YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The rise and fall of the Heat

January 27, 2008|From the Associated Press

MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade stands at his locker after yet another loss, looking perfect.

The collar is razor-crisp. The vest matches the precisely knotted tie. The massive diamond earrings sparkle in the light. And when cameras point his way, he says the right things about focus and determination and defense and playing hard.

It's a mirage.

For the bright lights, he smiles and tells a joke or two. But inside, he's distraught, like everyone else in the Miami Heat organization.

The season is only half over, but Miami -- after 15 consecutive losses -- is done.

And Wade, the 2006 NBA finals MVP, isn't ashamed to say how much this free fall is hurting him.

"You know it is," Wade says, quietly, after the room has emptied. "I'm a competitor. Are there times where I want to come out and explode? Yes. But what is that going to do? What will that do for your team, in the locker room? I won't call anybody out because I have bad games and miss shots too. So I'm just focused on us turning this around, somehow."

Less than two years from winning a championship, the Heat are 8-33. No team has fallen so far, so fast and so surprisingly from the NBA's champion perch.

"I keep trying to lift myself up every day," Miami Coach Pat Riley said.

For Riley and everyone else on the Heat payroll, that's the toughest task.

Championship teams have skidded to the NBA basement before, even faster than Miami's descent. The 1997-98 Chicago Bulls went 62-20 on the way to winning their sixth and final title of the Michael Jordan era there, then won only 45 games combined in the next three years.

That was expected after Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson left immediately after the last title.

This is different.

The star core of Miami's title run -- Wade, Riley and Shaquille O'Neal -- is still here. So, too, are Jason Williams, Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning, all having played major roles in the championship season.

But Mourning's season ended after a tendon blew out in December. O'Neal is sidelined with hip and leg injuries. And all the role players who came up so big for Miami in '06 -- Antoine Walker, James Posey, Gary Payton -- were either traded or not re-signed.

Something obviously worked that year.

Nothing has really worked since. The Heat got swept from the playoffs last year in the opening round, will need maybe the biggest miracle in sports history just to reach the postseason this year and even Riley will acknowledge he's made some personnel blunders since winning that title.

"We got comfortable, maybe? Didn't work as hard? I hope that's not the case," said Haslem, the Miami native and captain. "I know on the outside looking in, it's probably the conclusion that people will draw from that."

Miami is last in the league in scoring and free-throw shooting, and hasn't eclipsed the 100-point mark since Dec. 28 -- 12 games ago, the longest drought in the NBA. The 15 straight losses are two shy of matching the franchise record and nine shy of tying Cleveland's league-record mark.

But, maybe most surprisingly, the locker room can still be an upbeat place.

"The guys have done a great job of staying together," said center Mark Blount, who came to Miami from Minnesota just before the season. "Everybody's on the same page. Now we just need to go about our daily business and try to get it done."

For as bad as this is, Riley has been through worse.

As a player, anyway.

As a rookie with the San Diego Rockets, Riley's team closed the 1967-68 season by dropping 32 of their final 33 games. Losing streaks of 17 and 15 games were somehow separated by a win over Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers.

He's about to become a Hall of Famer and has more championship rings than he can comfortably fit on one hand. Still, Riley seems baffled.

"I've tinkered like Tinkerbell's ever tinkered," Riley said. "I've sprinkled more stardust around this team with players and given them more opportunities than I ever have."

Riley won't sign someone in a grandstanding effort to seem like this season can be saved.

"I think we're a little beyond that right now," he said.

And since he's in the dual role of coach and president, Riley is also charged with the task of the long-range plan.

The Heat are over NBA's luxury tax threshold at this point, and will certainly hear offers from a number of playoff contenders looking to add a piece before the trading deadline next month. The most obvious option is the most simple: Clear some cap space, add an immediate-impact free agent this summer, get a key draftee from the lottery and -- voila! -- become a contender again for 2008-09.

It could happen.

Of course, there's also that matter of 41 more games to get through this season.

"We won a championship and that was then," Wade said. "And now we've got to try to fight to win another win. And that's the main thing. When you win one, it's great, but the next year you've got to move on. So we won it and it'll never be taken away from us. But we've got to try to get back to that point again."

Los Angeles Times Articles