Heat hope advancing age trumped by talent, pride

MIAMI -- As was the case a year ago, the Miami Heat are more focused on their recent past than they are on their future.

Last October, they were fat and happy, and it carried over into a season of complacency.

This October, for a change, they're slimmer and grumpier, hoping their mutual sense of self-disgust can fuel a resurgence back into the NBA's elite.

"We've got an old, crusty group, but then we also have nine young, young guys with a ton of enthusiasm and hunger," coach Pat Riley said into a microphone as he stood at center court and addressed a crowd of a few thousand fans Friday night during an open practice that was missing a big part of that core of old, crusty guys.

Shaquille O'Neal sat out with knee tendinitis, Alonzo Mourning had a quadriceps strain and Dwyane Wade -- wait a minute, is he already an old, crusty vet? -- again avoided contact while counting down the days until mid-November, which is the earliest he is expected to return from offseason shoulder and knee surgeries.

Three other key pieces of last season's Heat also were not present, with Jason Kapono, James Posey and Eddie Jones having departed over the summer.

So what the fans got to see at the open practice, aside from appearances by Heat mainstays Udonis Haslem, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker, were the likes of Brian Chase, Jeremy Richardson, Chris Quinn, Daequan Cook, Devin Green, Alexander Johnson and Joel Anthony running up and down the court, trying to win themselves a spot in the rotation or at least a spot on the roster. Just 16 months after winning the NBA title, the team the Heat put on the floor Friday night might have trouble winning a D-League game, much less a title.

But those same kids, green as they might be, are a big part of the motivational method Riley is employing this fall to try to shake his veterans out of the malaise that enveloped them last October and stuck with them all the way through April, when they were unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by a hungrier opponent, the Chicago Bulls.

"We need to have them enthusiastic, and I was telling them today about [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Brett Favre, who's 36 or 37 years old and playing re-energized because of all the young guys around him, when a couple years ago he wanted to run away," Riley sad. "Things can happen, the dynamic can change for a player later on in their career if they continue to bring a passion for the game. If they don't have a passion for the game, it's going to be drudgery."

Last season wasn't exactly drudgery for the Heat, but it was a year when they found themselves so satisfied with what they had accomplished the previous June that the defining night of their season probably came on opening night, when they accepted their oversized, overjeweled championship rings and then went out and got torched by those very same Bulls who would end their season some six months later.

The Heat finished with a somewhat respectable 44 wins, but in terms of successfully defending a title, they were an utter failure.

"It had a lot to do with a lot of those guys -- Zo, Gary [Payton], Jason, Posey -- winning the championship for the first time, and we did not come back in the best frame of mind; then Shaq got hurt in the first game, Dwyane got hurt later and it was a force we couldn't change," Riley said.

How much of a bitter taste last season left in their mouths will go a long way toward determining whether this season will see them rebound back into form. Or, to put it another way, to a certain extent, it'll be all about pride: O'Neal's pride in showing he is not as over-the-hill and in decline as people have been saying for two years; Riley's pride in showing he still can motivate his own team and outcoach whomever his counterpart is on any given night; Wade's pride in re-establishing the spot he held in the summer of 2006, when he was considered the game's best up-and-coming player.

Wade's star faded a little, at least in comparison to two of the players he came into the league with, over the course of the summer of 2007 -- first when LeBron James took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, then when Carmelo Anthony was the best night-in, night-out player on a Team USA squad that stormed through the Tournament of the Americas and began evoking comparisons to the original Dream Team.

"Somebody does something the previous year, that's something to talk about," Wade said of his personal rivalry with James and Anthony. "The main thing is those guys want to see me back on the court, because it's always great competition, it headlines the story.

"That stuff is mandatory, personal pride," Wade said. "I just want to get back on track to being a dominant player in the league. I don't have to one-up LeBron and Carmelo; that's so rookie-year type stuff. The main thing is to get my organization back on track. We won a championship, so the standards are high here, and for that to happen, I have to get myself back to a high level."

Wade is not yet scrimmaging with the team, and O'Neal and Mourning have been rested as a precautionary measure by Riley, who said he would be "stupid" to push them this early in the season.

Precaution is of added significance this year, after the Heat played only five games last season with the trio of O'Neal, Wade and Riley all healthy. Riley had midseason knee- and hip-replacement surgeries.

Riley issued a statement over the summer promising to serve out the final three years of his coaching contract, a move he acknowledged was made as a preemptive strike against the ever-present "What's Pat's future?" questions that pop up every season. He has not coached a full 82-game season in five years.

But in the first couple of weeks of the season, he is going to be coaching a team without a solid second scoring option behind O'Neal, and it will be a huge challenge to get the team off to a good start with a tough early November schedule. Three of the first five games are against the Pistons, Spurs and Suns, and four of the five games after that are on the road against New Jersey, Boston, Charlotte and New York, teams that see themselves -- or at least they will this November -- as equal to or better than the Heat.

The outside shooting and perimeter defense that Kapono, Posey and Jones formerly provided will have to be replaced by the likes of Smush Parker (who signed as a free agent for $2.2 million of the Heat's midlevel exception), Richardson and perhaps even Chase, who Riley reports has converted an astounding 75 percent of his field goal attempts during drills and scrimmages in training camp.

Penny Hardaway is in camp, too, with a non-guaranteed contract. And if his lethargic performance in the open practice Friday night was a valid indicator, he has got very little left in the tank.

The second unit will be anchored by Walker, also an anchor of another type thanks to a contract that will pay him $8.3 million this season and $9.05 million next season before the Heat have the right to terminate it in the summer of 2009.

Williams is in a contract year and in "the best shape I've ever seen him in," Riley said. And O'Neal is noticeably slimmer (you can see it in his face) and reportedly more flexible than he has felt in years after taking up yoga in his longest offseason since 1994 -- the only other time he was ousted from the playoffs in the first round.

And finally, let's face it, the Heat have pretty much fallen off everyone's championship prediction radar (colleague Marc Stein has them 20th in his preseason Power Rankings) rather quickly after capturing that title oh-not-so-long ago.

The spotlight is off them, and they might actually be better off being the hunters rather than the hunted.

"Having the mentality we had last year was totally unacceptable," Mourning said. "We were basically fat and happy with winning the championship. We were content. But I think guys are coming in with a totally different mindset. Losing last year left a very distasteful feeling in our mouths.

"Now we've got a lot of young legs, and the old guys want to redeem ourselves and get back on track. The only thing is health -- if we're not healthy, it's going to be hard to accomplish our goals. But we've got some hardened veterans, some battle-scarred veterans, and I think that's the ace in the hole for us. Once we get into peak physical condition, I think everything else will take care of itself."

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