With the recent start of the 2005-06 NBA season, the team to beat appears to be the Miami Heat.
Miami acquired Antoine Walker, James Posey, and Jason Williams following a 13-player, five-team deal that took place during the offseason. Miami also acquired Andre Emmett in the trade that saw longtime starter Eddie Jones, and forwards Rasual Butler and Qyntel Woods part ways with the Heat. A few weeks later, the Heat signed 9-time all star, Gary Payton to a $1.1 million, one-year deal.
Payton, who played alongside Shaquille O’Neal during the 2003-04 season with the
Los Angeles Lakers, couldn’t turn down the 7’1 center’s lobbying to join him in Miami in a quest to win his first NBA championship.
"We’re very close, and when he steps up for me like that, it’s hard to tell him no," said Payton, who reached the NBA Finals with O’Neal and the Lakers two seasons ago only to be defeated by the Detroit Pistons.
Payton, who averaged 6.1 assists per game last season with Boston, and Jason Williams, who was acquired from Memphis in the 13-player, five-team deal, will be the primary point guards and will offer an array of options leading the point. The Heat were forced to fill the void after losing last season’s point guards, Damon Jones, to Cleveland, and Keyon Dooling to the Orlando via free agency.
But it seems everyone is willing to do their part to win this season. Shaquille O’ Neal has been packing on pounds of muscle during the offseason, undergoing two-a-day summertime workouts with longtime bodyguard, Jerome Crawford, in an effort to ward off injuries during the upcoming season. O’Neal says he feels comfortable at 340 pounds, 13 pounds more than his playing weight last season.
With a bulked up Shaquille O’Neal, a healthy Dwyane Wade, and a bench that offers an enormous amount of versatility, Miami is sure to go far this season provided the team can gel and develop good team chemistry…and fast.
"Our job is to put it all together now," Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said.
Although this new and improved Miami squad boasts what seems like an all-star caliber team, most of the players acquired in the blockbuster trade were superstars on their previous teams and did not have to worry about getting the ball.
Antoine Walker understands that he will have a reserved role on the new Heat, but willingly accepts it. "In past years, I’ve always come in and had to worry about scoring 20, 25 a night for my team to win," said Walker during a press conference shortly after the blockbuster trade. "Now I don’t have to worry about that. I can come in and just play ball, just be versatile. Rebound, pass, score — whatever it calls for that night."
Even with a team that won 59 games last season, the second best record in the league, one has to ask if Pat Riley’s complete overhaul was really necessary following Miami’s loss to the Detroit Pistons in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Some think so.
"He’s won championships and he knows what to do to get that extra oomph," said Payton. "Pat probably realized he didn’t have that … and he needed somebody who could make big plays at critical times."
Miami opens their season on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies tonight at 8 pm. In their first national televised game of the season, The Heat will return home tomorrow night to play the Indiana Pacers at 8 pm on TNT.