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Pat the Builder: Free agency arrives, and Riley has future of the Heat in his hands again

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MIAMI - Pat Riley stood behind a lectern on Monday afternoon to introduce new Miami guard Shabazz Napier, the lone player that the Heat picked up in last week's draft.

The Napier event lasted for 20 minutes. Riley was gone after about three.

"I'm going back upstairs with Andy and crunch some numbers," Riley said before heading upstairs to the executive offices with Miami senior vice-president and general manager Andy Elisburg.

The Heat president meant no disrespect, and none was likely taken. Free agency awaits, and whatever he and Elisburg gleaned from their number-crunching session on the eve of the NBA's shopping season might end up shaping the course of the Heat for years to come.

Starting at midnight Tuesday, when free agency begins across the league, Riley gets back into action. The mastermind of Miami's 2010 free agency coup that landed LeBron James and Chris Bosh while retaining Dwyane Wade will look to one-up himself this time around — as he and the Heat brass will set out to not only keep those three, but surround them with whatever they need to make what would be a fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals next season.

"Challenge is what it's all about," Riley said. "Challenge is nothing more than playing for higher stakes and raising the ante."

Riley made that comment late last year, when he spoke at the University of Miami's December commencement. It still rings true; Riley isn't shy about using phrases he likes many times over, such as saying that by working in basketball he works "in the toy department of human affairs."

But whatever he said to James, Wade and Bosh in 2010 might not be needed this time. He wasn't even planning to travel for 12:01 a.m. meetings on Tuesday, a change from his tactics of four years ago right off the start. Wade and Bosh did not yet have meetings with the Heat scheduled, and James is heading to Brazil to take in some World Cup action.

With James, Wade and Bosh opting out, and Udonis Haslem not opting in on a $4.6 million deal, Miami should have somewhere around $55 million in salary cap room to play with over the next couple weeks. It could be enough to keep the "Big 3" together and get them the pieces they need to contend for another title next year. If not, even the doomsday scenario isn't that bad for Miami.

"It's not always the players who have the advantage because in the worst-case scenario we could have the most room than anybody in the NBA or in the history of the NBA if everybody decided to opt out and go somewhere else," Riley said. "I'm not planning on that."

At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Norris Cole will be Miami's best player, since everyone else is a free agent.

Still, it's true — Cole and his $2 million contract is the only fully guaranteed deal the Heat have for next season.

"It's a unique situation," Cole said Monday while working with hundreds of South Florida kids at two basketball camps he's hosting simultaneously this week. "But I've had a unique start to my career. ... I know that Pat's going to do what he has to do to build a great team. That's what he does. I believe in that. I believe in the front office."

The three opt-outs are considered positive signs for the Heat, and drafting Napier made James happy. It also figures to not hurt Miami's chances of luring Ray Allen back next season, since he, like Napier, is a former Connecticut star.

"I'm looking forward to competing with the best," Napier said.

Behind closed doors, the Heat have basically been preparing for this summer for four years. They anticipated the opt-outs when they were worked into the contracts of James, Wade and Bosh in 2010. And it's also why, just as was the case four years ago, the Heat have very little money committed to anyone for next season.

And now it's Riley's turn to see what he can do this time.

"A person's greatest fear is their fear of extinction," Riley said. "But what they should fear more than that is to one day become extinct with insignificance. You don't want that. There's nothing wrong with separating yourself from the pack. There's nothing wrong with leaving footprints. There's nothing wrong with being great."

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