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Miami Heat Should Pursue Chris Kaman

Update (07/08/13): Chris Kaman has agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. This could wind up being a huge blown opportunity. The Heat keep frustrating me because they keep having chances to end their big man problem (Andray Blatche, Nikola Vucevic) but refuse to do so. 

Chris Kaman is apparently available for the mini mid-level exception. Interested?

Several NBA teams have expressed interest in the true seven-foot center, some with significant cap room, but Kaman and the Los Angeles Lakers are said to have a “growing mutual interest.”

The Lakers will have a team salary well in excess of the luxury tax threshold next season and, according to salary cap rules, can therefore only offer the smaller mid-level exception – the same one available to the Miami Heat.

For the Heat, and owner Micky Arison, this could be a true test. Mike Miller is all but gone via the amnesty waiver provision, an unfortunate victim of the realities of a new collective bargaining agreement seemingly designed to break this team apart. The question now becomes: Will the Heat redeploy (at least a portion of) the savings to fill an unquestioned need, or will they pocket it?

The Heat is coming off its most dominant regular season ever, racking up its highest win total ever in the process (66), but its lack of size became a huge issue in the playoffs, against the frontcourts of the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. The Heat has a tendency to make average centers look like All-Stars, and All-Stars look like much younger versions of their Hall-of-Fame selves.

While the team has openly embraced the small-ball philosophy that has garnered it two straight NBA titles, don’t let that confuse you. It is a philosophy born out of necessity; the Heat’s roster has essentially dictated the approach. For as much as Pat Riley has extolled the virtues of a position-less basketball system, he would surely (and has “feverishly” tried to) end its existence, if only he could find someone to adequately fill the role.

It seems ironic, then, that the man who could potentially do so, if only the Heat were to register an interest, nearly became the face of the franchise a decade ago. Riley nearly drafted Kaman with the fifth overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, before being forcibly restrained by his scouting staff from screaming his name into the microphone on draft day. The Heat wound up selecting Marquette guard Dwyane Wade, while Kaman was selected by the Los Angeles Clippers with the No. 6 pick.

After eight years with the Clippers, highlighted by an All-Star 2009-10 campaign, Kaman has sort of flittered around the league for the last couple of seasons – spending one forgettable year in New Orleans after serving as a cog in the Chris Paul trade, followed by another forgettable year in Dallas dealing with a lack of playing time. But don’t let that fool you into diminishing the weight of his talent. His value belies his perception. 

As far as desirable skills for big men go, it might shock you to know how many areas there are in which he ranges from above average to excellent, and seemingly all of them are critical areas of Heat need.

In an ideal world, what descriptor would you put on the man who would be the starting center for your Miami Heat – the one to replace a simply overmatched Shane Battier in the power rotation, and slide Chris Bosh over to his more natural power forward slot? Someone who can use his size and stroke to score both inside and out, control the paint, clean the glass, swat away some shots, play some quality interior defense, and do it all without fouling profusely?

Would it surprise you to know just how well Kaman fits that description?

For Kaman, everything starts with his shooting, where he has a surprisingly deft touch that contradicts his full physique and lumbering gait. Despite starting out his career as the massive post presence that underscored his draft value, Kaman has dramatically increased both his volume and efficiency from midrange, where he knocked down 52% of his shot attempts from 16 to 23 feet last season. Only Bosh was more accurate from that range among players with at least 50 attempts.

Of course, his ventures outside of the basket area over the years have dipped his career shooting efficiency below the 50% market, and reduced his free throw rate to nearly non-existent, exceedingly rare marks for a big man, but Kaman is more than simply a floor-stretcher. His utility in the post hasn’t necessarily waned with his more limited attempts. While he has toned his post game down from earlier years, he can still go to work in a bullish, if not particularly creative, way on the block. He still has the size to establish position and a variety of ambidextrous moves to finish, highlighted by jump hooks with either hand. He has considerable strength to go along with his good touch, and teams trying to go small and check him with undersized bigs can expect some bruising.

