much money it would take and how much salary space was available to sign those players.

“It was going to be quite a risk,” Riley says. “We were really going to be rolling the dice with our team. It was all or nothing, most likely.”

Finding your main thing

In his book, “First Things First,” Stephen Covey describes the need to make sure you’re focused on what’s important — and that’s the point Riley was getting across.

“Make sure the main thing remains the main thing, whatever that is for you,” Riley says.

For the Miami Heat, that meant building a culture based on family, faith and trust. When it came time to convince the free agents to sign with Miami, Riley and fellow team executives and ownership sold them on that culture. For example, a group of team personnel gathered to deliver that message to James.

“There were seven of us there, and everyone had been there since the beginning of the existence of the franchise. The owner (Micky Arison) was the original owner, I had been there 18 years and the coach (Erik Spoelstra) had been there 17 years. Everyone had built their way up and we presented him with that,” Riley says.

Heat executives also let the three free agents know that they were going to have to make sacrifices to win a championship.

“They gave up $51 million to play together. That’s a lot of money in today’s sports world, where selfishness really runs rampant,” Riley says.

Sacrificing also meant addressing matters such as positions, rotations, how many shots they’d get per game, who’s on the all-star team and who gets the most points and touches.

“All of those things had to be vetted, because we had some really big egos. They were all ‘the guy’ in those different cities,” Riley says. “In the first year, we had a hard time with it. In the last two years, it has come together perfectly.”

Riley says that the process wasn’t easy, and he was concerned that the franchise could be ruined. They had spent two years building a philosophy and planning for this moment. Although the team did make the playoffs both years, that accomplishment was far from the championship vision management had.

“All of the research and development we did to make this moment happen came to fruition,” he says. “I believed that they wanted to be in Miami. I believed that they wanted to be together. I believed that they wanted to win. I didn’t believe that they just wanted to lead the league in scoring or be the MVP or make a lot of money.”