Heat take big gambles with Shaq savings

Shaquille O'Neal has done what the skeptics said Shaq would never do.

The Big Pay Cut, by his own choosing, has surrendered his standing as the game's highest-paid player.

True story: O'Neal will have the richest salary in the league for only one more season. That's because Shaq, after agreeing to a new five-year contract worth $125 million, called back to tell his bosses he'd take $100 million instead.

So for the next half-decade, through his 38th birthday, O'Neal will earn $20 million annually. That means Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber will make more in 2006-07, followed by Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury surpassing Shaq in 2007-08, after which Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and old pal Kobe Bryant zoom by in 2008-09.

It's all happening because Shaq, who first had to opt out of the $30.6 million Miami owed him for the '05-06 season alone, knows the Heat have a better chance to put championship depth around him at this lower number.

It's all cause for celebration and even admiration ... until you hear what the Heat have already done with their newfound flexibility.


Make that trepidation.

Welcomed as it was to see Shaq shave $10 million a year off his seasonal take, since $10 million is $10 million no matter how much cash a guy has, there has to be some serious apprehension on South Beach after the five-team monster trade that brings Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey to the Heat.


Impressive as it sounds on the surface to hear that three quality players have been acquired at the cost of only one starter -- Eddie Jones -- apprehension has to be the reaction unless you expect two guys who need the ball ('Toine and J-Will) to slot seamlessly into the pecking order behind Shaq and Dwyane Wade.

Did the Heat really need an overhaul? Last time we saw Miami, with a hobbled Shaq and a half-speed Wade, Miami was falling just one win shy of an NBA Finals berth.

Yet Pat Riley blew it up anyway. He kept Shaq, D-Wade and Udonis Haslem and essentially dumped everyone else who helped the banged-up Heat push mighty Detroit to the brink of elimination. Even Damon Jones, the locker-room glue who's tight with Shaq and D-Wade, is only a maybe to return after ranking fifth in the league in 3-point shooting at 43.2 percent.

So ...

As if Stan Van Gundy didn't face enough pressure next season, trying to coach these guys amid suspicion that Riley is fighting the urge to return to the bench, now SVG has to integrate two certifiable enigmas into a totally new rotation.

Again we ask: Was an overhaul really necessary?

If the objective was to deflect attention from the recent (loud) rumblings in NBA coaching circles that Riley was planning to come downstairs and reclaim the hot seat from Van Gundy, this megatrade should help. There is plenty of fresh material to dissect in Miami with Walker and Williams on the way.

If the idea was making Miami a clear favorite over Detroit and Indiana in the improving East, pardon us for withholding our vote.

Posey's size and defense will be handy additions, especially with Jones leaving town after a solid season guarding bigger scorers than usual as a small forward. Maybe the most attractive aspect of this trade is the idea that Miami can bring two defensive specialists off the bench if it wishes: Posey and Alonzo Mourning.

Walker and Williams, though, will have to win us over as Heaters.

They're both entertainers whose flair and bravado are generally welcomed here at Stein Line HQ, but they have been imported to South Florida as role players.

Can they accept that? Walker, remember, struggled in Dallas as a third or fourth fiddle. It was his choice to go Miami, so he obviously knows what he's walking into for a pricey six years and $53 million, but 'Toine has plenty of his own skeptics to convince he can be happy as a down-the-list option. Especially if he's asked to be a sixth man, with Posey starting instead.

Williams, meanwhile, has a huge supporter in Shaq but a history that suggests he could struggle to adapt to the rigid culture Riley wants to filter down from his office. After some rollercoaster years in Sacramento surrendering fourth quarters to Bobby Jackson, Williams chafed under longtime Heat broadcaster Mike Fratello in Memphis. He also lacks the consistent perimeter stroke (as a career 31 percent shooter from 3-point range) that the Heat would seem to need most from Wade's backcourt partner. If Damon Jones doesn't return, and with Eddie Jones bound for Beale Street, who will stretch the defense for the two stars?

The Heat's season ended, you'll recall, with Shaq reportedly steamed about a lack of touches in Game 7 of the East finals against Detroit. Tuesday's moves undeniably give Miami more weapons to throw at the Pistons and Pacers, but a major challenge for the coach who has to divvy up all the touches.

The Big Everything continues to do things he'd never consider in his last Laker days. He slimmed down considerably before his first Heat season. He took a $10 million pay slice before his second Heat season. He'll undoubtedly say that Officer O'Neal will make it his personal responsibility to ensure that the city of Miami sees only the good J-Will.

Shaq, in essence, is giving the Heat as much as he can give at 33.

In return? Shaq's boss just might have given him too much help.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.