MIAMI - Here are the ground rules to Shaquille O'Neal's return: It's fair to say his best days have passed. It's fair to say, nearing 34, with increasingly regular injuries, the light is starting to dim a little and you can see the tunnel narrowing up ahead.
But it's also necessary in the same thought to say he remains the NBA's unique player.
That he forces opposing coaches to plot every strategy around him.
That he props up teammates just by walking on the court.
That he sells out arenas just showing up.
Mainly, it's necessary to say until O'Neal gets on the court for a couple of weeks, getting his overweight game in shape and new teammates on board, no one has any idea what this Heat team will look like. No one. Even those lining up this second week of December playing the told-you-so game that the Heat have a proven chemistry problem, as if anything can be proven in an NBA December without the A-list star.
The bottom line is we haven't seen the Heat yet. We won't start to see them until O'Neal steps on the court probably Sunday against Washington or Tuesday in Chicago and stays on his for a good month. After spraining his ankle in the second game of the season, O'Neal just started practicing again this week and will begin filling in the blanks to the Heat upon his return.
The season hasn't sunk without him. But even with Alonzo Mourning subbing in on a level with Detroit's Ben Wallace, O'Neal isn't the type to be replaced.
Consider: Heat forward Udonis Haslem, too, is grabbing nearly two rebounds less a game now that he can't float free and run to the ball while other front-liners concentrate on double-teaming O'Neal.
Consider: Every Heat starter from last season has had his shooting percentage fall without O'Neal commanding a defense's attention. Some, like Heat forward Udonis Haslem, have seen it fall from 54 percent to 50 percent.
Others, like Cleveland's Damon Jones, have watched it fall from 46 percent to 40 percent. Even Dwyane Wade is down nearly three percent.
None of these are plummeting drops. But taken together they reflect what everyone knows to be true: O'Neal's body is missed. And his body of work suggests that will remain whether his game becomes what it was in the Lakers hey-day or not.
O'Neal isn't as active under the boards as he was. He doesn't run as much.
He probably won't be up around his career scoring average of 26.7 points a game anymore, though you can read into that what you will.
In training camp this year, O'Neal asked Wade how many points he wanted to average this year.
"You know I don't worry about that, Shaq,'' Wade said.
"Just checking,'' O'Neal said.
See, for all the finger-pointing about what O'Neal can't do, it's clear what he can. And how much he wants to win in the spring. And, to that end, it will be interesting to see how he interacts with Walker, who has gone into a funk of late.
"I can't shake it,'' he told reporters Wednesday after a loss in San Antonio.
The question of how this talent mixes can't be answered yet, and in Walker's case won't be for a while. He's a low-post player on a team where O'Neal not just hog the low post but shoot around league-leading field-goal percentages (60 percent last year).
"We'll be fine,'' O'Neal said.
But what about Walker? What about Jason Williams' knee tendonitis? What about that 10-9 start?
"We'll be fine,'' he repeated.
If he returns this weekend, in a couple of weeks, we'll start to see who the Heat are and what they might become. That's for O'Neal, too. He probably won't be who he once was. But he still will be enough to give opponents migraines.
PBT: The Kings will stay in Sacramento under new ownership, which likely means a new front office and coach, too.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
Grizzlies ready for 'running' Spurs
DPS: Lionel Hollins tells us how he plans to play against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
Latest from ProBasketballTalk
Get your NBA cheer on
Check out some of the dancers from the NBA.