MIAMI -- LeBron is gone.
And even though Miami Heat president Pat Riley always had a healthy fear this would happen, he was still blindsided by the reality as everything unfolded the past few days.
For everything Riley did to recruit LeBron James to Miami four years ago, there was always a chance that an emotional tug from Cleveland would be strong enough to pull the four-time MVP back to his home state and the first franchise he ever knew.
Riley had better luck keeping the other prized free agents he lured to team Miami in the summer of 2010, agreeing to a five-year, $118 million with Chris Bosh to keep the center in a Heat jersey hours after James' announcement. The Heat are also closing in on bringing back Dwyane Wade, as well as Miami lifer Udonis Haslem. But nothing can fully heal the blow of losing the NBA's best player, especially to an Eastern Conference rival.
By flashing the collection of rings he shared with LeBron, Riley hoped he could build a long-term marriage, a potential dynasty. Now the 69-year-old executive and his prideful franchise are left with the devastation of James' departure. Ultimately, LeBron's heart was in another place -- and his exit from Miami and return to Cleveland as a free agent Friday is the latest reminder of just how high the divorce rate is these days.
"You always fear," Riley told ESPN.com recently. "There's more restlessness now than there's ever been in this league. I always am concerned when players are in the situation they're in, but we feel we have the best organization in the league to [keep] players ... and to also attract others to want to come."
LeBron is gone.
And the end came swiftly, with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert reportedly swooping into Miami last week to patch up lingering differences with James from their nasty breakup in 2010. Finally accepting a series of hints and the inevitable reunion, Riley and the Heat made one last desperate push in a meeting in Las Vegas to convince James to change his mind and give the Heat's track record of success one more shot.
Instead, LeBron passed.
Aside from a respectful post by Miami owner Micky Arison on his Twitter account expressing shock and disappointment but thanking LeBron for his time the past four years, there's been public silence from the Heat. As of Friday afternoon, they had yet to announce whether they've officially signed the two free agents -- forwards Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger -- they reached deals with to boost the supporting cast in full anticipation of LeBron's return.
Riley managed to keep at least Bosh from leaving, but his dream scenario was to have the Heat's core of LeBron, Bosh and Wade return intact, avenge last month's embarrassing showing in the Finals and model the Spurs example of continuity and longevity. But this Heat big three turned out to be more like a thrilling fling.
The irony in all of this is that Miami still owes Cleveland the final of two first-round protected draft picks next year that was part of the sign-and-trade agreement that allowed LeBron to get a maximum, six-year contract with the Heat. LeBron will never see the final two years of that Heat deal.
And unless the Heat hit the reset button and go into full rebuild mode next season, they'll never see that first-round pick. This is the textbook definition of a precarious position for Miami. Riley, who had been operating on a year-to-year basis even before LeBron arrived four years ago, was ideally hoping to lock up this team for the next few seasons and then head to his remodeled, Southern California home to retire.
Now, he's got a mess to fix. And it's in times like these when Riley should probably take a dose of his own postseason diatribe about having the guts to not walk out the door at the first sign of adversity.
Depending on Wade's future with the team, the Heat still have significant cap space and spent part of Friday reconnecting with previous free-agent targets such as Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza and Pau Gasol. Restricted free agent big man Greg Monroe is expected to be added to that mix.
Why? Because Riley doesn't do tanking or ground-up rebuilds.
He has neither the time nor the patience. And he also essentially has a couple of I.O.U.s unsettled with Wade, who bypassed two years and $41 million on his contract to give Riley some free-agency flexibility. Haslem also opted out of $4.6 million to do the same.
Unless Wade, 32, wants to walk away from Miami and the three titles he's won over 11 seasons there, the Heat are almost obligated to assemble a team that remains in playoff contention in the East. The only question now is how much money Wade is willing to take and how long the Heat can afford to have him eat up a significant portion of the salary cap, because a franchise makeover can be delayed for only so long.
There's still a bitter taste from the last time the Heat dove to rock bottom before ascending to the lofty, LeBron-led heights of the past four years. Riley's last season as coach was a disastrous 15-67 campaign in which he walked away at one point to start scouting for the draft.
A bad bounce of the ping-pong balls then sent the No. 1 pick to Chicago, which drafted Derrick Rose. The Heat ended up with the No. 2 pick and Michael Beasley.
The rest is history for the Heat.
Now, so is LeBron.
The greatest player in the game delivered on his promise to win championships in Miami. But dynasties in the NBA these days are a lot like marriages. They simply don't last as long as they used to.
Riley and the Heat should have no regrets. It was great while it lasted.
Now, it's time to regroup.