When asked what the most important move he has made for the Miami Heat, former coach and current President and Godfather Pat Riley didn’t say it was signing Alonzo Mourning in 1995, drafting Dwayne Wade in 2003, signing Ray Allen away from Boston in 2012, or luring Lebron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach in 2010. He said that acquiring Shaquille O’Neal was far and away the biggest move he made as president of the Miami Heat. “He turned our franchise around. He gave us real legitimacy.” The reaction to the interview in which he said this has been a mix of “really?” and “He’s just saying that as a bitter man who has watched Lebron and Wade leave him in recent years.” To both of those I say, quit your bellyaching and understand the context of Shaq’s arrival in Miami.
In the 90’s Shaquille O’Neal was the most exciting player in the league. He was a massive man who had the agility of a guard and was averaging 28 and 15 in his sleep. He made the Orlando Magic not only relevant, but took them to the finals and made Orlando the most exciting team in the league to watch. When he went to the Lakers in 1996, he cemented his place as the second most dominant player in NBA history behind Wilt Chaimberlain. He won the MVP in 2000, led the Lakers to 3 straight titles, and was the MVP of the Finals in every Finals Series the Lakers won.
Contrast this incredible success with Miami’s history up to that point. The Heat were founded in 1988 and were ice cold out of the gate. They lost their first 17 games and finished their first season 15-67. They didn’t make the playoffs until 1992, and they were swept easily by Chicago in the first round. They didn’t make the conference finals until 1997 and lost in 5 games to the Bulls. They built some strong regular season teams in the back half of the 90’s and played some legendarily brutal games against the Knicks, but Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and new head coach Pat Riley weren’t enough to make it to the NBA Finals. In fact in 1999, they became only the 2nd top seed to lose to an 8th seed in the first round of the playoffs when the Knicks upset them. When they drafted Dwayne Wade in 2003, Miami meant absolutely nothing in the basketball world. Beyond having one of the NBA’s legendary figures in Pat Riley involved with their organization, they hadn’t won anything of major significance.
Then in 2004, Shaq and Kobe broke up and LA’s championship reign came to an end. Miami had gone to the 2nd round of the playoffs that year, but still needed a piece to make them legitimate title contenders. They decided to trade Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and Caron Butler to get Shaq. Immediately, the impact was felt. Shaq and Wade became the biggest power duo in the game, Miami had the best record in the east, and came within one victory of their first NBA Finals appearance. After retooling their supporting cast, a severely disrespected Heat team upset Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals to win the franchise’s first championship. Miami completed their quest for a ring and this one is held in high regard by Riley, who has 5 rings as a coach. It all became a real possibility when Shaq arrived.
The 2006 NBA Finals are regarded as a one man show. Dwayne Wade was absolutely the best player on the floor that series, averaging 34.7 points a game and winning the MVP of the finals. Shaq didn’t have that great a series, only averaging 13.7 points a game. Compared to his points output in prior years, this was a precipitous decline. He still pulled down a team high 10.2 rebounds a game that series and contributed to a championship team. But this series highlights just how under appreciated Shaq’s time in Miami was.
His first season in Miami, Wade was not the future Hall of Famer that he is today. He was a quick shooting guard with a big upside and plenty of scoring ability, but he wasn’t Flash yet. The Miami Heat were a promising team, but hadn’t earned the respect of the league yet. When the Big Aristotle showed up, Miami became a legitimate title contender. They had an MVP candidate, one of the greatest centers of all time, and a player with plenty of game left to give. While the Shaq that played in Orlando and LA is treated as a legendary player, Miami Shaq is generally regarded as the start of the old, lumbering Shaq who barely resembled his former glory. That’s not a fair description. In fact, Shaq was almost the MVP of the league in his first year in Miami. He averaged 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game while leading Miami to 59 wins in 2005 and lost the MVP to Steve Nash in one of the closest votes in the history of the award. His 2nd year in Miami, he still averaged 20 points and almost 10 rebounds a game, and had 27 point and 12 rebound performances and better against the Bulls and Pistons in the playoffs. Shaq played at a Hall of Fame level in Miami, even though many fans have forgotten that.
Lebron and Wade were a more dynamic and explosive duo in Miami than Wade and Shaq were. But without Shaq going to Miami, the Heat never win a single championship and Wade’s successes that made Miami appealing to Lebron and Bosh in 2010 don’t exist. Thus, Pat Riley is correct about Shaq’s importance to the Heat organization.
When Shaq is inducted into the Hall of Fame on September 9th, most highlights will be from his years in Orlando and Los Angeles. Don’t forget to talk about his Miami years though. Wade didn’t become Flash until Superman joined him, and Lebron might never have taken his talents to South Beach of the Big Aristotle hadn’t made Miami credible six years earlier.