The time has come to pay the piper. Two years ago Pat Riley had a decision to make; win now with Shaq or win later with Wade. As per usual, instant gratification won out and against the odds Miami won their first title in franchise history. In the end he made the right decision.
What we see today is the repercussions of that assessment.
Miami was hit hard last year with injuries and internal motivational issues, ones that extended as far as Riley himself. A palatable malaise set in around South Beach and it saw the cocksure Heat bounced from the Playoffs by the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls. There would be no shot at a repeat.
This summer Riley has been dutifully active trying to coax impact-ish players into signing on the cheap for a shot at playing with O'Neal and Wade, but each time he was rebuffed. Mo Williams played him like a harp to boost his position in salary negotiations with the Milwaukee Bucks. Mickael Pietrus has openly lobbied for a sign-and-trade that would land him in Florida, but Golden State, the team that owns his rights, has no interest in taking on any overstuffed Heat salaries.
While these players were in play for the Heat, the team saw last season's breakout three-point marksman Jason Kapono sign a lucrative deal with Toronto and defensive-stopper (and occasional malcontent) James Posey sign on the cheap in Boston. Backup point guard Gary Payton is on the verge of retirement and if he decides to play another year has made is somewhat clear it will be in his native California.
In the end, all that the Heat could muster this off-season were commitments from a very aged Penny Hardaway and a self-involved Smush Parker. Things have gotten so desperate on the free agent front for this team that they are one of the few teams interested in employing the formally retired Allan Houston to 'shore up' their backcourt.
This situation is not unlike the one Riley oversaw in 2003, when he insisted on maintaining an aging, under-competitive core because they had sniffed at competitiveness once upon a time during his tenure. Players like Brian Grant and Eddie Jones were offered obscene contracts in an attempt to fortify their aging nucleus.
Today, Riley is once again clinging to the idea that his team is among the elite in the Eastern Conference and a few key veterans will put him back over the top. He is wrong. Shaquille O'Neal finally demonstrated the ill-effects of age and continual battles with his weight and is entering into the Hakeem Olojuwon-in-Toronto era of his career. He may still be among the better centers in the league, but he simply isn't the kind of dominant force you can build a team around anymore because he isn't on the court often enough to pay-off that kind of investment.
The real, and obvious, future of this team is Wade. It is time for Riley to start looking to build around him so that when the Heat in a position to resign him four years from now they have a supporting cast that will entice him to stay. If they are in the throws of rebuilding during the prime of his career it would make no sense for him to stick around out of some sense of sentimentality to a team that was more concerned with their broken-down center then they were with their Finals MVP.
As it stands today it is hard to rank the Heat among the top six teams in the East given the strides that have been made in Chicago, Boston, Toronto and Cleveland and the continued success of Detroit and New Jersey. If the Heat want to regain their Championship form it is time for them to start looking toward their future rather than trying to recapture their past. They went for a one-shot glory in 2006 and won out, now it's time to move on.