The Heat is Definitely Not On in MiamiIn the wake of the Miami Heat's weak 2006-07 season--and on the verge of perhaps an even worse campaign in 2007-08--the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith asks a simple question about all the money that Pat Riley spent to acquire Shaquille O'Neal: "Was it worth it?" Smith hastens to add that many Chicago Cubs' fans, looking jealously at Miami's gaudy 2006 NBA Championship rings, would unhesitatingly say "Yes." I offered my take on this subject shortly before the Heat completed their improbable title run: "Cost for a future Hall of Fame center? $20 million. Winning an NBA championship? Priceless."
I stand by that sentiment; if a team is close enough to winning a title that one move would likely put them over the top then it is worth it to overspend a bit to try to make that happen because legitimate opportunities to win championships are rare and fleeting. Of course, if the Dallas Mavericks had not folded after taking a 2-0 lead in the Finals then things would look a lot different now. It is obvious that the Heat are not winning any more titles with the current group of players, so if they had not won the 2006 championship then they would have spent a lot of money and had absolutely nothing to show for it.
Many stories have captured the imagination of the media and the general public--Greg Oden versus Kevin Durant (and Oden's season ending injury), whether or not Kobe Bryant will be traded, the Kevin Garnett blockbuster deal and Team USA's performance, to name just four. That did not leave much air time or column inches to talk about Miami's quick tumble from championship glory to ignominious first round exit. Yes, injuries to O'Neal and Dwyane Wade caused problems but the Heat looked lethargic and disinterested from game one--a 108-66 home loss to the Chicago Bulls right after the Heat got their championship rings--to the 92-79 loss to the Bulls that closed out a 4-0 first round sweep. The team's overall attitude--despite many bold public statements and promises to the contrary--seemed to be that winning one championship was more than enough and anything else would be gravy. O'Neal talks a good game about how he wants to be defined by winning championships but he has often fallen far short of that standard in terms of his commitment to his conditioning and his willingness to play hard defensively. O'Neal has won four championships and that is a very notable accomplishment but it is fair to wonder if the most physically dominant player of the post-Michael Jordan era could have done even more. Tim Duncan is less physically overpowering and probably less gifted athletically than O'Neal but he has always worked hard and the results of that work are evident: a game that earned him the nickname of "The Big Fundamental"--a phrase coined by none other than O'Neal himself--and four championship rings, meaning that in the history books Duncan must receive at least equal billing with O'Neal as the defining basketball figure of this era.
Obviously, the tone for any organization is set from the top, so if O'Neal is not working hard then there is a trickle down effect (except, perhaps, for Dwyane Wade, who is a star and a leader in his own right, and who always seems to be committed to doing the necessary work). The Heat are virtually guaranteed to get off to a slow start with Wade still rehabilitating from various injuries and several players not meeting Coach Pat Riley's conditioning standards. At least one team that did not make the Eastern Conference playoffs last year has to be considered a postseason lock this year--the Boston Celtics--so one of last year's qualifiers will be on the outside looking in next summer. I expect that team to be the defenseless-Wizards but it may very well take everything that Wade can muster in the second half of the season for Miami to not be that team.
So, is it worth it to spend $20 million per year on O'Neal to win one championship? Heat fans will probably have a lot of free time to think about that question during the next few summers until O'Neal's contract is off the books and the team is able to rebuild around Wade.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:09 PM