PROJECTED STARTINGFIVE with 2006-07 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS:C Alonzo Mourning, G Smush Parker*, G-F Dorell Wright, G-F Anfernee Hardaway*,F Wayne Simien
Record: 44-38 (5thin East) Points scored: 94.6 (28th in NBA) Points allowed: 95.5 (8th) Coach:Pat Riley (third season with Heat)
As part of hisoff-season training regimen, Shaquille O'Neal practiced mixed martial artsevery day. "UFC-style wrestling: fighting, punching in the face, chokeholds," O'Neal says. "I'm a big fan of the sport."
O'Neal hopes tolift the Heat off the canvas after a dismal, injury-ravaged year, in which the2006 champs stumbled to a 44-38 finish before getting KO'd by the Bulls in thefirst round of the playoffs. For O'Neal, who missed 10¬†weeks after tearingcartilage in his left knee last November, the season was about as much fun asbeing stuck in an octagon with Randy Couture. O'Neal wound up playing just40¬†games and set career lows in scoring, rebounding, blocks and minutes.Although he rallied to carry Miami on a 16-6 run down the stretch, he lookedcement-legged in the postseason.
For the first timein his 16-year career O'Neal heard whispers that he was washed-up. That's whyhe spent the summer training like a heavyweight hoping for one last title shot.In addition to his martial arts work, he also boxed, swam and did yoga."He's got more flexibility than he's ever had," coach Pat Rileysays.
The 35-year-oldO'Neal might not pull down backboards anymore, but he will still draw doubleteams. That's even more important now that the Heat is without forwards JasonKapono and James Posey, who both left as free agents. In addition, Dwyane Wadewill miss the start of the season as he recovers from May shoulder and kneesurgery.
Miami might be toothin on the bench and too slow defensively to challenge for the title. But witha motivated O'Neal in the middle--and a healthy Wade roaming the perimeter--theteam will be in the thick of the Eastern Conference race. "As a leader,it's time for me to step up," Shaq says. "I'm ready to go."
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Heat
Another way oflooking at Dwyane Wade's injury is that it forced him into a period of extendedrest; with fresh legs he might be capable of an MVP season. And if ShaquilleO'Neal comes up with a great year, then the Heat can contend, because thatcould still be the best one-two punch in basketball. Even at Shaq's age, nobodycomes close to his strength--nobody. . . . Age is a big concern. This is a teamwhose window is closing unless it can inject a couple of really good, livelyplayers around Wade. But Pat Riley wants to win now. As soon as he doesn'tthink he can win the championship, he's out of there. . . . Jason Williams isplaying for a contract, so maybe he'll have a good year. But he has a historyof knee problems, and there's not going to be a big market for him. . . .Antoine Walker can still do a little bit of everything even though he playslike an old man--he can't really turn around in the post and juke and fake youto get his shot off. Plus he travels on almost every single play.
In part because ofthe early-season absence of Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade averaged afranchise-record 27.4¬†points in 2006-07. He has raised Miami'ssingle-season scoring record in each of the last three years.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
VICTOR BALDIZON/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
O'Neal is ready to rumble after his UFC-style workouts.