Will Heat wager on Shaq's future?

There once was a time, and not too long ago, when Miami was one of the NBA gold-standard stops. Pat Riley introduced the rest of the NBA to the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton Hotels. In the summer of 1996, the Heat broke the bank -- not to mention new ground -- in signing Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard to gargantuan, never-gone-there-before deals.

Back then, Riley was as determined as ever to add another title to his Hall of Fame resume. He spent and spent and spent and, when asked how much it would cost to build a winner, said, roughly, "When we win, I'll let you know. That will be the cost."

Now, the Heat are back in play again -- and as a major player. They also figure to be a major spender once again, for only the myopic can envision the Shaquille O'Neal deal going down without some sort of wink-wink that there will be an extension forthcoming for the Big Guy.

And, make no mistake, there has to be some sort of agreement that Shaq is coming to Miami for more than a season or two. He is under contract for the next two seasons at enormous amounts, but can opt out after this coming season. He had wanted an extension in L.A., but Jerry Bryant, er, Buss, would not accommodate him.

Will Micky Arison, the owner of the Heat who has Marianas Trench pockets? He can write the check. ("Have you ever read Forbes when they list the richest guys? Micky is always there," said one NBA executive.) Why would he give up two of his three best players to have O'Neal for two years? Or even one?

However, the Heat have been hemorrhaging money over the last few years. Interest in the team had been so marginal that the upper deck was curtained off for most of the regular-season games not featuring LeBron James. On any given night, there were scores of empty seats around courtside. The playoff run rejuvenated the previously apathetic (some might even say non-existent) fan base, and now Miami has what many people believe to be the most dominant player in the game.

Shaq might help the attendance situation all by himself. The Heat also managed to retain Dwyane Wade, possibly viewing Wade and Shaq as the new Kobe and Shaq. But you would have to think that the Heat would like to see what kind of Shaq they get before committing themselves to a huge extension. The downside of that rather realistic approach is that Shaq might perceive the delay as a diss, much the same way he looked at the Lakers' unwillingness to extend him.

The guess here is that O'Neal will want to remind everyone who had the temerity to even suggest that he is on the back nine that instead he has more than plenty left. I can easily see him averaging 27 and 16 this season, especially given the grueling division in which Miami will be competing -- Orlando, Atlanta, Washington and expansion Charlotte. If Shaq does that, his hand is going to be at the pay window at the earliest possible opportunity.

Arison can look at the whole thing and see that it's not going to cost him as much as it might seem. He is shedding two huge contracts in Lamar Odom and Brian Grant. When you add up all the numbers, a $60 million extension for O'Neal (to cover two years) really costs Miami only about $20 million. And if the Heat play well, make the playoffs, generate more interest and -- gasp -- open the upper deck, then maybe it will be a financial wash.

But if I'm Arison -- unfortunately for me, I have a few less zeroes in my comparatively pathetic portfolio -- I want to wait and see. I want to wait and see if O'Neal commits himself unequivocally -- that he shows up in shape and that his conditioning would make Lance Armstrong envious. I want to make sure his toes are fine.

And I want to see that 27-and-16 season -- and a nice playoff run -- before I write the check.

That's because despite all the euphoria in south Florida over this deal, there is an undercurrent out there that O'Neal is, in fact, on the back nine. Maybe even on the back five. He is 32, but it's an old, almost dog-years 32. In his last five years, Shaq has played 92 playoff games -- more than another full season. In his last three seasons in L.A., he has missed a total of 45 regular-season games, an even 15 a year.

That history was at the core of Bryant's verbal filleting of Shaq before the start of last season. But Shaq sort of epitomized the Lakers' team as a whole, a team that basically paid lip service to the regular season and got serious when the playoffs started.

That can't happen in Miami. Stan Van Gundy has to have the 1999-00 O'Neal for the season, the MVP O'Neal, the one who played 79 games. He cannot have the O'Neal of the last three seasons, the one that Buss deemed expendable, the one whose bark was much larger than his bite. Buss doesn't see O'Neal on the back nine. He sees O'Neal coming up 18 looking like Ken Venturi at Congressional in 1964. Only time will tell if Buss is right on this, but he has made his (Bryant) bed and now will have to sleep in it.

Now, Arison has his own bed. There's not a lot of talent around O'Neal in Miami, but, in the East, any team with O'Neal is a potential conference champion. The Heat already have Mike Doleac to play the Travis Knight role. If they can add a couple more guys (Derek Fisher comes to mind), then the Heat will look a lot like the recent Lakers -- two cornerstones and a supporting cast.

But will a 33-year-old O'Neal, one who will be playing his 13th NBA season, have enough to be the dominant player most everyone still thinks he is? Will he have it at age 34? And -- here's the great quandary -- will he have it at ages 35 and 36, when Shaq could be pulling down around $30 million per?

Money is not the issue for Arison. He has it. Life -- and, one assumes, Carnival Cruise Lines -- does not have a salary cap. Money cannot possibly be an issue for Shaq -- except that he wants more on top of the bundle he already has. Only someone who will earn $58.3 million over the next two years could be insulted at not being offered another $58 million or so for two additional years.

It's illegal, of course, to agree to any future deals in situations like these. It's also na´ve to think that agreements don't happen all the time. The Joe Smith saga merely put it down in writing.

But Arison will be paying O'Neal a staggering amount of money over the next two years to be what O'Neal once was -- indisputably. If Shaq can get back to that level -- and on a consistent basis, night in and night out -- then the Heat will have no choice but to write the check. The inherent danger in all of this is that Miami commits too much, too soon, and then has a $60 million albatross on its hands. Even by South Beach standards, that is one big bird.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.