Whenever I think of the Miami Heat’s Big Three, that all-powerful cabal of four straight NBA Finals appearances, I always think, in the back of my mind, about Jermaine O’Neal.
Yes, that Jermaine O’Neal, the mild-mannered center who creaked his way through 44 games for the Warriors in this just-concluded season—and 55 for the Phoenix Suns in the season before that, and 25 for the Celtics in the season before that, and 24 for the Celtics in the season before that. It’s been quite literally half a decade since O’Neal was consistently healthy and on the basketball floor. A good defender and wise veteran presence when in uniform, sure, but at this point it would be quite unwise to bet on O’Neal remaining healthy through all or even most of a basketball season.
Jermaine O’Neal’s career wasn’t always like this. Back in the late '90s, he was a preps-to-pros phenom of considerable potential, a contributing role player for a Portland Trail Blazers team that made serious inroads into the Western Conference playoffs on the annual.
When he reached legal drinking age and was traded to the Indiana Pacers, O’Neal exploded into a superstar, a 20 and 10 monster who made six straight All-Star teams. Somewhere in the middle of that, the Pacers signed him to a seven-year, $126.6 million extension, a truly flabbergasting amount of money.
As O’Neal’s contract ballooned upward in value with each passing year, he also dropped off the elite levels of production that he had given the Pacers. In the 2007–08 season, O’Neal played in 42 games, averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds—solid contributions from a starting center, sure, but not quite what you want out of a $19.7 million investment. The Pacers would trade him after the season to the Toronto Raptors for such overwhelming assets as T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, and a mid-first round draft pick (which would be—oh boy—Roy Hibbert).
As the trade deadline loomed during the 2009 winter, Pat Riley stepped in—and this is a story not about O’Neal, but about Mr. Riley. At the time the Heat had just come off a season in which they posted the worst record in the NBA, the core of their 2006 championship-winning season undone by age and injuries. By the trade deadline in 2009, the Heat were chugging along at .500 under a first-time head coach—Eric Spoelstra, you might have heard of him by now—and were led quite one-dimensionally by Dwyane Wade, who posted a league-high 36.2 percent usage rating.
But oh, Riley, he is a visionary. He saw potential for so much more. He dreamed big, and then attained his dreams.
Perhaps the most brilliant transaction in Riley’s long and storied career is his February 2009 trade with the Toronto Raptors, a move that sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Canada in exchange for O’Neal and Jamario Moon.
That spring the Heat would meekly trickle out in a first-round playoff exit, as they would in the next season, 2009–10, the final year on O’Neal’s astoundingly large deal. O’Neal contributed astoundingly consistent averages—13.6 points again, and 6.9 rebounds—this time while earning $23 million dollars.
Riley paid superstar money to a man who was more like a role player. But yes, it was a genius move on Riley’s part, because in the summer of 2010, O’Neal’s giant contract came off the books. Suddenly, the Miami Heat had all the cap space in the world right in the middle of the biggest and most prominent free agent class in NBA history—players such as, you know, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Way back in the winter in 2009, when the Heat were unquestionably a mediocre team, Riley had both the balls and the brains to imagine one of the most revolutionary teams the NBA has ever seen.
Riley’s genius was not this one-time masterstroke. More or less ever since The Decision, when the league’s focus shifted almost permanently to South Beach, Pat Riley has made all of his transactions in anticipation of these next few weeks. Even as far back as the winter of 2011, Riley has constructed this Miami Heat team in a way that 1) can win championships, and 2) gives Riley considerable flexibility once the clock strikes midnight this July 1:
Signed December 9, 2011 / 3 years, $4.5M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed December 9, 2011 / 3 years, $12M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed December 9, 2011 / 3 years, $9M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed July 11, 2012 / 2 years, $2.6M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed July 11, 2012 / 2 years, $6.1M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed July 10, 2013 / 1 year, $1.7M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed August 8, 2013 / 1 year, $1M / End date: July 1, 2014
Signed September 9, 2013 / 1 year, $1M / End date: July 1, 2014
*Andersen was on the Heat in 2012–13 and entered the free agent market before the Heat signed him to this contract. The contract also included a player option at the veteran’s minimum for 2014–15 that Andersen has already declined, making him a free agent on July 1.
Riley is nothing if not a man who understands the psyches and aspirations of other outrageously successful men.
At this year’s trading deadline, Riley—probably sensing that backup center Joel Anthony would exercise his $3.8 million player option for 2014–15—entered a three-way trade with the Celtics and Golden State Warriors that sent Anthony to Boston. The trade brought backup point guard Toney Douglas to Miami—and Douglas was on a one-year, $1.6 million contract that expires, yes, on July 1, 2014.
The only players that the Miami Heat have under guaranteed contracts for 2014–15 are Udonis Haslem (who will presumably exercise his exorbitant $4.6 million player option) and Norris Cole ($2 million).
Riley is nothing if not a man who understands the psyches and aspirations of other outrageously successful men. It’s likely that one of his best selling points in his pitch to James, Wade, and Bosh was the early termination options built into their contracts for this summer of 2014. Riley respected the desires of these three Hall of Famers to band together—and he also respected that they would also want a way out of town if the arrangement turned sour.
Perhaps James, unimpressed with Wade’s 54-game season and underwhelming playoff performance, already senses that the 2014–15 version of the Heat would not be able to replicate their 2013–14 that ended short of a championship. On Tuesday, LeBron announced that he will be exercising his own early termination option. This does not ensure that LeBron will be leaving the Heat, but this is the first step that James would take if he wishes to do so.
The point is: no matter where LeBron ends up, Riley is going to stay in Miami. And Riley wants his team to be successful whether LeBron or Wade or Bosh are on the squad or not. By arranging, over the span of years, for the Heat to have total flexibility at this crucial time, Riley is free to dream up his next big thing—and he does not need to grovel for LeBron’s cooperation in order to do so.