So this is thenew NBA paradigm? Put together a 7'1", 330-pound earthmover with comedicchops (Shaquille O'Neal), an aw-shucks superstar who gets more calls than aVegas escort service (Dwyane Wade), a future Hall of Fame coach so desperate towin a seventh ring that he plays zone, a defense he hates (Pat Riley), anundrafted power forward whose surname has become a verb that means "don'tbother guarding him" (Udonis Haslem) and two creaky former stars who wentall Ponce de León at key points during the Finals (Alonzo Mourning and GaryPayton). Simple, right?
The Heat, whichdropped the first two games to the Mavericks only to run off four straightwins, the last a 95--92 victory in Dallas on June 20, is perhaps the mostanomalous among the 60 champions in league history. Don't bother copyingMiami--chances are, the Heat isn't sure how things worked out so well itselfor, more to the point, whether they'll ever work out so well again. But Miami'scomeback did prove two points: first, that champions don't have to develop overyears and years, and second, that team chemistry isn't vital in November aslong as it's there in May and June.
Much of this Heatteam came out of a test tube in the laboratory of team president Riley lastsummer. Payton, sixth man James Posey (perhaps Riley's most canny pickup) andtwo starters, forward Antoine Walker and point guard Jason Williams, put onMiami uniforms for the first time this season. On Feb. 9 the Heat looked likethe mess that many suspected the team would be all along, losing 112--76 atDallas to fall to 30--20. But Miami came together, motivated by Riley's middleschool motto--15 strong--and the big bowl he placed in the locker room intowhich players tossed mementos, family photos and thousands of playing cardsbearing those two words.
The big questionis whether Riley will return as coach, an issue he's refused to address.Others, however, have addressed it for him. "Earlier this season there's noway he would've come back," says one Miami insider. "But the playoffsand the championship run energized him." O'Neal is clear how he feels."He knows we want him," says Shaq. "He knows we need him. Wheneveryou have [a title], you always should defend it, so I'm going to guarantee thathe'll be back next year." Shaq gave another assurance too. "We're goingto do it again next year. Yeah--I said it."
There are otherunresolved issues. Will the 6'8" Posey, who was a key player in the Finals,sign a long-term deal to stay in Miami, his reported wish? Will Mourning andPayton take one-year contracts to stay in even more reduced roles than they hadthis season? Will the Heat unload Williams, talented but confoundinglyinconsistent and the most tradable of the Heat's core players?
Whatever happens,at least this much is known: Wade, 24, O'Neal, 34, and Haslem, 26, will beback. Yes, while it may be a little jolting to see Haslem mentioned in the samesentence as Miami's two stars, his value should not be underestimated. Thisseason the Suns' coaching staff coined the phrase to "Haslem off" aplayer--a strategy in which a Phoenix defender was expected to abandon a lesserthreat to help out on a more dangerous one. During the Finals, however, Haslemmade the Mavs pay when they backed off him, shooting 50% and hitting severalkey jumpers (10 of his 18 field goals were jump shots), in addition to hisalways fierce rebounding and in-your-face D.
Expect lessHaslem-ing off Haslem next season. Although Dallas double-teamed O'Neal formuch of the series, by Game 6 it was using a lot of single coverage on Shaq,whose slow (though entertaining) decline continues. O'Neal averaged only 9.3shots in the Finals, compared with 23.2 by Wade, who also averaged 8.2 moretrips to the line per game than Shaq.
That's yetanother indication of the league's trend toward small ball. The Mavs got morethan they expected out of Erick Dampier in the Finals, but in the end he was alimited center who fumbled a pick-and-roll pass from Dirk Nowitzki in the finalseconds of Game 6. Even the Heat played stretches without O'Neal or Mourning tomatch up with Dallas's doughnut (no center) lineup. In the Western semis theMavs coaxed the Spurs into using a pivot-free lineup too. "I don'tnecessarily like it," says San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, "but it'sbecome the reality." The Spurs have already traded one center, RashoNesterovic (to the Raptors), and aren't expected to re-sign their other one,free agent Nazr Mohammed. San Antonio will probably add Lithuanian big manRobertas Javtokas, its second-round pick in '01, but look for Tim Duncan to manthe middle often in '06--07, surrounded by Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, BruceBowen and Michael Finley.
The Suns, anotherteam expected to be in the title chase next season, are as responsible asanyone for the advent of small ball, and that's how they will continue to play,especially if 6'10" Amaré Stoudemire makes his expected return from kneesurgery. "The league isn't really getting smaller per se," says Phoenixcoach Mike D'Antoni. "At 7 feet, [Dirk] Nowitzki's not exactly small. Smallball is a style, a way of playing that makes it hard for those dinosaurs--theclassic big guys who don't come out from the basket--to make animpact."
And so it will beinteresting to see if the Pistons re-sign center Ben Wallace, who is an activeout-on-the-floor defender with a next-to-nil offensive game. Wallace will beseeking a max contract, money that might more wisely be used to add depth to ateam that wants to cut back on its starters' minutes and play more up-tempo.The Bulls, who turned heads by pushing the Heat to six games in the openinground, are a guard-oriented team, and the Cavaliers will no doubt cede evenmore control to LeBron James, further phasing out center ZydrunasIlgauskas.
At the end ofevery NBA season one team is happy and the rest are searching for answers.Certainly that is the case for Dallas. While combo guard Jason Terry, a freeagent, is almost certain to stay, Dampier and swingman Marquis Daniels arestrong candidates to go. Dampier might be hard to move because of his contract($57.1 million over the next five years), but Daniels has talent and a betterprice tag ($19.2 million over the next three seasons). The lack of playing timegiven Daniels in the Finals was, to some observers, a mystery, but he justdoesn't seem to be Avery Johnson's kind of player.
It's like that inthe NBA sometimes--the experts didn't like Miami's mix either. But Rileybrought his players together and found the right formula in the Finals: a lotof Wade, a little Shaq and just enough of everyone else. Note to the other 29teams: Don't bother trying it at home.
Full NBA draftcoverage at SI.com/nba.
Whose Stock Soared?
Dwyane Wade soared into rare air this postseason, asdid his good friend LeBron James. But who else remade his image during theplayoffs--for better or worse?
Bonzi Wells, G, Kings
The 6'5" dude with a 'tude almost upset the Spurs by himself (23.2 pointsper game and 12.0 boards).
James Posey, F, Heat
Emerged from playoffs as Free Agent Most Likely to Get Overpaid A.B. (After theBonze). Pat Riley, Shaq and D-Wade swear by him.
Kirk Hinrich, G, Bulls
Seems a long time ago that Captain Kirk (20.5 ppg, 7.7 apg) wasdribble-penetrating the Heat to distraction, even giving Wade fits.
Rasheed Wallace, F, Pistons
Known for his all-around game, he was tied for 45th in PER (player efficiencyrating).
Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets
Nobody was more responsible for Denver's first-round, five-game foldaramaagainst the Clippers than Melo (33% from the floor).
Kwame Brown, F, Lakers
After strong start in opening round against Suns, Brown reverted to cluelessself in Game 7 loss (2 for 10, five rebounds).
WHITE ON TRACK Shaq (with mike) says that Riley will return as coach--and that they'll celebrate again in '07.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (O'NEAL)
CENTER STAGE The chatty Shaq won't draw that much attention in the post next year.