The Heat were the winners in free agency, but will they be winners on the court?

By Brian Mahoney, AP
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Winners in free agency, do Heat win on the court?

Another Big Three?

Big deal.

The news that LeBron James is going to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will surely have some anointing the Heat as next season’s favorites.

Don’t expect many basketball people to be among them.

“It’s not over with,” New York coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Nothing’s over.”

Miami has three of the best players in the NBA, but it takes 12 to fill a roster. And even if the trio keeps its word and takes less money than allowed, there still won’t be much cash left for the Heat to have many good choices.

Certainly not enough to go sign their versions of Ron Artest and Lamar Odom, who helped Los Angeles pull out Game 7 of the NBA finals over Boston and its Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen while Kobe Bryant was struggling.

“I think whatever happens, I don’t think anyone is going to beat the Lakers anyway,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “When you look at what the Lakers have, it’s really hard to beat them. That team is so good, but if they continue to get better and can stay healthy, it’s not going to matter who you put together.”

Still, the Heat now have a chance to do it, all because they took a chance in free agency and it paid off.

The best players almost never leave as free agents in the NBA, where the league’s collective bargaining agreement allows them to receive longer contracts with bigger raises from their own clubs.

Yet the Heat persuaded both James and Bosh to come to South Florida, even though it could mean leaving about $30 million on the table.

So perhaps this unprecedented shopping season, where nine teams arrived in July with at least $10 million, could become the norm for teams who believe they can build a powerhouse without having to stop in the draft.

“I think you do have to go for it, if that’s your plan,” said Orlando general manager Otis Smith, who may have no longer constructed the best team in Florida. “You have to plan accordingly, and you have to take a shot at it. The worst thing that could happen is he could say no, and you clear some room to get some other people to fill.”

Once the euphoria from James’ announcement wears off and the partying stops on South Beach, filling the roster will be the next step. The Celtics were able to surround Garnett, Pierce and Allen three years ago by finding veterans such as P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell who were interested in signing on cheaply for a shot at a title, and that’s likely what Miami will have to do now.

“I’d tell you what I would have done. My intention would be to go out and find out who wants to win a championship, a proven player at the end of his career, wants to be on a championship team and would take the minimum,” said Knicks president Donnie Walsh, whose team was among those who lost out on James.

Even with their new lineup, the Heat won’t find it easy even to get out of the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ Big Three is returning and has added Jermaine O’Neal. Chicago signed Carlos Boozer to join its good young core and Orlando will be tough again.

The Celtics believe they could still be the class of the conference.

“I have a great deal of respect for all those guys — all the top-notch free agents,” team president Danny Ainge said. “Whatever happens, I know that it’s going to be a challenge. The East is going to be stronger. But I think everybody that’s worth their salt thinks they can beat somebody.”

And if the Heat do escape the East, the powerful two-time defending champion Lakers could be waiting.

“They still have to put pieces around those guys, and they’ll have a chance. They’ll have a chance,” Smith said. “Remember, I go back to the Laker days when they loaded up all those guys over there but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.”

In the most-hyped free agency period the league has ever seen, the Heat were the clear winners.

Time will tell if that will make them winners on the court.

“They have to fill out their team. It’s definitely not unbeatable or anything like that,” D’Antoni said. “It’ll set a high bar for the Eastern Conference and we’ll chase them.”

AP Sports Writers Antonio Gonzalez in Orlando, Fla., and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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