Miami Heat Receive Josh McRoberts Disabled Player Exception

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The Miami Heat lost Josh McRoberts for the rest of the season after he underwent surgery to repair the torn lateral meniscus in his right knee last Monday. As a result, the league office has granted the Heat a disabled player exception equal to half his salary, or $2.65 million.

The Heat can use the exception to acquire one player to replace him:

  • The Heat can sign a free agent to a contract for the rest of the season only, with a salary of up to $2.65 million.
  • The Heat can trade for a player in the last season of his contract only (including any option years), who is making no more than $2.75 million.
  • The Heat can claim a player on waivers who is in the last season of his contract only (including any option years), who is making no more than $2.75 million.

McRoberts’ status with the team will not be affected. He will continue to count as one of the NBA-maximum 15 players on the roster. He can return to the active roster before season’s end if he is able to do so (and any replacement player would not be affected). He can be traded while injured. However, if he does return or is traded before the Heat has used the exception, the team would lose it. Otherwise, it expires on March 10.

The Heat had hoped to use the exception to lure free agent forward Josh Smith to Miami. The Detroit Pistons made an abrupt and shocking move to release Smith last Monday, despite $36 million in guaranteed money still to be paid on his contract. Players that good who are owed that much money virtually never hit the open market in such fashion. Smith, however, chose to sign with the Houston Rockets.

The Heat must now look elsewhere in its search for a player who can replace the injured McRoberts and help improve a thin power rotation. Potential targets are both intriguing and problematic. 

Potential Heat Targets

Andray Blatche: As far as midseason signings go, it’s probably fair to say they don’t get too much better on paper than Blatche, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound center in the prime of what should be an NBA career, at 28 years old, with solid shooting, rebounding and ball-handling skills.

It is hard to figure what such a player is doing in China. But that’s exactly where he is, playing for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. He’s in the midst of a single-year contract, despite posting two rather impressive seasons in Brooklyn that seemingly resurrected a career previously defined by bouts of conditioning issues, immaturity, and questionable on- and off-court decision-making.

Blatche can catch a kick-out pass and knock down an open jumper, beat his defender off the dribble to score at the rim, fight for a rebound, and even, on occasion, dribble from coast-to-coast and find a teammate spotting up for a transition three-pointer. He is currently among the Chinese league’s best in points (8th best: 29.0 PPG), rebounds (2nd best: 14.3 RPG), assists (12th best: 5.1 APG) and steals (5th best: 2.8 SPG) while shooting 60.2 percent on two-point field goals and 39.1 percent from behind the three-point line.

But moments of brilliance for Blatche also tend to come with moments of over-indulgence: possessions in which he will force a contested, off-balance, what-was-he-thinking heave of the ball that barely scrapes the side of the backboard; or pump-fake his man out of his shoes, pirouette around a second defender before attempting to sidespin a one-handed bounce pass between two more opponents, and watch the ball skid out of bounds. When he operates within the flow of the offense, he excels; when the ball sticks in his hands or he forces the action, he struggles.

Despite playing in China, Blatche will earn more than $10 million this season: an estimated $2.5 million from the Flying Tigers, and an additional $7.6 million in amnesty payments from the Washington Wizards. The Heat previously registered an interest in the man who makes his offseason home in Miami during the summer, and are rumored to have a renewed interest now.

But whether he will be available to the Heat, at least with its disabled player exception, is yet to be determined. He can only head stateside for an NBA assignment once he completes his contract in China. The Flying Tigers play their final regular season game on February 1, 2015. The Chinese Basketball Association playoffs begin shortly thereafter, and could extend all the way through mid-March depending upon how far his team progresses (the Flying Tigers currently maintain the seventh position in the standings after reaching the Finals last season). The Heat’s disabled player exception would expire no later than March 10. Blatche may only command a minimum salary contract anyway, which he can sign up until the last day of the regular season and still allow him to be eligible for the playoffs.

No matter when or for how big he signs his contract, Blatche will not be available to the Heat anytime soon.

Emeka Okafor: The Heat are said to be one of many teams to covet the 32-year-old Okafor, a 6-foot-10, 255-pound rim protector and rebounding force. But Okafor suffered a herniated disk in his neck during the 2012-13 season, and has yet to be medically cleared for play. He expects to return to the NBA at “midseason.”

It remains to be seen whether that will be true and, if so, in what physical condition he will be. Here’s an overview of what Okafor is dealing with (including a brief overview of the related parts of the human body):

The spine is a major supporting structure of the human body. Stretching down from the base of the skull to the tailbone, it plays an extremely important role in our bodies as it supports the upper body’s weight; provides posture while allowing for movement and flexibility; and protects the spinal cord.

