It turned out to be good training. Time and again, he has rebuilt franchises or restored morale.
He did so with the Lakers, stepping in after the controversial firing of Coach Paul Westhead. He did so in New York, amassing the best winning percentage for a coach in Knicks history. He did so in Miami, leading the Heat to its first NBA championship.
And now, with the trade of Shaquille O'Neal to the Phoenix Suns last week and his team at the bottom of the league standings, 9-39 heading into today's game against the Lakers, Riley again finds himself with a fixer-upper.
"I don't know if the team comes together when you win," Riley said, "or, when you win, the team comes together. I don't know what to expect. I'm excited to move on and see how it plays out. We are going to rebuild and we hope we can do it quickly and diligently.
"It's a challenge. It's not like, all of a sudden, we are going to be 39-9. We still are what we are."
Riley has two new building blocks with which to work, forward Shawn Marion and guard Marcus Banks, both obtained in the O'Neal deal.
Riley, who also serves as team president, said the deal was a joint effort between himself and owner Micky Arison.
The Heat got a call from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about O'Neal "six to eight weeks ago," according to Riley, but there was no interest in consummating a deal at that point.
When Riley and Arison decided to make the move 10 days ago, Arison talked to Cuban again, but also placed a call to Suns owner Robert Sarver, who was offering a better deal.
Arison conceded in the Miami Herald that he was happy to get out from under the five-year, $100-million contract he gave O'Neal, soon to be 36, 3 1/2 years ago.
"We knew the back half [of O'Neal's contract] would be tough," Arison said. "We were fortunate enough not to have to live out the rest of it."
Riley discounted reports there was tension between himself and O'Neal toward the end.
"Shaq will forever be a player that I think did an incredible amount for me and this franchise," Riley said. "Everything else is blog B.S."