Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Miami Herald Greg Cote column: Heat has disintegrated.

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Jan. 10--The Heat is the worst team in the NBA as 2008 unfolds upon the franchise like Mark Cuban's idea of a cruel joke. Shaquille O'Neal has turned from Big Diesel into Big Dinosaur, Dwyane Wade is broken in a way that makes you wonder if he will ever be like he was, and now Pat Riley might be quitting. Again.

A logical next step would be the bank foreclosing on the team's arena and the homeless Heat being required to play remaining games in a YMCA gym.

Metaphorical exclamation to the season came during Miami's loss at dreadful Minnesota on Tuesday night, when a young fan in a Heat jersey seated near the court vomited prolifically on the back of team TV announcer Tony Fiorentino.

The championship parade -- if it wasn't a dream -- happened like a minute and a half ago, didn't it? It was June 23, 2006, three days after Miami had vanquished Cuban's Dallas Mavericks. Can you still see it? Shaq, D-Wade and Riles, up there on top of the arena steps, on top of the world. "White Hot" and "15 Strong."

Not since the 1997 World Series-winning Marlins immediately were sold piecemeal at a garage sale have we seen greatness disintegrate to this degree, this fast. But at least those Marlins had an excuse. They got rotten on purpose, to save money.

There are no excuses for the Heat. There is age, injuries and a series of Riley personnel moves that failed miserably. But there is no good excuse for the embarrassing depth of an 8-28 record -- Miami's worst since the expansion '80s. The Dolphins' 1-15 mark that beheaded Cam Cameron? What the Heat is doing isn't much better. Might be worse when you consider the fall was from a mountaintop.

Kings to court jesters is what this bunch has become.

The only thing uglier on TV than the Heat right now was David Letterman before he shaved his beard.


A Heat fan inclined to laugh to keep from crying has had plenty of reason lately. What qualified as headline news this week -- in the absence of, say, a victory -- might have been almost as funny if it wasn't so sad.

The latest is Riley wondering aloud if he will coach beyond this season. Speculating he might serve the team better by concentrating on his president's role and handing the coaching reins to assistant Erik Spoelstra.

No, seriously.

That is the same Riley who announced in August he would coach two years beyond this one. The same Riley who quit just before the 2003 season opener, then swooped back in 2005 to grand-marshal the championship parade, then missed a big chunk of last season to undergo two elective surgeries.

By now, it is fair to ask: Does Riley have the moral authority to admonish an 8-28 team for quitting or to inspire them not to when he seems to have mastered the art?

This great coach has earned his five championships, his pending Hall of Fame entry and all of the good attached to his name. But it also might be true to say he has earned the credo, "When the going gets tough, Riley gets gone."

You can understand Riley's frustration, even beyond the record. He has had a miserable several months with his roster. He erred in letting Jason Kapono, James Posey and Eddie Jones depart, losing his three-point punch, his perimeter defense and his cushion of depth. He failed in his free agent attempts. His biggest signing, Smush Parker, has been a royal bust. The exhumation of Penny Hardaway? He was kidding, right?

Another Heat headline this week that, along with "Riley ponders future," would have been funny if it wasn't so sad: "Ailing O'Neal will not be dealt."


Ol' Pat must have worked to stifle incredulity or even a blurt of sarcasm when reporters wondered if Miami's abysmally hopeless season meant the club might try to rebuild by trading Shaq.

Riles, to his credit, replied kindly, showing proper respect for what Shaq has meant to his sport, and to the Heat.

So he said he would not consider a trade because his big man remains too valuable to the team.

The alternative, the truth, would have hurt.

That truth is that no teams are lining up to acquire a 35-year-old O'Neal whose proneness to injuries is outdone only by his proneness to foul trouble -- a player in serious career decline who also carries a price tag of $40 million in remaining contract.

The same might now be said of Shaq on the trade market as once was said of his wide-load dominance in the paint: He can't be moved.

A smart club president (Riley qualifies) with an 8-28 record likely would trade the 2008 model Shaq in a minute, but the matter of a trade is today -- by a combination of loyalty and lack of suitors -- largely moot.

Riley traded for Shaq in 2004 when The Diesel still was on the far side of his prime, and Miami's 2006 NBA title justified forever the acquisition and its cost. It elevated the deal beyond current second-guessing.

Now, though, comes the residual affect of the deal, and it isn't pretty.

Miami still is paying top dollar for O'Neal, only now he is a lumbering, fading giant who sees his productivity at a career low, averaging a mortal 14 points when his foul situation and injuries (the latest his hip) allow him on the court.

If only the dramatic erosion of Shaq or his own coaching indecision were Riley's only concerns.

If even they were his biggest concerns.


Out of the headlines this week, undercovered but ominous, was Riley's admission that Dwyane Wade's surgically repaired left shoulder was a worse dislocation than first admitted, rare in its severity, with serious nerve damage.

Wade is beat up generally (jammed finger, knee stiffness, sore shin), but it is that shoulder that has kept him from being the player who, in the summer of 2006, seemed prepared to out-LeBron LeBron James as The Next Big Thing in the NBA.

Wade, healthy, is our most nationally dominant athlete since the prime of Dan Marino. But can he be that same Wade again? Or will a never-quite-right left shoulder haunt him, and thus, this franchise?

Shaq's fast-waning stature.

Riley's flux of commitment. Wade's health and future.

That is plenty to ponder as a lost season funnels itself toward the draft and the consolation shame earns.

A lottery pick.

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Source Citation
"The Miami Herald Greg Cote column: Heat has disintegrated." Miami Herald [Miami, FL] 10 Jan. 2008. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. .

Gale Document Number:CJ173237057

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