It is made up of 33 small bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of each other like blocks, and categorized according to the regions of the body they occupy. There are five major regions of the spine:Spinal Column

  • The cervical spine consists of 7 articulating vertebrae (C1–C7) located in the neck. Cervical vertebrae are the thinnest and most delicate vertebrae in the spine but offer great flexibility to the neck. The first two vertebrae are highly unique, and given unique names: C1 supports the skull and is also called the “atlas,” after the Greek titan who held the heavens on his shoulders; the skull pivots on the atlas when moving up and down. C2 is also called the “axis” because it allows the skull and atlas to rotate to the left and right.
  • The thoracic spine consists of 12 articulating vertebrae (T1-T7) located in the chest. Thoracic vertebrae are larger and stronger than cervical vertebrae but are much less flexible. A unique feature of the thoracic vertebrae is that each one forms joints with a pair of ribs to form the sturdy rib cage that protects the organs of the chest.
  • The lumbar spine consists of 5 articulating vertebrae (L1-L5) located in the lower back. Lumbar vertebrae are even larger and stronger than thoracic vertebrae, but are more flexible due to the lack of ribs in the lumbar region. All of the upper body’s weight bears down on the lumbar vertebrae (leading to many back problems in this region, as with former Heat player Mike Miller).
  • The sacrum is a single bone in the adult skeleton that is formed by the fusion of 5 smaller vertebrae during adolescence. The sacrum is a flat, triangular bone found in the lower back and wedged between the two hip bones.
  • The coccyx, or tailbone, is a single bone in the adult skeleton that is formed by the fusion of 4 tiny vertebrae during adolescence. The coccyx bears our body weight when sitting down.

Between each of the articulating vertebrae in the first three regions of the spine are disks, called intervertebral disks, which are thin oblong structures that hold the vertebrae together, cushion the spine, and allow for movement of the spine.

There are a total of 23 intervertebral disks in the human spine. With the exception of between the first two vertebrae, the atlas and the axis, each of the bones in the spinal column is separated by a disk.

Each disk is made of a soft gel core surrounded by a tough, fibrous outer shell. This structure allows the disk to be firm enough to transmit the weight of the body while maintaining the space between the vertebrae, but soft enough to compress and permit movement between the vertebrae.

As a result of trauma, genetic factors, or age-related degeneration, a disk’s tough outer shell can sometimes develop an area of weakness, which can lead to a small tear. When this happens, part of the disk’s soft inner core can bulge out beyond the damaged outer shell, producing a condition called a “herniated disk.” Depending upon the nature and location of the herniation, this can be anywhere from virtually undetectable to extremely painful.

The spinal cord, the column of nerve fibers responsible for sending and receiving messages from the brain, runs through the spinal canal which is protected by the spine. It is through the spinal cord and its branching nerves that the brain influences the rest of the body, controlling movement and organ function.

As the spinal cord runs through the spinal canal, it branches off into 31 pairs of nerve roots (one on each side of the vertebral column) – including 8 pairs of cervical nerves, 12 pairs of thoracic nerves, and 5 pairs of lumbar nerves – which then branch out into nerves that travel to, and control sensory and motor functions for, the rest of the body. The nerve roots leave the spinal cord through openings found between the vertebrae on both sides of the spine. The cervical nerves are numbered by the vertebra below, while the thoracic and lumbar nerves are numbered by the vertebra above. Herniated Disk

When a cervical disk herniates, the protruding disk can “pinch” or press on the nerve root that is exiting the spine at the corresponding level. Cervical nerves are both sensory and motor, so the pinching, in addition to pain, can cause numbness, tingling, muscle weakness, and reflex deficits to the specific location of the body for which the pinched nerve is responsible. The pain patterns caused by damage or irritation to each cervical nerve are well defined:

  • C1, C2, and C3: Can cause pain in the back of the neck extending along the back of the head, but does not result in motor or reflex deficits.
  • C4: Can cause pain at the base of the neck and in the shoulder, but usually there is no demonstrable muscle weakness or any reflex abnormalities.
  • C5: Can cause pain and possibly a small area of numbness/tingling in the shoulder, deltoid weakness, and reflex deficits in the biceps.
  • C6: Can cause pain and numbness/tingling that runs down the arm to the thumb and index finger, weakness in the bicep and wrist extensors, and reflex deficits in the brachioradialis muscle that flexes the forearm at the elbow.
  • C7: Can cause pain and numbness/tingling that runs down the arm to the middle finger, weakness in the triceps and wrist flexors, and reflex deficits in the triceps.
  • C8: Can cause hand dysfunction (this nerve supplies innervation to the small muscles of the hand). Pain and numbness/tingling can be felt in the ring and little fingers and impair their reflex.

Okafor was diagnosed with a herniated C3-C4 disk, which would likely cause irritation to his C4 nerve root. The pain he should have experienced should have been present at the base of his neck and in his shoulder blade. He should not have experienced any muscle weakness or reflex deficits.

Treatment for the vast majority of herniated disks is non-surgical. They generally heal on their own, a process which can be aided by a temporary period of immobilization; use of anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen; and physical therapy consisting of traction, stretching, heat, and massage.

