Pat Riley's 'asterisk' comments about Lakers ignores reality of NBA originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Pat Riley may regret his choice of words in a recent interview with the Miami Herald in which he used the word 'asterisk' to describe the Los Angeles Lakers' recent championship that was earned by beating his Heat in the NBA Finals. That word, which is usually tied to cheaters, carries a strong connotation and the reaction has blurred what he truly meant by his comments.
That doesn't mean what he said was right, however, as his opinion ignores an unfortunate but also undeniable reality about the NBA Playoffs. More often than anyone would prefer, injuries play a role in deciding the champion. Though the NBA may not have the injuries of the NFL, there are still plenty of them - enough to make the postseason a game of attrition.
First, take a look at Riley's comments and judge them for yourself:
“I would like to see what it would be like with everybody whole," he told the Herald.' "They beat us fair and squarely. But there will be always be that asterisk; if we had Bam [Adebayo] and Goran [Dragic] 100 percent — Goran was our leading scorer [entering the Finals] — it might have gone to a seventh game.”
On the face of it, Riley is probably right. Adebayo's shoulder and Goran's foot injury certainly played a role in the outcome of the NBA Finals. He's not saying the Heat would have won, just that they would have pushed the Lakers further if they had all of their players healthy. It's hard to argue there.
But Riley is also mistaken if he thinks what the Heat went through is anything unusual. Consider how often major injuries have helped determine the outcome of recent NBA seasons.
Last year, the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, but they were aided heavily by Kevin Durant rupturing his Achilles and Klay Thompson tearing his ACL in the series. The Warriors won the title the year before, in 2018, yet were helped significantly by Chris Paul hurting his hamstring in the conference finals, as the Rockets blew a 3-2 series lead.
It wasn't an injury, but Draymond Green's suspension in the 2016 NBA Finals helped the Cavaliers win a ring. And in 2015, the Warriors benefitted from both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love going down with injuries, as the Cavs led the series 2-1 before losing.
Riley has firsthand experience benefitting from injuries in the postseason. The Heat got to the Finals this year by beating three teams that were banged up. The Pacers were missing Domantas Sabonis, the Celtics didn't have Gordon Hayward at full strength and the Bucks had Giannis Antetokounmpo dealing with an ankle injury in the conference finals.
You could even go way back with Riley and note how the 1985 NBA Finals, when his Lakers beat the Celtics, was likely swung at least partially by Boston forward Cedric Maxwell being hampered by a knee injury. The reality is that the NBA season is very long and physically grueling and if you play deep into the playoffs, guys are going to break down. We even saw that this year when the league had a months-long break before the postseason began due to the coronavirus.
So, Riley may have a point but it doesn't mean it's fair to say what he said. Health is a major part of the equation for determining NBA champions and Riley should understand that as well as anyone, having been around so long and involved in so many deep playoff runs throughout his career.