MIAMI (AP) -It has been a long goodbye to this disastrous season for the Miami Heat.
The final buzzer sounded Wednesday night, with the Heat finding a way to enter the offseason with their 15th win of the year, matching the lowest total in franchise history. But in actuality, Miami's eyes began turning toward the future nearly three months ago, when it became evident that the Heat simply weren't going anywhere and traded disgruntled center Shaquille O'Neal to Phoenix.
So now, that future - with or without Pat Riley as coach - has officially arrived.
``Now we start our work,'' Riley said.
And a ton of work awaits for a franchise that has gone from the NBA's first (champions in 2006) to worst (15-67) in merely two years.
``After going 15 and whatever, we need a lot,'' said guard Dwyane Wade, the 2006 NBA finals MVP.
There's a lottery pick, maybe the No. 1 selection, which could possibly be Memphis' Derrick Rose. He would be teamed in what some within the organization would call a dream backcourt alongside Wade, who'll start rehabbing his knee in Chicago on May 5.
There's a laundry list of rehabilitation assignments for the team's slew of injured players. There's many free agent decisions and contract matters to be ironed out, as usual.
But first things first: Riley is expected to reveal next week if he'll remain as coach.
``I don't think our focus should be on the coach as much as it should be on ourselves, personally,'' forward Udonis Haslem, the Heat captain, said. ``I think everyone should take a step back, look at themselves in the mirror, see where they were affected and what they can do about it so it doesn't happen next year. Coaching doesn't have anything to do with some of the efforts we put out there some nights.''
Wade, Haslem and Shawn Marion are expected to be the core of the 2008-09 Heat roster. Add a lottery pick into that mix, and Miami fully expects to be in the playoffs again next season.
That is, if anyone can find a way to stay healthy.
``It's going to get better,'' Riley said. ``Hang in here with us.''
d foot problems.
In all, the Heat missed more than 200 man-games because of injuries, and needed to dip deeply into the NBA Development League just to fill out the roster for the season's final weeks.
So instead of Gary Payton, Jason Kapono and Antoine Walker, it was Stephane Lasme, Kasib Powell and Blake Ahearn.
Quite a difference for a team that hoisted the NBA championship trophy only 22 months ago.
``It's going to change,'' Haslem said. ``There's no way we shouldn't be in the playoffs next year.''
Jason Williams, Chris Quinn - who was stellar down the stretch of the season - and Ricky Davis are among the notable free agents whom the Heat will make decisions about. Marion is expected to take his player option of about $17 million next season; if he doesn't, that'll likely mean he's signing an extension with Miami and staying anyway. Mourning may retire, but wants to see if his surgically rebuilt knee could be game-ready before deciding.
The rebuilding project will be massive.
In recent weeks, Riley has sounded almost eager to get it going.
``It was a perfect blend for a year and it all happened for only one year. And then it all unraveled,'' Riley said. ``I'm tickled to death that it did, because I'd be looking at two more years of it. I tried to stop it. We all tried to stop it. But we couldn't. It had a force of its own.''
Still, that doesn't deny that this year was a total and complete disappointment.
The NBA allowed training camps to open on Oct. 2, and Riley didn't waste a second. Practice started at 12:01 a.m., and the Heat were told the plan was for them to be the first team on the floor - and the last to leave it in June, since Riley desperately hoped this team would be a title contender.
But the injuries started piling up even before the season began, and soon, all hope was gone.
So when that final buzzer sounded Wednesday, Riley waved to the Atlanta Hawks' bench, then darted up the tunnel leading to the Heat locker room.
He walked briskly. The faster he moved, the faster this season would be behind him.
``This year has been an absolute aberration, right from Day one,'' said Riley, who will be back as team president even if he doesn't choose to continue his Hall of Fame coaching career. ``When it started to go, it was hard to get it back and we never got it back. But there's no regrets. We're moving on. I'll remember this year, like any other, but we're moving on.''
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