Riley's rebuilding, Marion's staying ... for now

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a bittersweet early evening for Pat Riley as he stood outside the visitors locker room in Philadelphia some 20 minutes before the second team bus -- the one carrying Riley's nine remaining healthy players -- arrived at the loading dock Thursday night.

Shaquille O'Neal was gone, Shawn Marion hadn't yet arrived and prospects for completing the task at hand -- trying to win a meaningless game with half a roster against a bad team -- looked bleak.

By the time the night was over and only eight able-bodied players re-boarded that bus (the Heat having lost forward Alexander Johnson to a sprained ankle), Riley's Miami Heat -- who the standings say are the NBA's worst team -- had lost for the 21st time in 22 games to fall a full 30 games below .500.

The healthy body count actually was seven if you listened closely to Riley, who spoke beforehand of Dwyane Wade's slow recovery from one of two surgeries Wade underwent last summer.

"The shoulder's fine, it's the knee that's giving him the problem," Riley said.

Wade, clearly a step slower than he was two years ago when he led the Heat to the NBA championship, would go on to commit six turnovers Thursday night in the 101-84 loss -- the Heat's second in as many nights after stunning the entire league earlier this week by trading O'Neal to the Phoenix Suns for Marion and Marcus Banks.

"If I had a crystal ball and I knew we'd be swept by Chicago, I would have done it [shut Wade down at midseason a year ago]. But that's not what a warrior does, that's not what a champion does. So he chose not to have the surgery [immediately] and tried to rehab it and come back and repeat, and we didn't repeat," Riley said.

It has been only 19 months since the Heat stood atop the NBA, which made it extra strange to hear Riley come right out the previous night and use the word "rebuilding."

He was asked in Philadelphia how he felt about that challenge.

"I don't look at it as fun. It's a job," Riley said. "I mean, there's always some fun in it. But there are different challenges every day. I've been through this before, I know what my job is, and it changes year to year and decade to decade, but now we know what direction we're going to go, so that gives me some peace."

Riley has peace because he doesn't have O'Neal's contract clogging his salary cap next season or the year after, and he can now embark on putting the pieces in place around Wade to move forward into the next decade -- a decade that will begin with Wade deciding whether he wants to continue plying his trade in Miami.

Here is a look at several of the key questions facing the Heat as they rebuild, a new beginning that takes its next key step Sunday when Marion makes his debut for the Heat at home against the Lakers (ABC, 3:30 ET).

Q: Was this a good move for Miami?

A: It was better than good, it was a steal. The feeling around the NBA was that O'Neal was unmovable because of his declining game and his monstrous cap-clogging contract, which pays him $20 million in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, but Miami was able to trade him for a four-time All-Star.

Q: But what about Marion being able to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer?

A: He can, but the chances of that happening hover somewhere in the area of zero percent because there would be too much financial risk for Marion to walk away from $17.1 million in guaranteed money. Marion's agent, Dan Fegan, will eventually seek a contract extension from Miami, and if the Heat are unwilling to offer one, Fegan will have two choices: try to broker a trade a year from now to a team willing to extend Marion, or allow his client to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of '09.

Q: If Marion leaves as an unrestricted free agent in '09, wouldn't the Heat then end up with nothing aside from Marcus Banks to show from the Shaq trade?

A: Incorrect. If Marion indeed does become unrestricted in July of '09, the Heat could still re-sign him or work out a sign-and-trade involving him. Or they could use the $17.1 million in cap space from Marion's expired contract to do their own shopping in a market that could have a bumper crop of unrestricted free agents, including several of the current fourth-year players (Emeka Okafor, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Andre Iguodala) who were unable to agree on contract extensions with their current teams, as well as Kobe Bryant.

Q: Are the Heat considering trading Marion before the Feb. 21 deadline?

A: As of now, no. The Heat could move him to a contender and take back expiring contracts in return, which would make them a major player on the free agent market this summer, but the plan for now is to upgrade the point guard position and bring in a mid-level free agent over the summer. The last team to acquire an All-Star caliber player and then re-trade him just a few days later was the Atlanta Hawks, who acquired Rasheed Wallace from Portland in 2004 and traded him to Detroit 10 days later. We've all seen how well that's worked out for the Hawks, haven't we?

Q: Can Marion help the Heat salvage this season?

A: Highly, highly unlikely -- even in the weak Eastern Conference. Miami has 34 games remaining and they'd have to go 32-2 the rest of the way just to finish at .500. New Jersey currently holds the eighth playoff spot despite being nine games under.500, but in order for Miami to get to where the Nets currently are (assuming eight games under .500 is going to be good enough to make the postseason), the Heat would have to go 28-6.

Q: So if this season is a lost cause, why not shut down Wade right now to avoid the wear and tear on his surgically repaired knee?

A: Don't count out the possibility that it happens sometime in March. It is in the Heat's best interest to lose as many games as possible over the remainder of the season to improve their chances in the lottery -- although they've been losing quite well with Wade, who leads the NBA in turnovers per game with 4.4. Riley made it crystal clear in announcing the Shaq trade that the franchise's focus is on rebuilding quickly around Wade, who (along with LeBron James) can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010.

Q: If Wade is shut down, would he miss the Olympics, too?

A: That is highly doubtful. Wade is a key member of the core group of American players (along with James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire) trying to end what is now an eight-year gold medal drought in international competitions, and winning a gold medal in Beijing is, for all of them, a major career goal. Wade is currently slated to be the sixth man for Team USA, which must submit its Olympic roster by the end of June.

Q: What about Riley's future? How long will the team president remain on the bench as the head coach?

A: Only Riley knows the answer. He said last summer that he fully expects to serve out the final three years of his coaching contract, although he later acknowledged that he made the statement primarily in an effort to make the topic a non-issue this season.

Q: What does the future hold for the rest of the Heat's roster?

A: Other than Wade, nobody in that locker room can be 100 percent certain they'll be there after the trading deadline passes -- and they all seem to realize it. But the Heat can be more picky now in shopping the expiring contracts of Jason Williams and Ricky Davis, and unless a key young piece can be acquired, Miami will be best served by letting those contracts come off the cap this summer. The Heat's most coveted trade chip right now is Udonis Haslem, who could be considered expendable if the Heat are going to move to a more uptempo style to suit Marion's strengths.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.