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Men in the Middle

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Many observers said that the acquisition of a starting-quality center should stand as the Miami Heat’s first priority. The lack of quality center production has seemed to overshadow the perceived weakness at the point guard position because of Mario Chalmers’ impressive play during the 2011 NBA Finals and Norris Cole’s first impressions in the scrimmage and two preseason games. Despite the cancellation of summer league and an abbreviated training camp, Cole appears to have secured a spot in the rotation.

Just two days before the season, the only newcomer to the center rotation is Eddy Curry, someone who played in 10 games over the last three years. And although ESPN’s Marc Stein said Riley has inquired about former Utah Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko, he’s averaged eight minutes a game for his career.

After the 149-day lockout, Tyson Chandler got a four-year, $58 million contract. Marc Gasol will get that $58 million in one fewer year. Nene received a contract for five years and $67 million. Even Samuel Dalembert – a player some said was a realistic possibility to join the Heat – signed a two-year, $13.7 million deal with the Houston Rockets. Kwame Brown will receive a $7 million paycheck this season.

Apparently, standing seven-feet tall automatically gets NBA players good contracts. Notorious draft bust Darko Milicic received a four-year, $20 million contract in the summer of 2010. Passing the luxury tax threshold this season, Miami only had the "mini" mid-level exception and used it on Shane Battier. Which quality big man would have signed for $9 million over three years? Which one will in future years?

With the Heat committed to LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade for at least the next three years, Miami’s options at center are scarce. Riley has to take risks on low-cost players. It’s why he brought Curry aboard. It’s why he reportedly tried to sign the oft-injured center Greg Oden earlier this month, and he may try to sell him on South Beach again next summer. It’s also why the Heat may expect some productivity out of second-round draft pick Dexter Pittman this season. Quite simply, the Heat don’t have other options.

Heat starting center Joel Anthony is actually best suited as a defensive sparkplug off the bench. Riley would love for Curry to return to the level of his 19.5-point, 7-rebound average in 2006-07, but he sustained a hip flexor quickly upon joining training camp. Besides, the Heat will use a frontcourt of James, Udonis Haslem and Bosh in crunch time. It was enough to defeat the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals and would have gotten the job done if James did not play with that tentativeness during the Finals. The Mavericks may use a crunch-time frontline of Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom and Dirk Nowitzki with the departure of Tyson Chandler now. Unless the Heat play a seven-game series against a team with Dwight Howard, Bosh and Haslem in crunch time should be fine.

Signing a 7-footer who can rebound and score in the post would serve as a luxury for the Heat, but it is simply not a feasible option because the Heat’s payroll is tied to the Big Three. Riley simply will have to hope his gambles on low-cost veterans and the second-year center Pittman can make do if the Heat play against Dwight Howard in the playoffs. Against any other team, Miami's deficit at center won't mean much because Miami's better center is, in fact, Bosh.