Shaquille O'Neal is promising a winner. A champion. He said so himself, straight to the good people of Miami, for whom he'll be performing the next couple years.
We immediately noticed two variables: Shaq didn't put a time limit on his promise -- always a wise decision -- and he didn't say what kind of championship he'd bring. But we can safely project the Miami Heat to be the champions of the newly minted Southeast Division before the first ball is thrown. In fact, Miami may be the only team to win 40 games in that division, which also features Orlando, Washington, Atlanta (assuming the Hawks can sign enough players for a team) and the expansionistas from Charlotte.
Had Miami done nothing but bring back the same 12 bodies, it would have been the prohibitive favorite in the division.
Beyond that, who can say? It's only July. But you have to think the Heat, with a determined, focused, angry and revenge-minded Shaq, will be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They're still not in line with the Pistons or Pacers, but, after those two, there's no one else in their way. The Hornets have gone west and so has Kenyon Martin.
And you notice it was Shaq who was making the boast. You didn't hear Pat Riley talk about a one-peat.
The Heat can say, unequivocally, that they are now, as M.L. Carr liked to chirp, "championship driven." They have Shaq and no one else does. That fact alone, assuming O'Neal walks the walk, gives them a chance. But Shaq needs a supporting cast if Miami is to even think about playing into late May and -- as of now -- well, let's just say it was the emotion of the moment that temporarily caught the Big Driven off guard.
Beyond O'Neal, the Heat has two significant, everyday, make-a-difference NBA players in Eddie Jones and Dwyane Wade. And Jones is available if you want him. Just call. Wade, on the other hand, has all the makings of an All-Star.
At last check, you probably need a couple more decent players to even contemplate a championship. We're not talking the mid-1980s here, where you needed three Hall of Famers just to get out of the conference. But it would help Shaq if he had a legit power forward to help him out -- a role that Karl Malone might eventually fill. If the Mailman does not come East, the Heat need someone a tad more complete than Wang Zhi Zhi or Udonis Haslem.
A point guard might also work, although Wade muddled through last year at the position and the Heat seemed to make out all right. All Miami really needs is someone who will, continually, get the ball inside.
A possibility, although unlikely for 2004-05, is draftee Dorell Wright, about whom most scouts rave. (You know the landscape has changed when Riley, who historically has stayed away from rookies, is now drafting high schoolers.) Apparently, the term "volume scorer" was coined for guys like Wright. He probably can be the wing player that Caron Butler was supposed to be, but it would be against the grain to expect Wright to do much more than carry ballbags next season.
The Heat doesn't have a lot of financial heft at its disposal either. At least, not by NBA rules. The salaries of O'Neal and Jones alone put Miami over the cap. The Heat already have signed Michael Doleac with part of their mid-level exception. Miami will have the other part, along with the veteran's minimums, to lure the kind of role players that were so successful in Los Angeles.
Robert Horry is one. His San Antonio career is history and he helped write his own exit with his pathetic shooting in the Lakers-Spurs series. Malone is another. But if I'm a free agent, I wait. Someone is going to do something stupid -- again. This summer appears to be the one where executives around the league will look back and say, 'we did that?' Chris Mullin in Golden State has given 12 years and nearly $80 million to Adonal Foyle and Derek Fisher. Guys like Foyle, Fisher and Mehmet Okur (six years from Utah) would, in a saner world, be caddying for Shaq -- gladly.
So there are some holes to fill. Still, there's nothing wrong with predicting championships, as long as Patrick Ewing isn't the one doing the talking. Riley, of course, set himself up in 1997 when he guaranteed a title for 1998. But the Lakers delivered. And, of course, in most locales, the only championship that matters is the one that comes with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
That piece of hardware hasn't been anywhere close to South Beach. The Heat not too long ago were one of the best teams in the East. But their renaissance happened to come when Michael Jordan was playing in Chicago. Oops.
Now, the NBA champion resides in the East. The team that had the best regular season record in the NBA last season resides in the East. O'Neal, still thought by many, including himself and Riley, to be the league's most dominant player, resides in the East. The power may still be out west, but getting out of the East won't be as easy -- or as suicidal -- as it once was.
What's Shaq supposed to say? Right now, the Heat don't have the look of a champion. But they have a start in Shaq and that is a pretty good place to start. By October, if the roster doesn't look much different than it does now, then Shaq's promises may be ultra hollow. But the guess here is that Riley, with Shaq's assistance, will convince a couple of gamers to weather a Miami winter and make a million or so in the process.
In his stint with LA, O'Neal (and Kobe) won with over-the-hillers like Horace Grant, A.C. Green, Glen Rice and Ron Harper. If you can envision Wade becoming a Kobe clone, or close enough to it, then the mission might not be so imposing or daunting The job isn't finished, not by a long shot. But it will be a lot easier to finish now that Shaq has taken up residence in Miami and Riley has his eyes on the big prize.
The championship. The only one that matters. It's far fetched now. But at this time last year, how many of us had the Pistons down as the likely 2004 NBA titleist?
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.