Commentary

Orbiting the center of the universe

With Shaq at center, Pat Riley says this team is about now. Is this season a failure for the Heat if they don't win it all?

Updated: July 10, 2008, 11:31 AM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider

ESPN.com's NBA Insider Chad Ford will take your questions during a SportsNation Chat at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday.

MIAMI – There isn't a hotter team in the league right now than the Miami Heat.

"Incendiary" is the word.

"The summer has been outrageous," team president Pat Riley gushes. "It's been great for the franchise. We want to thank Shaq for that. He's the most sought out player in the league. His impact on the box office has been as dramatic as I've ever seen."

Riley isn't exaggerating. There is no hotter ticket in the NBA right now than the Heat. Season tickets are sold out for the season. Only a handful of nosebleed seats are available for selected games the rest of the year.

THE HOT SPOTS
  • ESPN.com takes you to 10 "Hot Spots" during NBA training camp:
    Oct. 11: Los Angeles Lakers
    • Stein: Loss of pressure
    • Inside Lakers camp
    Oct. 12: Charlotte Bobcats
    • Ford: Who are these 'Cats?
    • Inside Bobcats camp
    Oct. 13: Cleveland Cavaliers
    • Stein: Playoffs or bust
    • Inside Cavaliers camp
    Oct. 14: Detroit Pistons
    • Ford: Firing on all cylinders
    • Inside Pistons camp
    Oct. 15: Dallas Mavericks
    • Stein: Nellie's best defense
    • Inside Mavericks camp
    Oct. 18: Utah Jazz
    • Ford: A different tune in Utah
    • Inside Jazz camp
    Oct. 19: Houston Rockets
    • Bucher: Van Gundy's kind of team
    • Inside Rockets camp
    Oct. 20: Orlando Magic
    • Ford: The IceMan Buildeth
    • Inside Magic camp
    Oct. 21: Miami Heat
    • Ford: The Big Copernicus
    • Inside Heat camp
    Oct. 22: San Antonio Spurs
    • Stein: Expecting the best
    • Inside Spurs camp
  • Black Heat jerseys with a red "32" on the back are flying off the shelves. Before Shaq's first exhibition game in Miami on Monday, Heat fans were worked up into such a froth that you'd swear the team was gearing up for a Game 7 in the playoffs. And when Shaq was introduced, American Airlines Arena earned its name. It sounded like a 747 was taking off inside.

    Shaq gave one of those cock-eyed grins he's famous for, grabbed the microphone at center court and told the adoring throng that he's coming to deliver a championship.

    The crowd ooooh-ed and aaaah-ed every time he touched the ball. Shaq destroyed Hawks center Jason Collier with his patented smash and dunk inside power play. Six minutes into the game, Shaq had 11 of the Heat's 13 points -- despite the fact that he was playing for the first time in a week because of sore hamstring.

    When Shaq took a seat with a few minutes to go in the first quarter, the grin got even wider. For the first time in years, everything in Shaq's world was good again.

    The Heat are the perfect team for Shaq. He is the sun in the center of the NBA solar system. He shines brighter than any star in the league when everything revolves around him.

    Maybe we should start calling Shaq the Big Copernicus.

    "I'm not really happy," Shaq said after the game. "It's not really time to be happy. But I like all my players. I like the organization. I like the city. So, I'm at peace."

    He should be. After undergoing the messiest divorce that the NBA has seen in some time, it looks like Shaq has found himself a home big enough to accommodate his huge game and ego.

    "I'm very happy to be here," Shaq said. "I chose these guys as much as they chose me. It's a professional marriage. Hopefully I can end my career here."

    That will depend on how his teammates react to playing with the Diesel.

    Shaquille O'Neal
    Miami and Shaq (with watergun) are enjoying the honeymoon.

    Shaq enjoyed long honeymoons in Orlando and Los Angeles, too, before a young guard with superstar aspirations started chipping away at his touches and his popularity.

    Shaq's feuds with Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant are just as much a part of his legacy as his dominating play in the paint. When things went south in Orlando and LA, Shaq did the only logical thing -- he fled.