Severe cases, or cases in which non-surgical treatments have not alleviated the symptoms, can require surgical intervention. Surgery most commonly entails removing the herniated disk from the front of the neck, replacing it with a bone graft, and fusing the graft to the surrounding vertebrae to ensure vertebral column stability. The procedure, performed by a neurosurgeon, is called an ACDF surgery: Anterior (frontal-approach) Cervical (neck area) Discectomy (removal of disk), and Fusion (the process of replacing a removed disk with a bone graft to maintain decompression of the spine, which over time fuses with the surrounding vertebrae to create one block of bone, and placing a thin titanium plate on top of the spine and securing it to the vertebrae with small titanium screws in order to provide stability while the fusion is taking place). The surgery generally takes about an hour. The prognosis for recovery is generally excellent.

Okafor reportedly selected a non-surgical approach (though this can be confirmed by looking for a three to four inch diagonal incision on the front of his neck, and not finding it).

Said Okafor back in September 2013: “Felt it a couple weeks ago after playing 5-on-5. At first I didn’t think it was anything to serious, that I was just having neck stiffness. Some time went by, it wasn’t getting better, I had a (MRI) picture taken. That’s what it was (a herniated disk). The best thing was to just rehab. There were a number of options and I decided rehab is the best way to go with this thing.

“Everyone’s pretty optimistic that it dissolves with therapy. As far as a timeline, it’s indefinite at this point. The positive are that I had no loss (of strength) or weakness. The onset is the worst of this. Things are getting better day by day. I’m not in any serious discomfort. It’s just going through the proper steps to make sure it heals properly.”

It is unclear how severe the damage or irritation was (or is). The vast majority of herniated disks do not cause permanent damage to the nerve on which it is pressing or the spinal cord. It is very possible that if he returns to the court, his herniated disk will have completely healed and he will have no lingering side effects.

***

The difference between the value of the disabled player exception, $2.65 million, and a minimum salary is not all that great. It is difficult to forecast which players might command or be influenced by larger salary as a reason to choose the Heat over any other potential suitors. In turn, it is difficult to forecast how beneficial the disabled player exception will be for the Heat. It could, however, provide a couple of significant tactical advantages.

First, a disabled player exception does not pro-rate. The minimum salary exception (and all other exceptions that can be used to sign a free agent) does. What does not seem like a significant advantage now will, as time passes, seem much larger. For example, a rest-of-season minimum salary contract signed on March 10 would pay out no more than $315K. A rest-of-season contract signed on March 10 utilizing the disabled player exception would pay out the full $2.65 million. That’s a substantial difference.

Second, utilizing the disabled player exception rather than offering a prorated minimum salary could provide the Heat a material advantage when (and if) it comes to retaining the player beyond this season.

When it comes to re-signing a player, a team can either utilize cap space or any one of the various exceptions available to it. The Heat project to be over the salary cap next summer. If it wants to retain anyone it signs for the rest of this season, be it with the disabled player or minimum salary exception, it can always use the assortment of exceptions then available to it, including the minimum salary exception, bi-annual exception and mid-level exception. In certain circumstances, the former two may not be enough, and the Heat may want to redirect the latter to another player.

The collective bargaining agreement does however provide another exception, called “Non-Bird” rights, that allows a team to exceed the cap to re-sign a player who has been with it for one season or less. This exception allows a team to re-sign its own free agent to a salary starting at up to 120 percent of his salary in the previous season (not over the maximum salary, of course) or 120 percent of the minimum salary, whichever is greater. Contracts can be for up to four seasons in length.

Utilizing the disabled player exception would therefore allow for a potential contract for next season, utilizing Non-Bird rights, that starts at $3.2 million. That’s roughly double (or more than double) what could be offered via Non-Bird rights if the player were to be signed for this rest of this season to a minimum salary deal. It would also preserve all of the Heat’s other single-use exceptions for use elsewhere.

The Heat can use the entire $2.65 million disabled player exception and still remain comfortably below the tax level, a line which they surely will not cross.

Note:

Your author is not a doctor. He is merely a man of questionable intelligence who made an inexplicably idiotic decision to dive head first off of an anchored boat and into the sandbar at Haulover Beach in Miami. The massive force of the resulting collision collapsed his head violently into his body, causing a burst fracture to one and compression fractures to two other vertebrae in his cervical spine, herniating two intervertebral disks, and causing transient damage to his spinal cord which left him strong-side paralyzed.

It was about fifteen minutes later that he realized his paralysis would not be permanent (several bone shards were pressing against the cord but apparently still another millimeter or so away from transecting it). It was about three motionless days later that he had his herniated disks removed, several unstable vertebral bits retracted, and a bone graft, a titanium plate, and six titanium screws surgically implanted onto his spine. It was about six weeks later that his recovery was deemed to be a success – leaving only a small scar, some perhaps permanent but relatively minor intermittent numbness and tingling, and some massive unrepaired emotional trauma that remains to this day.

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