It was Mardi Gras in Miami when Shaquille O'Neal arrived via trade from the Lakers in July 2004. Surrounded by 17 news trucks, about 215 media members and more than 3,000 fans, O'Neal pulled up to AmericanAirlines Arena in the cab of an 18-wheeler that had a huge picture of his face on the side of the trailer with the words "Shaq in Black."
"Remember this," O'Neal told the cheering throng. "I'm going to bring a championship to Miami. I promise."
Mission accomplished, Shaq.
Now take a hike.
The pending deal that would send O'Neal to Phoenix for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks is a win-win for Miami. One look at the Eastern Conference standings shows that Miami is going nowhere. At 9-37, the Heat are 10 games out of the final playoff spot, and with 19 losses in their last 20 games, they have shown no signs that they intend to get there.
O'Neal, meanwhile, is averaging a career-low 14.2 points in 32 games. Essentially a part-time player since 2005, O'Neal has been plagued by knee and hip injuries this season that have limited his mobility and made him a fraction of the dominating force that terrorized the league earlier this decade.
In finding a willing trading partner, the Heat have positioned themselves to rebuild on the fly. Beyond getting out from the final two years and $40 million left on O'Neal's contract, Miami will have the last two months of the regular season to decide if the 29-year-old Marion is a good fit next to Dwyane Wade. A Swiss Army knife of a player, Marion is averaging 15.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 2.1 assists this season.
Marion, who is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract after the season, likely will not have a lot of options when he hits free agency. Barring a sign-and-trade deal, Miami, Memphis, Atlanta and Philadelphia are the only teams as of now that could have the salary-cap room to sign Marion in the offseason. Memphis has been slashing payroll in anticipation of a possible sale. Atlanta is going through ownership issues and also has free agents of its own in Josh Smith and Josh Childress. Philadelphia is a possibility, but the 76ers have had their eye on Smith to fill their vacant power forward position.
That leaves Miami. If Marion and Wade can forge a Suns-esque running attack, then it could be worth investing $60-$70 million in Marion over the next five seasons. (Wade, incidentally, can opt out after the 2009-2010 season.) A tandem of Marion and Wade combined with a high first-round pick (O.J. Mayo?) would form the core of a Heat team that could contend quickly.
Trading O'Neal also allows Pat Riley to transition off the bench and back into the front office. Riley's greatest success came when Miami was a team filled with veterans like O'Neal, Wade, Antoine Walker, James Posey and Alonzo Mourning. This season the Heat have relied more on youth, and Riley has struggled to develop players like Dorell Wright and Daequan Cook.
Expect Riley to step down after the season, if not sooner. It has been widely assumed that assistant coach Erik Spoelstra will succeed Riley, but that transition was expected to take place in two years. If Riley doesn't believe Spoelstra is ready, he could recruit Scott Skiles (who has a knack for succeeding with young players) or Larry Brown (who is telling anyone who will listen that he wants to coach again) to take over until Spoelstra is ready.
Trading O'Neal means Miami has options. It also means that for the second time in four years, O'Neal has breathed life back into the organization.