It’s hard to say whether or not the Miami Heat will retire the No. 32 Shaquille O’Neal wore during his playing days with the team. Shaq played just 205 games with the team and left the franchise somewhat acrimoniously, but he did help deliver a championship to an organization that seems ready to retire Udonis Haslem’s No. 40 (Udonis was never an All-Star) and Michael Jordan’s No. 23 (Michael was never an actual member of the team). Tim Hardaway, whose No. 10 is retired, played just 162 more contests in Miami red than Shaq did.
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The Heat’s relatively brief post-expansion history has still produced three NBA championships, seven Eastern Conference finals appearances, and 19 postseason placements in 26 seasons. This is a decorated franchise that has been mostly steered, since 1995, by president Pat Riley. The eight-time champ as player, coach and executive (and sometimes both) has made a point to surround himself with stars in Miami, and he’s usually the voice behind the NBA offseason’s biggest acquisitions.
The Heat’s biggest acquisition of all? Both literally and figuratively, we suppose, the deal that sent Shaquille O’Neal to Miami in the summer of 2004. Riley himself, at least, says so. From the Miami Sun-Sentinel:
“I’ll say this, and I mean this,” Riley says during a relaxed moment this past week, “Shaq’s acquisition was bigger than any acquisition that we ever made, including the Big Three.”
“The Big Three,” you’ll recall, was the grouping that put LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the same team through a series of three moves placed in July, 2010. The league’s best player, BEST shooting guard and arguably its most potent power forward all on one team, but … nah, Shaq was “bigger.”
And what of Alonzo Mourning? Riley’s first big deal, the move that gave the Heat credibility prior to Alonzo’s nearly 600 games as a member of the team?
“Zo was big,” Riley says, “but getting Shaquille changed everything for our franchise.”
OK, so … Shaq?
O’Neal averaged 19.6 points, 9.1 rebounds with around two assists and two blocks in 31 minutes a contest for the Heat. An injury-plagued Miami squad fell just short to the Detroit Pistons in the 2005 Eastern finals, but the Dwyane Wade-led Heat took the championship in 2006 before O’Neal’s decline pushed the Heat toward the margins in the seasons that followed. Shaq was dealt midway through 2007-08 for Shawn Marion, who was eventually dealt for an aging Jermaine O’Neal.
No matter, according to Riley. The machinations that led to the Heat being in the right place at the right time to acquire O’Neal is at the top of the Heat’s pyramid, despite the fact that LeBron and Co. led Miami to two titles and four Finals appearances.
And, cannily, Riley won’t let his comments be chalked up to unending enmity and shade sent LeBron James’ way. After all, Pat would point out, he included the beloved Alonzo Mourning amongst the acquisitions that the Shaquille Deal outpaced.
In talking with the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, Riley divulged the back and forth between Pat (who had by then stepped away from coaching) and former boss and Laker owner Jerry Buss, as the two talked about Riley hopping aboard to run the coach-less Los Angeles Lakers in 2004:
“And right after that, we all went upstairs to dinner and that was the last I heard about them wanting me to coach — but they definitely would like to make a trade with us. So I don’t know if he brought me out there to really coach the team, or if he brought me out there to speculate on whether or not we would trade Wade and Caron Butler and everything else. And I said no. But when they called back, when Mitch [Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager] called back, there is no doubt we had interest and that then formulated into an offer and then a trade that was made for Caron and Lamar [Odom] and Brian Grant with the first-round pick. And we ended up getting Shaq and we ended up getting the championship.”
After a year spent in the lottery during what looked like Riley’s final season as head coach in 2002-03, the Stan Van Gundy-led Heat were one of the NBA’s more entertaining surprises in 2003-04. A League Pass-wonder helped run by rookie hybrid guard Dwyane Wade, that team jumped ahead of schedule to make some noise in the 2004 playoffs, working with just enough parts to make things interesting for a Laker team that had been pushed by Kobe Bryant to make a choice between Bryant (a younger, in-shape free agent) and Shaq (who was pining for yet another massive contract extension).
The Lakers initially demanded Wade in return from Miami, but as Bryant flirted with teams in Chicago and the lowly Clippers, the team’s trade leverage was just about nil despite O’Neal’s franchise-shifting talents.
No other trade suitor had the combination of high salary (Brian Grant’s expiring max deal) and young talent (Butler and Odom) needed to strike a legal and suitable agreement, and even with Wade off the table the Lakers were forced to make a move. Even if “the first-round pick” expectedly fell low (to No. 26, Jordan Farmar) due to O’Neal’s presence on an improved Heat squad.
The Lakers would miss the playoffs the following year. Grant’s career was over and Odom regressed back in the Los Angeles circle he fought to get away from the offseason before. The team would eventually return to prominence, but for a spell the franchise was Riley’s absolute creature in this matter. As those facing down Pat Riley often are.
Still, again … Shaq?
The Heat were torn to bits in the opening night of its 2006 championship defense, in a game that produced one of the internet’s finest gifs, and swept out of the first round of the playoffs a few months later. O’Neal’s 2008 trade to Phoenix came midway through a 15-win season, and the list of his Miami accomplishments appears rather thin – that near-miss in 2005, a title in 2006, and first round fodder in 2007.
Hardly the stuff of legends, especially when you toss in the knowledge that Dwyane Wade was far and away the team’s best player during the championship run; the disparity between his contribution’s and Shaq’s hardly comparable to the ham-and-egg work Shaq and Kobe managed despite their obvious distaste for each other.
Alonzo Mourning, on the other hand, had this team in the playoffs during what should have been a rebuilding turn in 1995-96, prior to making the Heat a championship contender for five seasons prior to his diagnosis with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. When that diagnosis hit, just before the 2000-01, it appeared at the time as if Riley had put together the best batch of teammates Mourning had ever played alongside.
Dwyane Wade was a 2003 draft pick, so apparently off the table in this regard, but both LeBron James and Chris Bosh were sign-and-trade acquisitions. Alonzo Mourning gave all. Tim Hardaway resurrected a career for the price of Kevin Willis and Bimbo Coles. Even P.J. Brown lasted four years.
Shaquille O’Neal wore Pat Riley’s uniform for over 35 months and Michael Beasley has played 33 more career games as a member of the Miami Heat. Yet Pat Riley still chooses him.
This, as we discussed in our Hall of Fame appreciation of Shaq’s many talents, is what he does.
He delightfully tricks even the best of this league into thinking that the biggest thing they’ve ever come across is, somehow, even bigger than it appears.
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