Riley, Heat regeneration depends on duo

I know what you're thinking.

But I haven't changed my thinking.

Suspicious as it looks for Pat Riley to suddenly take a leave of absence, with the Miami Heat backsliding again and the Nick Saban saga conveniently hogging the local and national spotlight, nothing about this season's blueprint has changed for the Heaters.

In the East? They just have to get to the playoffs, which just means getting Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal (reasonably) healed.

The health status of those two, frankly, is bigger than just about anything Riley could have announced, unless he's taking a permanent leave. Which I seriously doubt.

The immediate fear is that the Heat could lose all six games on their upcoming trip out West, but that has nothing to do with Riley's indefinite absence to address hip and knee trouble. If Wade and O'Neal aren't playing, they're simply overmatched. Riley's coaching wouldn't make a difference.

The greater uncertainty, then, continues to center around the players' limbs, particularly Shaq's. The Diesel will be back from his November knee surgery sometime this month, but turns 35 in early March. Assuming that O'Neal and Wade are reactivated soon enough to prevent Miami from going 0-fer on the road and slipping into a 13-24 hole, questions will still persist about the overall health of Shaq's knee, post-surgery, and whether it will even allow him to be the Shaq we saw in the 2006 playoffs.

The good news? For all the understandable skepticism about Shaq's recuperative powers, Miami doesn't need more than the '06 Shaq to win the Leastern Conference … as long as Wade's recent wrist injury remains no more than a day-to-day problem.

As long as they're side-by-side in April, who in the Least would you pick to beat the Heat in a seven-game series? As long as they're in the tournament, with Wade fairly close to peak form and Shaq as a sidekick/decoy, Miami is bound to feel better about its chances of reaching the NBA Finals than Dallas, Phoenix or San Antonio, since each of those West powers has to win the equivalent of a major championship just to get out of that conference.

Let's be clear here: Riley won't dodge criticism, just as Phil Jackson couldn't over the summer, for refusing hip-replacement surgery over the summer when the world knew he needed it. But I'm not going to pile on. As much as I questioned his personnel decisions and personal motivations a year ago when Stan Van Gundy stepped aside in December and Riley took the team back, mere months after Riles dropped his first hints about returning to coaching, I believe Riley delayed this operation mostly because he was so desperate to avoid it completely.

Not because he's looking for a way out when the team's outlook is bleak, like it was when he first resigned as Heat coach just days before the 2003-04 season, but because Riley believed he could live with the pain sufficiently to spare himself from surgery.

I believe it because Jackson was just as desperate to avoid a hip procedure that, by all accounts, is a rough ride for anyone … but particularly daunting when you're 61 like both of these famous coaches. Phil prayed that rest and physical therapy would get him through, only to discover in September that his deteriorating condition left no alternative. Looks like the same thing happened with Riley.

I don't doubt that the Heat's injuries, porous defense and exceedingly casual approach to the regular season, resulting in a 13-17 record entering Wednesday's play, made it tougher and tougher for Riley to ignore those aches and pains. Riley himself doesn't deny that a door-kicking incident last week, brought on by that passive D, made his knee and hip problems worse and perhaps forced immediate medical attention.

But a break for the next month or so might not be such a bad thing. For Riles and his players.

For all the talk of his "mellowing," Riley will never be able to live with Shaq's approach, which dictates that you don't start getting truly serious about the season until your birthday hits on March 6. Some time away could, as Riles described, allow him to "get my body right [and] get my head right, so when I do come back I'll be strong enough to kick their ass three or four more times."

As for those Riley targets in the locker room, I'm sure they won't mind some separation, either. The Heat made a mockery of the '05-06 schedule by losing almost every meaningful regular-season game they played, then turned a hot six weeks in May and June into a title run. Looking at the rest of the East, again, why wouldn't they think they can repeat the feat? It's thus easy to imagine that a new voice or two will be welcomed by the Heat vets in the short term -- Riley gave his strongest hint yet Wednesday that rising assistant Erik Spoelstra will eventually succeed him permanently -- as opposed to being ridden so hard by Riley when they're still short-handed.

The separation also creates the possibility that they'll all start missing each other, players and coach, after some time apart.

I know, I know. You're thinking that making the playoffs can't be as easy as I've made it sound, with the East quietly up to seven teams with winning records as of Wednesday morning and with Miami about to head West for a six-game excursion.

I just can't see them missing out.

I suppose it's possible, after openly doubting these guys so doggedly last season, that I now have too much faith in the champs. But I really don't think so. My faith is based more on the fact that the Heat, once they're done with this long swing out West, will play 36 of their final 45 games against East opposition.

It's a second-half schedule interim coach Ron Rothstein and young Spoelstra can surely capitalize on, provided that Wade and Shaq are back.

To actually repeat as champions, no question: The Heat have to have Riley in charge when it matters most, with this group of veteran egos.

Yet in the short term, when the objective is simply cracking the East's top eight, it really won't matter who's coaching these guys if Wade and Shaq aren't back soon.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.