Contenders? Probably not. Getting warm? Definitely.
That's my five-second analysis of the Heat after the first domino fell on Friday -- kicking off what's expected to be a heavy week of trading -- when the Toronto Raptors sent Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon to Miami for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. Miami also gets a protected first-rounder in the deal that has no chance of being theirs until at least 2010, while the Raptors get cash considerations -- almost amounting to a side deal where the Raps sell a first-rounder to the Heat.
The deal is unusual in that it's essentially a back-track on last year's Shaquille O'Neal trade -- right down to getting another center with the same last name. This O'Neal's nearly $23 million salary for 2009-10 replaces Shaq's on the Heat's books -- actually it's about $3 million more -- with the big difference being the addition of Moon to the equation.
But the resurrection of Dwyane Wade makes this version of the Wade-O'Neal Heat seem much more potent than the one we saw limp to the finish line in 2006-07. Even with the likes of Mark Blount, Jamaal Magloire and Joel Anthony manning the middle, Miami managed to reach the All-Star break at a respectable 28-24.
And don't overlook Moon's addition, either. Now that the Matrix isn't quite as electric as he used to be, Moon (PER 14.6) is essentially a poor man's version of Marion (PER 15.9), with the same hyper leaping ability and shaky outside shot; the main difference is Moon has worse shot selection and a worse handle.
It's an important add-on to the Marion-O'Neal swap the teams had additionally discussed, because Miami needed to get another perimeter player in the exchange to fill the void left by Marion. Now they have one.
There are two other effects to consider from Miami's end:
First and most obviously, they're out of the running for Amare Stoudemire -- Marion's expiring contract would have been the centerpiece of such a trade, in either a direct swap or a three-way deal.
And they've essentially punted on the idea of getting Carlos Boozer in free agency as well, as O'Neal's acquisition uses up their potential 2009-10 cap space -- O'Neal's contract expires in 2010. O'Neal and Moon, for all intents and purposes, are the Heat's free agent class of 2009. If you're the Pistons or one of the few others teams looking at having cap space this summer, you had a big grin on your face after this deal went down. Ditto if you're the Jazz, obviously.
That's why it's so important that the deal make Miami substantially better right away -- they took a bunch of options off the table when they took on O'Neal's contract. The good news for Miami is that he's played very well lately and appears to be reasonably healthy. Since he's such a massive upgrade at both ends of the court over the replacement-level talent the Heat have been using at the center spot, it should make them quite a bit better.
At the very least, it would seem that this addition can help Miami clinch the fifth seed in the East -- something they hold by only half a game after beating Chicago last night. Passing Atlanta, which leads the Heat by three games with 30 to play but has more home games remaining, is a tougher challenge but also possible. Passing the Hawks would give Miami home-court advantage in the first round.
Ah, but the Heat aren't doing this with an eye toward beating the Hawks. It's Boston and Cleveland they're after. And in that analysis, they still come up short.
Miami's projected finish with Moon and O'Neal is 19-11; Boston and Cleveland have each lost 11 times the entire season. This trade makes Miami more competitive, but it's tough to see the Heat getting past the second round of the playoffs.
As for Toronto, this trade essentially gives the Raptors a do-over on the trade for O'Neal. Clearly, they've waved the white flag on this season at 21-34, though they'll try out a Marion-Chris Bosh-Andrea Bargnani frontcourt and see what happens.
Toronto gets Marion's expiring contract and earns a ton of cap flexibility as a result, but they won't be below the cap enough to make a big free-agent splash unless they can dump Jason Kapono.
Instead, it's one last opportunity for embattled GM Bryan Colangelo to put a winning team around Bosh before his superstar heads south of the border in 2010. The idea would be to combine the 2009 lottery pick that Toronto now seems likely to get with the type of understated signings that Colangelo made three years ago, when low-dollar contracts for Euroleague imports Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa helped the Raps to a surprising division crown.
Toronto also could re-sign Marion at a lower number -- though given his age (31 in May) and quickness-dependent game, they probably shouldn't go much above the midlevel to do so. One hopes that Colangelo isn't so enamored of Marion from his Phoenix days that he loses sight of his current level of effectiveness. As for Banks, he was included as salary ballast and is unlikely to be in the Raptors' plans.
Regardless, we'll have to wait and see what other cards Colangelo plays in the wake of this deal before we can evaluate its impact on the Raptors.
But for the Heat, it's more straightforward. They basically hit Ctrl-Z on the Shaq trade and added Jamario Moon in the process.
With a primary rotation of Wade, O'Neal, Moon, Udonis Haslem, Daequan Cook and rookies Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers, they should be able to make a strong run to the end of the year and get into the second round of the playoffs.
And while that may not be enough to have Cleveland and Boston quaking in their boots, it's pretty darn impressive for a team that won 15 games a year ago.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.