Wading into the market?
The Miami Heat’s playoff struggles against the Celtics have created an issue even larger for the organization than being eliminated in the first round for the second consecutive year.
Not only have the Heat been unable to advance past Round 1 since winning the NBA title in 2006, they have failed to excite their fan base — or their star guard — with their recent additions. The Heat have dropped into the second tier in the Eastern Conference with a roster filled with disappointments, aging veterans, and young talent yet to gain consistency.
Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade is watching closely the crumbling around him. Since Shaquille O’Neal was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in February 2008, Wade has lacked a second option to relieve him of the scoring responsibility, something that has carried into the 2010 postseason.
Shawn Marion, acquired from Phoenix for O’Neal, was never comfortable in the Miami offense. He was sent to Toronto for Jermaine O’Neal, who is 5 for 31 in this series from the field and is another one of the high school-to-pros players aging before his time.
O’Neal is no longer a capable second option for a championship-caliber team. The Heat suffered through a 15-67 season in 2007-08 and gained the second pick in the draft, hoping to nab a franchise cornerstone to help Wade. Michael Beasley cannot be labeled a bust, but his performances in big games and his erratic behavior aren’t convincing Wade that Miami is on the rise.
Wade, like LeBron James and Chris Bosh, has the choice of opting out of his contract and becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Heat can offer him a maximum contract — which would be a cinch requirement — as well as a guaranteed sixth year that other teams with cap space (Bulls, Clippers, Knicks, Nets) can’t.
On the surface, it would appear an easy decision for Wade to return to the warm weather and comfortable environment of Miami, where he is already the franchise’s greatest player and a local icon. Also, Miami is always an attractive locale for free agents and the Heat have cap space to chase Bosh or James.
But Wade, who turned 28 in January, is in his prime and doesn’t want to enter his 30s putting up big numbers for a rebuilding team that can’t compete with the Cavaliers, Hawks, and Magic. So he has a major decision coming, one that could be shaped by how the Heat finish the season.
His impatience is building. Beasley is wildly inconsistent. O’Neal is aging. Udonis Haslem has limited skills. Daequan Cook and Mario Chalmers played themselves out of the rotation for stretches. So what is Wade to do?
“It’s frustrating sometimes in a game,’’ Wade said when asked about a lack of support. “But that’s my competitive nature as a basketball player. And I think the biggest person that anybody is going to say to be the [second scorer] would be of course [O’Neal] or Beasley. Those are the two that you want to be aggressive, the ones that you expect to have big nights at times.
“We just want guys to do what they normally do. We need guys to be as consistent as they have all season.
“It’s hard to take the game over early when you have four guys looking at you. It’s what it is. When I come across the court, I got four guys looking at me. And it’s pretty crowded.’’
Wade has continued to support Beasley, who just turned 21 and has tremendous but untapped talent. But the Heat could decide to sign Bosh and dangle Beasley in a trade to clear more cap space. Is Beasley worth a mid first-round pick? He’s probably younger than some draft picks and is capable of being an All-Star, with the right motivation.
If Bosh decides to come to Miami and join Wade, Beasley would be jettisoned, and it might take that type of major transaction to discourage Wade from, say, returning home to Chicago. Heat president Pat Riley has tried adding pieces to help Wade but has failed. O’Neal is the third-highest-paid player in the league at $23 million and is in the final year of a bloated contract.
The Heat have only $24 million in committed salaries next season — if you include Wade’s option — and could add a slew of new players to join Wade. But that may not be the instant recipe for success. Wade told reporters earlier this month that he is going to enjoy being “courted’’ by other clubs. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for his return.
The Heat’s predicament is one many teams face when they rely on teenagers to produce immediately. Kevin Durant is a special player, one who has worked out beyond expectations for the Thunder. Not that the Heat expected Beasley to become an MVP candidate in two seasons, but the organization did expect more maturity and reliability.
“People don’t realize that the NBA is all about fundamentals,’’ Beasley said. “You go up in high school, college, you play your game. You play what you learn from the streets or the playground.
“The NBA is all about fundamentals. You start at Square One. It’s just learning the basics, especially on the defensive end.
“It’s tough at first because it’s a mental thing. You can’t get caught up in, ‘Oh, I don’t want them to change my game.’ But they are really not trying to change your game. They are trying to add more to your game.’’
Beasley realizes he may be the determining factor in whether Wade returns. His development is a meticulous process, and Wade may not be interested in waiting.
“He can teach you a lot,’’ Beasley said. “When you’re on the court, he’s a leader and such a great player that he knows every situation. That’s just a big bonus.
“I know it’s up to me to play my game and do whatever it takes to help this team. But it’s a total learning process.’’
Many NBA observers expect that a lockout could occur if the sides are far apart on a deal in the next 14 months, and commissioner David Stern said last week that negotiations have been limited to talks that don’t include he or union president Billy Hunter, the parties who would need to confirm an agreement.
“It would be really nice [to get a deal done early],’’ Stern said. “We thought it would be really great to try to get something done by this year, not because of the max contracts or free agency but because to the extent that there were changes that had to be implemented, they could be phased in over a period of time.’’
Nothing has changed since All-Star Weekend in Dallas. Stern said the league is losing nearly $400 million per year and has the books to prove it, and the union is reviewing those numbers and is expected to respond. But Stern has no idea when.
“They will give us their proposal whenever they are ready to give us their proposal,’’ he said. “Actually, our first numbers were given [to them] in the autumn, but actually, that is their right. And we want to get it moving, that’s all. But we think it’s fine.’’
David Stern said those days are long gone.
“Coaches are under a lot of pressure and I grew up trying to respect that pressure,’’ the commissioner said. “And so I used to just say, it’s the playoffs. We craft an $800 million TV deal, it’s a really good deal, and then I pick up the paper and see that Stan Van Gundy is an expert on scheduling. It’s like going back to high school, he said, and my response is that he’s speaking like he’s in high school. He should grow up.
“We’ve got a business here that feeds a lot of people, and we make a fair living at, and engages America, and I am really tired of hearing coaches who think because they have a postgame platform that anything that comes into their minds is a good thing to say. It sends a terrible message to our fans.’’
Stern said trying to spread the playoff schedule to where every game can be televised is difficult. NBATV has had to pitch in and televise selected games.
“We used to do back-to-backs in the old days and we were criticized for breaking down players and it wasn’t fair and it isn’t a top competition,’’ Stern said. “Now I got a coach with some time on his hands who thinks we should have back-to-backs. Well, he should have his owner call me. And if he doesn’t want to have his owner call me, he should be quiet.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.