- Jerry Bembry
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Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Miami Heat.
With the big game about to begin, Caron Butler is getting excited. Excited about the event. Excited about the energy. Excited about the the way a game has galvanized a city. "This is what it's all about," Butler says, as he's about to settle in at home in front of a TV set to enjoy a Marlins game during their World Series run. "This is the kind of atmosphere that you want to be a part of."
Unfortunately for Butler, there was no big-game atmosphere to be a part of during his rookie year. But after two straight losing seasons -- including a 25-57 record and last-place finish in the Atlantic Division in 2002-03 -- the Heat hope a couple of new arrivals will improve matters.
Lamar Odom arrived via free agency (15.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game in his career); Dwyane Wade arrived via the draft (21.5 points, 6.3 rebound, 4.4 assists per game in his final season at Marquette). Each is versatile.
Odom and Wade should blend well with Eddie Jones and Caron Butler . You understand where Pat Riley is coming from with his "throw the best players on the court" philosophy that will have Odom at power forward, Butler at small forward, Brian Grant at center, Jones at shooting guard and Wade at point guard.
"We don't want to go with one guy specifically," Riley said. "We want to go to everyone and try to get that concept across to them -- to be more of a team than to rely on one person."
It's a game that the Heat have to play, considering the lack of size on their roster. But the shift from Riley's style of trying to shut teams down defensively to trying to outscore them will only be successful if Wade -- a swingman in college -- is able to smoothly make the transition to point guard.
"(Wade) is going to have his rough spots, as any young player will," Riley said. "But he has the size, the ballhandling skill and just the whole basketball IQ to be able to do what we want. We're going to have probably Caron Butler, Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom handle the ball primarily in how we want to play this year."
The Heat haven't had a chance to run Riley's quirky lineup during the preseason because Butler had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Oct. 4. With rehab, Butler is expected to begin practicing with the team next week and, while Riley says it's doubtful, he could play on opening day.
While Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire got all the rookie hype last season, Butler may have quietly had the best season. His 15.4-point average was the best among rookies, but Butler fully understands why the Rookie of the Year Award came down to a two-man race.
"It was disappointing not being really considered, because I knew what I was capable of doing," Butler said. "But it just goes to show that everything is about winning. Those guys were on better teams. That made a difference."
With Odom and and Wade providing more offensive options, Butler won't have to worry about the constant double teams that he and Jones faced last season. If either Butler or Jones was successfully shut down, the Heat had problems scoring.
The area Butler will try to make a difference is leadership. Having played one year in the NBA -- and under Riley -- he is seeking a bigger role.
"Last year I was quiet, more of the guy trying to fit in," Butler said. "This year, on and off the court, I'm going to try to be a leader. I've been around the block and I've played a lot of minutes, so there's something that I have to offer guys like Dwyane."
With a power forward who's taller than the center (Odom is 6-foot-10 and Grant is 6-9), Miami may face another difficult season. Grant will get away with being undersized the in the East, but he faces nothing but trouble when the Heat plays Western Conference teams.
Still, Butler says you won't see another year in Miami like last season, when the team's 85.6 scoring average was the second lowest in the NBA.
"The sky's the limit for us," Butler said. "On paper, I think we're one of the most talented groups in the league and now we have to go out and prove it."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.
Miami will be playing small ball, but Caron Butler is expecting big things from the Heat and himself.