ORLANDO, Fla. -- You can hear the clock ticking now on Pat Riley and the Miami Heat.
When the trade deadline came and went last month, when neither Amar'e Stoudemire nor Carlos Boozer landed in South Beach, it raised the stakes unbelievably in Miami for this much-anticipated free agency summer.
Tick ... tick ... tick ... tick ...
For Miami, it's going to be all or nothing, either unbelievable joy or inconceivable sorrow. Either heaven or hell for the franchise.
The Heat either must convince one of the other big-name free agents to join them -- LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Stoudemire or Boozer -- or Dwyane Wade will be leaving town, sinking them to the depths of the NBA.
You can see it in his play, his body language now. He deserves better than what the Heat have given him.
Wade returned to action Sunday night after missing the previous four games with a strained calf muscle, and he probably wished he had stayed on the sideline a little longer. He had 17 points by halftime, but he ran out of gas in the second half, finishing with 21. There was no one there to bail him out.
Alongside him were journeymen like Rafer Alston, Quentin Richardson and Udonis Haslem, the enigmatic Michael Beasley, and the over-the-hill Jermaine O'Neal. It's an odd cast of characters, none of whom give him much confidence.
The Heat (29-31) lost their fourth consecutive game, slipping out of the eight and final playoff spot. In the two previous games -- both without Wade -- they scored just 88 and 71 points, respectively. They lost at home to Minnesota, a terrible team. And they lost at home to Milwaukee when they scored just 26 points in the second half, getting booed by their own fans.
Wade is one of the top three or four players in the NBA, but even with him, the Heat are struggling to stay at .500. He averaged 30.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5 assists last season – couldn't possibly have played any better – and the Heat won only 43 games, losing in the first round of the playoffs. He isn't playing quite as well now, and they are sinking, which doesn't help the chances of re-signing him this summer.
It's a unique position the Heat are in. None of the other free-agent stars are on teams that will have the salary cap space to lure another star. If they stay with their teams -- mostly good teams already -- they will be on teams that won't change very much.
The Heat, conversely, will be either considerably better next season – with Wade and another star -- or considerably worse with neither one. It all depends on what Riley as team president can deliver as promised. Wade had pleaded with the Heat last summer to provide help, but he was told to be patient, to wait for 2010.
He continues to say all the right things, that he prefers to stay in Miami, that he wants to lead them to another championship. Yet everything depends on whether the front office can deliver.
They either add to him, or they lose him.
Wade teamed with Shaquille O'Neal to lead the Heat to the 2006 NBA title, but it's been downhill ever since. Jermaine O'Neal, with bad knees, might have been a good co-pilot for Wade a few years ago, but he is merely a shell of what he once was.
"I can't speak for him or his future, but he's frustrated. We all are,'' Jermaine O'Neal said after the game Sunday. "I believe he loves Miami, but he'll do whatever he feels is best for his career, to give himself the best opportunity to win another championship.
"Dwyane wants to win, and he wants to win in a major way. A lot of guys, after they've won a championship, they kind of relax. We've talked about this a few times, and he wants to win another one. He knows what it will take to win another one. And losing wears on him. I respect that.''