Shaq takes Heat's offseason retooling in stride
MIAMI -- His team has been gutted this summer, with two starters going elsewhere, several new faces joining the organization and more moves certain in the coming weeks.
Shaquille O'Neal, though, isn't the slightest bit worried about his Miami Heat -- and reiterated Saturday that his team will be a championship contender this season.
"A lot of people are probably worried that we're starting over. ... It won't be a problem at all," said O'Neal, whose Heat lost to Detroit in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season. "Everybody's going to be on the same page. We've got to get farther than we did last year, and we will."
Swingman Eddie Jones was traded away in a 13-player, five-team blockbuster earlier this summer, and point guard Damon Jones elected to sign a $16.1 million, four-year contract with Cleveland on Thursday, a decision that disappointed O'Neal.
"Every individual has to do what's best for them," O'Neal said. "We're going to miss Damon. He was a great shooter. But Damon did what Damon wanted to do. He got what he wanted, but he gave up a lot."
In his lone Miami season, Damon Jones averaged 11.6 points and connected on 225 of 521 attempts from 3-point range. Plus, he had a 3.57-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during the regular season, the fourth-best mark in the NBA.
"I guess this was his first shot at getting something big," O'Neal said.
With Damon Jones gone, the Heat clearly need depth at point guard -- and with Eddie Jones and reserve Rasual Butler also departed, Miami also could use more perimeter shooters.
Jason Williams, acquired from Memphis in the summer blockbuster, will likely be the starter at point guard, and forward Antoine Walker -- another offseason addition -- is getting high marks from O'Neal as well.
Yet more roster work remains. O'Neal said he and team president Pat Riley have spoken about other unsigned free agents, and apparently, 37-year-old Gary Payton is high on O'Neal's personal preference list.
Payton, a nine-time All-Star who joined O'Neal in Los Angeles two years ago -- in large part to chase his still-elusive first NBA title, a goal those Lakers missed by losing to Detroit in the 2004 Finals -- averaged 11.3 points and 6.1 assists for Boston last season.
"We would love to have Gary down here," O'Neal said. "Gary's 36, 37 years old, but he's still tenacious on defense and I know he still wants one. And I'm the only guy in the world that can get him one."
Miami had point guard Jay Williams in for a workout Friday, and it's believed that South Florida native Steve Blake -- a restricted free agent who played for Washington last season -- also remains a viable option.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press