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 MIAMI (AP) -Champagne one year, chagrin the next. That's how it goes for any championship team that doesn't successfully defend its crown.
That's also reality for the Miami Heat - who, instead of prepping for another game, were summoned for physicals on the first day of the offseason and started a vacation they simply weren't ready to take.
``Everybody just pretty much assumed we'd get it together,'' forward Udonis Haslem said Monday. ``And it never really quite happened for us.''
Including the four-game playoff sweep against Chicago, the Heat went 44-42 this season - the second-worst record by a reigning champion in 37 years. Injuries and tumult were constants, with Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and coach Pat Riley among the many taking extended breaks for health reasons.
So let the questions begin. When will Wade have shoulder surgery? How does Riley revamp an aging roster? Does he coach the team next season?
On the last one, Riley isn't saying.
``I'm not going to make any decision on that for a while,'' Riley said. ``But the first thing is to just decompress from a long season, meet with my players and then meet with the staff, meet with all of our scouts and then get ready for the draft and free agency. That's what's next on the list.''
Alonzo Mourning may retire and will decide soon whether to play next year for a bit less than $3 million. Gary Payton's status is unknown, yet all indications point toward the 18-year veteran ending his stellar career. Forwards James Posey and NBA 3-point shooting leader Jason Kapono will be free agents, Eddie Jones will likely be offered a veteran's minimum deal, Michael Doleac has decided to exercise his player option to return, and the Heat will surely look at making some trades as well.
The trick will be managing the money. Heat owner Micky Arison - who covered one of the league's highest payrolls this season - isn't willing to exceed the league's luxury-tax threshold. So with Posey (who earned about $6.4 million this season) and Kapono (about $1.1 million) probably expecting significant raises, it's doubtful Miami could afford to keep both without some financial finagling.
``With the guys we have here now,'' said Posey, who wants to return, ``there's no question we could make a run at this again.''
Whatever happens, the franchise is clearly on a different path than last year, when the title-winning team came back largely intact.
``It was worth it,'' O'Neal said. ``You've got to bring your guys back to try to defend it. We tried to defend it and we tried to defend it hard. It just didn't work out our way. I always say, in times like this, the good thing about America is you can always come back next year.''
The team never had all its players completely healthy at the same time and spent a good chunk of the year under the .500 mark. And at the end of the year, when it mattered most, Miami dropped eight of its final 10 games.
``Don't make excuses for us,'' O'Neal said. ``Do me that favor.''
``That's what was scripted for us this year,'' Wade said. ``It wasn't meant for us to do anything but what we did.''
And Riley - who will now weigh retiring vs. returning - probably sees things the same way.
The 62-year-old coach of five NBA champions has spoken in the past about gaining ``freedom'' and enjoying what he's spent a lifetime working toward. Yet he cautions that the usage of the word isn't necessarily an indicator of what he'll do next season.
``Freedom doesn't mean that you have to retire,'' Riley said. ``I feel more, every year that I've been around, freedom from the things that used to torture me about the game. I know how it feels if we win. I know how it looks if we lose. There's a sense of freedom about that.''
Before the season began, Riley cautioned the Heat that winning a championship would be the second-hardest thing they'd do in their careers. The hardest? Repeating as champions.
If his players doubted his words then, they don't anymore.
``It happens to the best of athletes,'' O'Neal said. ``You can't hold on to it forever.''
So in October, it'll begin again. O'Neal said he'll be re-energized. Wade's shoulder should be back to 100 percent, and he hopes the knee tendinitis that slowed him against the Bulls will be just a memory. The roster will likely be younger, and will hopefully be healthier.
And Wade sounds like he's already started the process of looking forward.
``Life goes on,'' Wade said. ``It's sad to lose, we're going to hurt and we're never going to forget this.''
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