Kaman has always been a solid rebounder, having leveled out at a decent rate for his position over the last several years after a bit of an outlier season in 2007-08, when he was among the league’s best. There is no reason to think his numbers couldn’t jump right back up in a Heat system that doesn’t possess many rebounding alternatives.

So, to recap, that’s a true seven footer who stretches the floor with his range, a skulking interior presence who possesses a pair of soft ambidextrous hands to finish at the rim, and a good rebounder who figures to improve in a Heat-style system. But how about his defense?

It’s no secret that Kaman struggled defensively last season in Dallas, where declining quickness and inability to defend the pick-and-roll relegated him to the bench for larger stretches of the season than he’d have liked. Of course, that was playing alongside an equally lumbering Dirk Nowitzki; in Miami, he’d be paired with one of the most agile bigs in the whole of the NBA, in Bosh. It isn’t all that much of a stretch to imagine that, paired with such a perfect compliment, he’d actually be a strongly net positive interior defender, particularly when featured against less mobile big men (like, say, Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan). He was an excellent shot-blocker in his prime, and remains above average even to this day.

For whatever reason, Kaman is much maligned and often overlooked, as if he were not any better than average. But this is just not the case. This is a big man with a skill-set at least on par with many of his more lucratively-compensated peers.

And yet, his asking price, apparently, could sink as low as $3.2 million.

He is moving closer to accepting that sum from the Lakers, amid his desire to return to Los Angeles, but it doesn’t figure to be all that difficult for the Heat to steal him away. Kaman greatly values playing time. Two bigs don’t fit within Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni’s style of offense (or even one for that matter). If he thinks he’ll be replacing Dwight Howard, it could get quite frustrating for him to accept a potential reserve role to Pau Gasol at center. The upshot of the Heat: Not a single true center on the entire roster. Not one. It’d be Kaman, and no one else.

The primary issue for the Heat is one of cost. Despite his could-be über-affordable salary, Kaman would likely cost the Heat upward of $8 million when including the tax(1), pushing total team-salary-related costs to around $115 million(2), probably driving the team to unprofitability, though not substantially so. It remains to be seen whether Arison would be willing to spend that kind of money. The Heat spent $90 million this past season.

It would certainly be substantially easier to explain a financially motivated amnesty waiver of Miller to a sure-to-be-unhappy LeBron James if it is commingled with the addition of the Big Three era Heat’s first true starting-caliber center.

But while affordability can be managed for the upcoming season, the season thereafter, when the dreaded “repeater tax” kicks in, would remain a problem. A trade of the rather useless Joel Anthony – even for nothing in return – would certainly ease the blow(3), but Anthony still has another $3.8 million coming to him next season, and he clearly no longer belongs in the NBA (if he ever did); the Heat has realistically only the Philly pick and some cash to throw around as bait. Without it, player costs could cross $125 million that year. The Heat won’t spend that.

Signing Kaman would be a wonderful move for the Heat, but it would be an expensive one. Kaman is out there and available. At 7’0 and 265 pounds, he is tough to miss. Will the Heat take notice? They certainly should.

Notes:

(1) The $8 million figure assumes the Heat would employ a full 15-player roster either way, which would mean that if the Heat chose not to try to sign Chris Kaman, the roster spot would instead be replaced by a minimum salary slot costing $884,293.

(2) This projected figure would include player salaries, tax-related consequences, and projected escrow-related returns.

(3) You know how sometimes we can’t see the true cost of a bad decision we make until several years later? Kaman (and Mike Miller) could be the ultimate cost of Heat president Pat Riley’s (let’s just call it highly questionable) decision to sign the uninspiring Joel Anthony to that completely unjustifiable contract in the summer of 2010. Kaman, at the mini mid-level, would earn less than Anthony will next year. But it’s not just the miss on Anthony that gets me. It’s how it happened. Riley got emotional over his undeniably awesome acquisition of the Big Three, and allowed those emotions to cloud his better judgment. In his exuberance, he threw out a massive multi-year contract to a fringe NBA talent (a free agent who drew no interest on the open market), and justified it by saying that his hard work “warrants this reward.” The hope is that it doesn’t cost the Heat more championships in the years ahead.

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