Two flat tires slowed down the Big Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal, and a bruised right rib caused the Flash, Dwyane Wade, to burn out. But the Miami Heat was just a few plays and a few seconds from defeating the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. That wasn't acceptable to someone who already owns four NBA championship rings.
"We were a minute and a half away from the Finals -- big deal," said Heat President Pat Riley, who hasn't won a title since guiding the Los Angeles Lakers to their third crown in four years in 1988. "It's about winning a championship."
Realizing that championship windows are often closed before they are barely cracked open, Riley directed the Heat into an offseason like no other in South Florida and created the greatest NBA soap opera east of the Mississippi. Riley admitted to having the "whimsical thought" of returning to the bench after a two-year hiatus, leaving Coach Stan Van Gundy in limbo for more than a month before his job security was established.
O'Neal took a $10 million pay cut and Riley used the money to make significant talent upgrades with the largest and, arguably, most lopsided trade in NBA history. Acquiring Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey in a stupendous 13-player, five-team trade in July provided the Heat with more versatile -- and possibly more combustible -- talent. How it all plays out this season is unknown. Why it happened is no secret. "We want to win. We want to win big. We want to win the whole thing," O'Neal told the assembled media at American Airlines Arena yesterday.
No matter how close the Heat came to accomplishing that goal last season, Riley knew in his heart that he didn't have enough to get over the hump; that O'Neal's arrival from Los Angeles and Wade's emergence as a superstar could propel the Heat to the Eastern Conference elite, but couldn't take it to the heights that only four teams (the Chicago Bulls, Lakers, Pistons and San Antonio Spurs) have reached in the past 10 seasons.
"If we had brought back the exact same group we had last year, I think the results would be good, but we needed more talent," Riley said recently in a phone interview. "We built the team around Shaquille that's a now team. We want to get it done as quick as we can. This is by far the best team that I've been around since the ones that I coached in Los Angeles."
O'Neal said he didn't want to be "greedy," so he accepted a mere $20 million per season over the next five years to help the Heat make upgrades in talent. Riley used the savings to bring in Walker, a small forward with tremendous versatility but questionable shot selection, and Williams, a point guard known for considerable playmaking ability but questionable pass selection. They give the Heat more offensive firepower, but is it too much?
People who say "there are too many stars, not enough basketballs, too many egos, that's wrong. I think it is going to work. Number one, we do have that talent. Number two, these guys know the opportunity they have," Van Gundy said. "By far this is the best opportunity they've had in their careers. I think they are willing to do whatever it takes to get that done."
"Like Pat Riley said, it's the best Miami Heat team he's ever put together and I agree with him," O'Neal said. "I always called him the Mini-Jerry West."
Riley planted a seed that will be a season-long story line should the Heat struggle when he said he'd take "a little more active participation" with the team, which quickly led to rumors that it was only a matter of time before he returned to coaching. The situation worsened when Riley refused to elaborate and referred to an inquiry about Van Gundy being the coach this season as "a loaded question." He later met with Van Gundy and assured his coach that he wasn't returning to the bench. "I don't even want to revisit that," Riley said. "You have to watch out from mentally flirting with something you did for 22 years [and] being nostalgic in any shape or form."
Asked if he thought Van Gundy's coaching status would be a distraction this season, Riley said: "I don't think it should be. It's an unfortunate situation. To even have to answer questions about it constantly is unnerving."
Van Gundy said he has already moved on. "That stuff is all behind us. The bottom line is we're all on the same page -- with this team," he said. "We think this team has a chance to be great and that's where our focus is. Not on anything else."
Some have speculated that Riley has made the situation more difficult for Van Gundy by acquiring players -- Walker, Williams, Posey and the recently signed Gary Payton -- who have tussled with coaches in the past. Riley calls the claims "B.S."
Riley said the Heat shouldn't have any chemistry problems because it has considerable leadership in Wade and O'Neal. "When anybody gets out of line, I just want [O'Neal] to ball up his fist," he said. "That's all he's got to do."
"I don't see us having a problem," O'Neal said. "It's going to be my job to manage the locker room, anyway, so it will work out." O'Neal, who's training to be a police officer, shouldn't have any problem patrolling the locker room. He said he returned to the weight room this summer and lifted two times a day, after staying away last summer. O'Neal's season ended with him hobbling with two sore thighs.
"I was an earthling last summer. Now, I'm ready to go back to my alien roots," he said.
Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report from Miami.