    So it's interesting that he "chose" to play for team that has, you guessed it, a young guard with superstar aspirations in Dwyane Wade.

    Some claim that Shaq is setting himself up for another nasty divorce two or three years from now. With the way Shaq clogs the lane, the conventional wisdom is that a slasher like Wade will struggle to adjust his game.

    But the people making those accusations don't know Wade.

    Wade is the anti-Kobe.

    The only thing more striking than his talent is how tiny his ego is. While Team USA head coach Larry Brown pulled out his hair and ultimately benched two of last year's rookie superstars in the Olympics – LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony – because of their on- and off-the-court antics, he praised and played Wade throughout the entire tournament.

    That doesn't surprise Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy.

    "He's going to play the game well not matter what," Van Gundy said. "He's a known quantity. We know what we're going to get from him every night."

    Wade did struggle to find his rhythm in his first preseason game with Shaq on the floor. But by Monday's game against the Hawks, the two seemed to quickly developing a nice chemistry both on and off the court.

    At the start of Monday's game, Wade was forcing the action a bit, trying too hard to get to the basket. It led to several turnovers before Shaq stepped in and calmed the second-year point guard.

    "I told him to let the game come to him and just relax," Shaq said after the game. "Instead of trying to score every time, get everyone else involved and then the opportunities will come."

    Wade took the criticism, settled down and ended up leading the team in both scoring and assists. In the process he hooked up with Shaq on several spectacular plays.

    "I just listened to my teammates," Wade said. "They won't steer me wrong. Shaq's got my back. He's going to give me more opportunities than I've ever had playing basketball.

    "We've never had no problem clicking. I know what he likes and he knows what I like after just a couple of weeks together. I know he's very unselfish and he's a big target. It's a lot of fun playing with him.

    "He's clicking with a lot of guys early because he came in and told guys 'this is how I am,' and he said 'do this' and 'do that' and everyone listened. It's going to be easy to gel with Shaq ... He's here to help us and we're here to help him."

    After trying to tutor Hardaway and Kobe to no avail, the receptiveness from Wade (and the rest of the team for that matter) is a fresh change of pace for Shaq.

    "The good thing about D. Wade is that he's a guy who knows he doesn't know it all and I can give him tips and he listens," Shaq said. "He turned it around and had a fabulous game.

    He's a nice guy. A great guy. A great player. I nicknamed him 'Flash' because he's so fast on the court. Flash and Superman are going to do a lot of damage this year.
    C Shaquille O'Neal, on new teammate Dwyane Wade

    "I'm going to make him better. I'm going to show the world what kind of passer he is and show the world what kind of finisher he is. Whenever he throws it to me and slashes I'm going to find him.

    "He's a nice guy. A great guy. A great player. I nicknamed him 'Flash' because he's so fast on the court. Flash and Superman are going to do a lot of damage this year."

    They better because the expectations for this team couldn't be higher.

    After stunning the league last season and taking the Pacers to six games in the second round of the playoffs, the Heat's bar had already been raised.

    But when Riley decided to trade away two of the Heat's young, upcoming stars -- Lamar Odom and Caron Butler -- for Shaq, he could have just as easily put up a banner on American Airlines Arena that read "NBA Championship or Bust."

    "My major motivation in trading for Shaq was a chance to win a championship," Riley said. "This is about now. I felt we had a very good young team. I love Lamar. I love Caron. I also felt we were a long way away from winning the championship.

    "I saw an opportunity here to win now. This is about now. The league is about now. I just think it was a deal we had to make."

    So does that mean that this season is a failure for the Heat if they don't win a championship?

    "Look, only one team can win the title each year. A lot of things have to happen for a team to win a championship. When I say this is about now, it's about now as our franchise," Riley said. "It's about a sense of hope and a chance. We'll be a competitive and a legitimate contender.

    "Where that takes us is the anticipation and excitement of that run. Any team with three solid players and right group will have a chance to win it all. I just felt we were too far away with the other team. This team has a real shot.

    "Having the most dominant player in the league will help us."

    Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.

    Chad Ford

    Senior Writer, NBA Insider