Friday , Oct , 21 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

Are the Miami Heat ready to win the East?

The Miami Heat had a very busy offseason. Despite their success last season, the Heat are going to have a new look for the 2005-06 campaign.

Miami acquired twenty-eight-year-old swingman James Posey, forward Antoine Walker and point guard Jason Williams in a blockbuster five-team trade during the offseason. The team also signed free agent point guard Gary Payton and forward Jason Kapono, who was a restricted free agent and had averaged 8.5 points and 2.0 rebounds in 81 games last season for the Charlotte Bobcats.

Are the Miami Heat ready to win the East?

The Heat, who were the top seed in the East heading into last year’s postseason after winning 59 games during the regular season, earned their first two sweeps in franchise history in a best-of-seven series during rounds one and two of the 2005 playoffs. They eliminated No. 8 New Jersey in the quarterfinals and No. 5 Washington in the semifinals.

In the conference finals, Miami gave Detroit a big scare as it led the Pistons 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. However, the experience of the Pistons showed when they won Game 6 at The Place of Auburn Hills and dismissed the Heat in front of their home crowd in Game 7. All-Star Dwyane Wade gave it his best shot while playing the decisive contest with bruised ribs, but it was not enough to get the Heat into their first NBA Finals in franchise history.

Shaquille O’Neal, who signed a new deal with the Heat during the summer which is believed to be for five years and more than $100 million, and Wade have become one of the most dangerous one-two punches in the league. Last season, Shaq averaged 22.9 points, a team-best 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting a league-best 60 percent in his inaugural campaign with the Heat. He found a comparable swingman to Kobe Bryant in Wade, who is entering his third NBA season. Wade is a dual threat as he is equally capable of beating his defender off the dribble and hitting mid-range jumpers. In 77 contests in 2004-05, Wade registered team-highs in points (24.1 ppg) and assists (6.8 apg).

Miami did get rid of forward Rasual Butler and swingman Eddie Jones, who averaged 12.7 points in 80 games for Miami last season, as they were both part of the five-team trade. Damon Jones, who played in all 82 regular-season games and netted 11.6 points and dished out 4.3 assists per contest for the Heat in 2004-05, signed with Cleveland as a free agent, while reserve guard Keyon Dooling inked a deal with Orlando.

Power forward Udonis Haslem, who averaged 10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds in 80 games in 2004-05, joined Shaq by signing a new deal with the club. Haslem received a five-year deal believed to be worth $30.7 million. Haslem has been a pleasant surprise in his two seasons with the Heat, who signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2003 following a standout career at the University of Florida.

Head coach Stan Van Gundy, who is entering his third year as the general of the Heat, will have to figure out how to get his players to jell and play as a team. He knows Shaq and Wade have a special chemistry going between them, but can he get players like Payton, Posey, Walker and Williams to fit in with the team’s philosophy and style of play?

Payton will try once again to get a ring with Shaq as his teammate, as the two fell short in 2003 when the Lakers fell in five games to Detroit in the NBA Finals. The 37-year-old Payton, who averaged 11.3 points and 6.1 assists for Boston in 2004-05, is still a solid defender and can run an offense with the best of them. His desire to win a championship will keep him from rocking the boat.

The 29-year-old Williams averaged 10.1 points and 5.6 assists in 71 games for Memphis last season. He can be very inconsistent and has a tendency to turn the ball over or take bad shots at the worst time. Williams may shine with the talent that he will be surrounded with, but he will have some adjustments to make and will probably not play as much as he has over his seven-year career.

Posey, who can also play shooting guard, and the three-time All-Star Walker will share minutes at small forward. Walker averaged 19.1 points and 9.0 boards in 77 games for Atlanta and Boston last season, while Posey netted 8.1 per game in 50 contests for Memphis. These are two veterans who will contribute. Posey should fit right in, but Walker will have to accept a reduced role and, like Williams, will not get the playing time that he has been accustomed to during his nine years in the NBA.

The biggest challenge for the new-look Heat will be developing a chemistry that will allow an excellent roster on paper to be a great team on the court. Van Gundy has a tough job ahead of him. The talent is there, but will the end result be a championship in South Beach?

Shaq and Wade will be on a mission in the 2005-06 campaign, but they are going to need the help of their teammates if they want to defeat teams like Detroit and Indiana in the playoffs. Can the new-look Heat win the East?