The Final Miami Heat Roster Spot

The trade deadline has now passed. The waiver deadline for playoff eligibility has now passed.

The Miami Heat created a roster spot by trading away Dexter Pittman, at a cost of a second round draft pick and some cash, and nobody worthy of the spot has shaken free.

What should the Heat do?

Keep it. For now, anyway. Save some money. It is, after all, a nice insurance policy.

Then deploy it at the end of the regular season. Here’s why.

Both the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers have reportedly had a strong interest in signing former Portland Trail Blazer center Greg Oden to a multi-year contract this season. The reason is clear. When healthy, Oden is a game-changing talent who, in his limited minutes thus far as an NBA pro, has made a serious impact down low. And while he’s never intended to play this season, a multi-year contract would have ensured either team his playing services for next season on a low-money contract.

How low?

The Heat’s only available multi-year offer would be a two-year minimum salary contract (i.e., the remainder of this season and next). The Cavaliers are still in position to use cap space to offer an up to four year contract staring at roughly $4 million.

Some in South Florida have been skeptical. Some believe the cost and the risk, when combined, are so great as to not justify the potential reward. But here’s the thing: there is no risk. None at all. 

The Heat is required, by league rules, to employ a minimum of 13 players. The Heat typically uses, at the very most, a 10-player rotation. Therefore, by definition, the Heat will need to employ at least 3 players next season who will almost never play. The hope is that these players have the cheapest possible salaries. It doesn’t get much cheaper than a minimum salary contract. Why not, then, utilize one of these spots to offer a minimum salary contract to a player who perhaps may never be healthy enough to play (thus making him no different than anyone else who would get the spot) but who, if he were healthy, could be a game-changing talent and an ideal fit?

This is the logic the Heat have presumably employed in its pursuit of Oden. And rightfully so.

Oden, however, has communicated his desire to wait until the summer to make his decision on where he’ll play next season.

That’s not necessarily bad news.

If he were purely chasing the money, Oden would have already signed with the Cavs. It appears as if he wants options.

He’ll have plenty in the off-season. Not just from the Heat and Cavs. Most every NBA team will have at least some degree of interest.

For what it’s worth, the Heat will have more contract flexibility in the summer with which to entice him than it does today. Miami could, theoretically, offer Oden a contract starting at the $3.2 million Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception in July. But with it would come a substantially increased risk.

Whether or not the Heat chooses to use the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception at all, let alone on a player who is such an extreme health risk, is a subject for debate. The Heat already has an enormous payroll to consider, as well as huge resulting tax implications.

Using the exception would, at the very least, require that Mike Miller be amnestied (which is likely anyway), that one or more players have their options turned down (Chalmers has a team option; Allen, Jones and Lewis have player options), and/or that certain players somehow be traded away for nothing in return.

Whatever the contract that owner Micky Arison would ultimately approve, the Heat will, or at least should, have a strong interest in Oden this summer. Injuries of the kind he has sustained, serious and career-threatening as they may be, are far more likely to be overcome at an early age; Oden is, after all, still just 25 years old.

Maybe the interest will be at the minimum. Maybe it will be for up to $3.2 million. It’s too soon for anyone, including the Heat organization, to know with any degree of certainty. The determination of next season’s luxury tax threshold, calculated in the first week of July, will have a major impact on such a decision.

Nobody can predict the future. But we can prepare for it.

How can the Heat do that?

By signing Greg Oden to a rest-of-season, minimum salary contract.

It doesn’t have to be now. There’s no need to rush. In fact, it can be done on the very last day of the regular season.

Such a contract, if it were executed on the last day of the regular season, would cost the Heat a grand total of $10,051.64 (including the tax). It would put half that total into Oden’s pocket.

Oden surely wouldn’t refuse. Why would he? It’s free money. It earns him an extra year of tenure in the league. It would allow him to continue his rehabilitation as a part of the Heat organization if he wants (and on his own if he doesn’t). It wouldn’t alter his plan to sit out the season. It wouldn’t alter his plan to not be locked in for next season. And, of course, he’d get free courtside seats to every Miami Heat playoff game. Those don’t come cheap!

But why would the Heat do it? Why would the Heat throw away money (no matter how tiny the amount) and resources if it were not guaranteed Oden’s services for next season?

The answer is simple: Bird rights. This season would count as one toward Oden’s Bird clock.

Bird rights are important – more important than you may realize.

You may know that the only two types of contracts the Heat can are currently in position to offer for Oden next season are either a minimum salary contract for up to two years or a Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception contract for up to three years. Did you know that, should the Heat sign him at any point this season, another option would arise for next season? The Heat will have acquired Oden’s “Non-Bird” rights, and could therefore sign him to a contract starting 20% above the minimum, with 4.5% annual raises, for up to four years.

But that’s nothing. Bird rights are far more important than just that.

Imagine identifying a player, signing him to a contract, having him become a breakout star, and then not being able to re-sign him the following season because league rules prevented you from making an offer compelling enough for him to accept. That could happen with Oden.

Whatever contract Oden ultimately signs this off-season, no matter who he signs it with, one thing is clear: if he proves to be consistently healthy and productive throughout the course of the contract, the following contract will be significantly more expensive.

Let’s say, for example, that he chooses to sign with the Heat in the off-season. And let’s say, for argument’s sake, that he fulfills his contract with continued health and productivity.

If the contract were to have been a one-year minimum salary deal, the Heat would be virtually powerless to re-sign him in 2014-15, having only the then $3.3 million Taxpayer MLE to offer. That wouldn’t be close to enough. With the added year of Bird rights, the Heat would at least be able to stay competitive on the open market, with an offer starting at the league average salary of around $6 million.

If the contract were to have been a two-year minimum salary deal, the Heat would be somewhat powerless to re-sign him in 2015-16. In this scenario, he’s been healthy and productive for two straight seasons, and thus quite valuable – both to the Heat and on the open market. Yet the Heat would only be able to offer the league average salary of around $6 million. With the added year of Bird rights, the Heat would be able to offer anything up to a maximum salary.

Imagine how much easier the annual opt-out decisions of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade (which start after the 2013-14 season) would be if they had a healthy and productive Greg Oden on board. Imagine how perfect the Heat would be. Now imagine losing it all because of $10,051.64.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the Heat wouldn’t be able to afford to re-sign Oden to a big-money deal down the line anyway, given its preexisting salary commitments to the Big Three, even if he proved to be healthy and productive. That would be terrible but, while we haven’t found it yet, there is presumably a limit to just how much Micky Arison can reasonably be asked to spend.

In this hypothetical scenario, however, Oden would still be exceedingly valuable to the Heat in a potential sign-and-trade scenario. How many first round draft picks would a healthy and productive Greg Oden command via trade with a Heat team that could no longer afford to keep him? What lower-cost pieces could the Heat receive in return? Without the ability to sign him to a contract at a value that Oden would approve, such a sign-and-trade scenario would not even be possible for the Heat. (For savvier readers who point to the new rule that disallows sign-and-trades for teams above the apron, note that this rule disallows teams above the apron from receiving players in a sign-and-trade, but not sending them.)

The range of potential scenarios is convoluted.

The point is simple.

Pocket the money. Save the roster spot. Use it as an insurance policy. If it’s not otherwise needed, deploy it on Greg Oden at season’s end.

The Heat should, from its perspective, offer Oden a rest-of-season minimum contract by the end of the regular season, even if the contract has no continuing obligations into next season.

And Oden, from his perspective, should gladly accept such an offer.

That is, if they both have the vision to plan for the future.

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