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The worst loss in Miami Heat history can be blamed on the coach.

Hard to believe, but so is life on Mars.Pat Riley went on a free-agent shopping spree, and when he exceeded his budget, it cost the team Juwan Howard.

The loss reverses the direction of a franchise that was on the verge of becoming a major force in the NBA, and it may take years for the Heat to recover.

Riley's response underscores the gravity of the situation, which has rendered the ever-eloquent coach speechless - publicly at least - for nearly a week.

Is he angry? Anguished? Embarrassed? Riley won't say, and neither will anyone else with the organization. When he conceded defeat Saturday and decided against seeking arbitration in the case, the team declined comment beyond a terse three-sentence statement.

Heat owner Micky Arison hired basketball's most celebrated coach a year ago to build a championship team, and this summer was Riley's chance. He began the offseason $13.6 million below the salary cap with just three players under contract, giving him maximum maneuverability in the NBA's biggest free-agent market ever.

Riley signed forward P.J. Brown, re-signed guard Tim Hardaway and then landed his biggest catch by luring Howard away from the Washington Bullets. Pairing the 23-year-old All-Star forward with returning center Alonzo Mourning quickly boosted Miami into the NBA's upper echelon.

Two weeks later, the NBA voided Howard's seven-year, $100.8 million contract, saying it exceeded the Heat's salary cap. The ruling provided an opening for Howard, who apparently had a change of heart about leaving Washington and re-signed with the Bullets.

Riley is not exactly the most popular coach in the NBA, and the rest of the league has tried to suppress guffaws at the Heat's situation.

"Nothing like this has happened before," Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams said.

It happened to Riley because, in a fit of zeal, he tried to squeeze too many big contracts under the salary cap.

The NBA said he failed to count incentive bonuses in contracts for Brown and Hardaway against the cap. Incentives considered likely to be achieved - such as the Heat winning 43 games, one more than last season - must be counted.

The NBA also said the Heat reached an undisclosed agreement with Mourning on a seven-year, $112 million deal before signing Howard. That further reduced the available money, the league said.

Either Riley didn't know the rules, or he tried to bend them and got caught.

Regardless, the impact of losing Howard will extend beyond the coming season. Every personnel decision Riley has made was geared to this summer, because it provided a rare chance to restructure the roster.

But now Mourning's contract leaves little room under the cap. It may be years before the Heat can sign another free agent of Juwan Howard's caliber.

Some blame NBA commissioner David Stern for the fiasco, saying he has a vendetta against Riley dating back to the coach's departure from the New York Knicks.

On Saturday, the NBA and the Miami Heat came to a settlement regarding the situation.

Under terms of the agreement, the league said the Heat "will no longer contest the NBA's disapproval of the contract of Juwan Howard, who will now become a member of the Washington Bullets."

At the same time, the NBA announced that Mourning's contract with the Heat, submitted to the league Saturday, has been approved, along with those of Brown and Hardaway. The league agreed to drop its challenge of certain performance bonuses in Hardaway's contract as well.

The NBA also dropped its claim that the Heat and Mourning violated the salary cap rules.

But still at some point, Riley must try to explain how he lost Juwan Howard.