On Thursday the Heat signed Gary “The Guard Formerly Known as 'The Glove'” Payton to a 1-year contract. GP will take over the starting PG spot, a spot vacated by Damon Jones's exit to Cleveland. As I've blogged about before, I don't think the Heat's upper management are making smart moves this off-season. Sure, it doesn't hurt to bring on some new faces, to try to improve your talent base, but the Heat have virtually reworked a huge portion of their roster. Yeah, Shaq and D-Wade are still anchoring the team, but there's four new faces, four new players who are going to see significant minutes throughout the season.
The challenge facing the Heat is having these “strangers” gel into a cohesive playing unit, and training camp is far too short for that to happen there. You may argue that that's what, in part, the regular season is for, meaning it wouldn't be surprising to see the Heat hitting a few roadbumps early on in the season, much like the Lakers did two years ago after their incredibly strong start.
The problem is, I fear the Heat can't weather such a misstep, thanks in large part to Stan Van Gundy and Pat Riley. Early in the off-season there were rumors that Riles would return to the bench, displacing Van Gundy. While Van Gundy is obviously the Heat's coach now, might Riley use a rocky start as an excuse to step in? Would the team be able to make such a transition in the face of the Pacers and Heat, who have a stronger core of players who are already all familiar with the team system?
I may be discounting the Heat too much here, as I did this time last year. From My Insanely Inaccurate 2004-2005 Playoff Predictions:
The Heat are highly overrated, in my opinion. They'll do fairly well in the East, standings-wise, but will have a ho-hum record and have zero chance of making it to the Finals, let alone winning them.
Well we all know how accurate that prediction turned out, with the Heat making it to the ECF and just 90 seconds from a trip to the Finals. However, unless something shakes out during the teams' training camps, I will likely make my 2005-2006 playoff predictions the same for the ECF as I did last year, with the top three spots going to:
Regardless of how this season unfolds for the Heat, it's probably going to be their last real chance at a championship run until Wade becomes a more complete player and the Heat front office can surround him with the needed talent. Sorry, but Shaq's on the way out and many of these players playing this year will likely not be in town next year. Here's hoping for a wild ride, just like with the Laker's “Hall of Famer” season two years past.
One thing that's always seemed a little foreign to me was the concept of people who rooted for a team rather than its players. That is, most sports fans are fans of a team... say the Los Angeles Clippers. Now a person who roots for the Clippers would describe himself as a Clippers fan. It doesn't matter how the roster changes over time, our hypothetical fan is a fan of the team. Should Sterling trade away Brand, it doesn't matter to our fan - he's all about the team.
I guess this makes sense - most people grow up in a town or live their entire lives in a town and consider that town “theirs” in a sense. Too, with the realities of sports and business today, it's quite rare for a player to play his entire career with one team, let alone a major portion of his career. But I've never been a team fan. Perhaps it's because I grew up in Chicago, but then moved to podunk Missouri, and then to SoCal. Maybe I'm a fan of the players because I grew up watching Michael Jordan and crew, and idolized them and not the Bulls, per se.
In any event, I admit it - I'm a player fan. This explains why I started a blog about the Lakers: they had the players I liked watching:
- Phil Jackson (through 2004)
- Ron Harper (back in 2000)
- Robert Horry (through 2003)
Honestly, Shaq is probably the #2 player I've enjoyed watching since MJ. (Granted, his athleticism has greatly diminished over time, but give me the 2000-2001 Shaq, who was a freaking MONSTER underneath the basket... that's my idea of fun basketball to watch, a guy who can power through the foul and finish... watch some of those games from a few years back, Shaq was an animal... you had to double team him or he would maul his defender... freaking beautiful... not as graceful as Jordan cutting through the lane or taking over a game, or AI embarrassing a defender, breaking his knees, but pretty in a pure physical sense... the giant, crushing the mere peon that is trying to guard him...)
I always liked Shaq better than Kobe for a couple of reasons. First, when Shaq was in his prime, Kobe was still maturing. Second, Kobe always did carry himself with an aire of snobish indifference, one of those players on the court who knew he was better than everyone else and played with an attitude of, “Why am I here, why am I wasting my time with you?” Shaq, though, always seemed to be having a blast, one of those big guys in the pick-up-game world who could lower his shoulder, bowl you over for the layup, but who you joked with running back down the court. Kobe would be the pick-up player who you couldn't approach, who you wouldn't talk to because he was too serious, too into himself. At least that's how it looked watching these guys on TV. (Here's some, perhaps, specious evidence: Shaq donating time and money for the victims for hurricane Katrina; could you see Kobe loading up a van with donations? I see him more likely to be shopping for a ring for his old lady.)
So when PJ left, and when Shaq went to Miami, I started watching more Heat games than Laker games. Perhaps I should have renamed my blog. Whatever. And as I watched the Heat play I began to really enjoy the team they had, really liked watching D. Wade do his thing (amazing that the was picked after both Anthony and Darko in the draft), liked watching Damon Jones rain threes, liked watching Shaq be Shaq (albeit and older, slower Shaq, but still one that could morph a game when the opponents lacked a strong frontcourt). All in all, I watched many more Heat games than Laker games last year.
But this year I am not as excited about the Heat. Yes, Shaq's still there; ditto D. Wayde. But now they've brought in a bunch of offensive weapons. And they're still clamoring for more! (Shaq's reportedly wanting to get Gary Payton on board...... not a bad idea, maybe six years ago.) Shaq, didn't you learn anything from the Lakers “Future All Start gang” run? Granted, you got to the Finals, but barely. It took Fisher's 0.4 second miracle to get there, and you did get embarrassed in five by the underdogs. (Yeah, yeah, Karl Malone was hurt, but still... Detroit's frontcourt was too much for old man Malone and an aging Shaq... see the 2005 ECF for more evidence on that... and, IMO, the success the Lakers had that year was due in large part to P. Jackson's expertise... is Stan Van Gundy up to the challenge, or is Riles going to throw him under the bus?) Look at Detroit. Look at San Antonio. Those championship calibre teams are showing how you get to the promise land - you build a core nucleus of selfless, talented vets who know their place and you only add role players. Guys who are happy to come off the bench. Proven vets who have playoff experience. Wily, older guys, who want a ring moreso than playing time.
I'm not blaming Shaq for the Heat's moves this offseason - he's just a cog in the machine, it's Riley and crew that are calling the shots. What are they thinking? Stupid question, I know what they're thinking: Win a ring at any cost. They came so close last season, Game 7, one W away from the Finals, but no dice. But now is not the time to revamp the lineup! Now is the time to add role players! (I've said this before.) Ok, ok, swapping out Eddie Jones for Poise is an Ok trade, I think, but for Walker, a selfish, shot-happy guy who, despite his size, has the inside presense that I do (at 5'9”, 155 lbs.)? And what about losing Damon Jones? That happened solely because you created a glut at the guard position, thereby calling into question his PT. Plus, it wouldn't have hurt to throw a few bucks his way, he is grossly underpaid.
But no. Goodbye Damon Jones. Goodbye Eddie Jones. Goodbye Keyon Dooling. Goodbye Rasul Butler. Granted, it's not like they were giving up Wade or Shaq, but Jones & Jones were part of the nucleus, and now they are gone, serving as competent role players for some other team... rich with playoff experience that is few and far between in this League. Drag.
Ok, enough rambling, this post has gotten long enough. I just worry that the Heat, despite their offensive firepower, are going to suck eggs this season. My hope is that they return to becoming one of the premier teams; my hope is that they are mentioned up there with the Spurs, Pistons, and Pacers each week. That's my hope, but I fear reality will spell out a different fate. We shall see..................