Is Kevin Durant at the Root of Dwyane Wade-Miami Heat Divide?
The sharp divide between Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat represents a unique challenge for team president Pat Riley.
For the past 12 years, the Wade name has been synonymous with that of the Heat organization. Wade has often been viewed as an extension of it and perhaps its most vital member. He has advocated for it. He has delivered it fans, players, titles and money. He has sacrificed a great deal of personal earnings for the benefit of it.
Riley would love to reward him for everything he has done. But in a world of salary caps and luxury taxes, where championship aspirations are a way of life, doing so becomes a sentiment that is far more easily felt in theory than delivered in practice.
Wade has unquestionably been the biggest star of the Heat’s past. But Riley needs to consider its future. Time marches on. Skill-sets erode. Injuries mount. What is best for Wade may no longer be what is best for the Heat organization, and that’s where things get dicey.
Riley has always dreamed big. In the past decade, he’s acquired Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James — arguably the NBA’s two greatest post-Michael-Jordan era players — and paired them with Wade to secure the franchise’s five NBA finals appearances and three titles.
It would not be difficult to suspect that he has visions of grandeur once again – this time with his sights set on 2016, when Kevin Durant hits the market in the first summer under a new TV deal that could send the NBA salary cap skyrocketing to $89.0 million.
To facilitate such a vision, Riley would prefer that Wade opt into the final year of his contract for next season at $16.1 million, which would provide the Heat with maximum flexibility for the summer of 2016. But this requires Wade to have a ton of trust, and the leap of faith that Riley will ultimately take care of him.
Wade would prefer the security of one final multi-year contract to close out his Hall of Fame career to the uncertainty of exercising the lone season remaining on his current deal.
For their part, neither Wade nor Riley is saying much of anything. And for good reason. It is technically a violation of league rules for the two sides to be negotiating a new contract before the start of free agency in July. But the tension is both real and delicate.
Could Riley’s lust for signing Durant be motivating the Heat boss to take a hardball stance with the team’s biggest ever star?
Set aside the supposition that Durant would consider the possibility. Will the Heat even have the flexibility to make a run at Durant in the summer of 2016 and, in so doing, create the Heat’s next super-team?
In theory, the foundation is already in place.
In November, the Heat signed what it hopes is its center of the future in Hassan Whiteside.
Whiteside was signed to a two-year minimum salary contract that extends through the 2015-16 NBA season. By virtue of playing at the minimum salary next year, he will carry a minimal cap hold of $980,431 to be charged against the Heat’s team salary as he enters free agency in the summer of 2016. So, whatever the Heat has planned for 2016, at a cost of just $980K, it can use up all its cap space to do it, and then, after it is all used up, circle back to Whiteside to give him a contract that exceeds the salary cap.
But there is a giant catch: By virtue of him playing for the Heat for only two years, the team will have accumulated only his Early Bird rights. The Heat would therefore only be able to utilize this strategy to give Whiteside a starting salary of up to 104.5 percent of the NBA’s average salary in the prior season (2015-16), which currently figures to be just over $6 million. That will certainly not be enough if he continues to perform at this level. And even if he were willing to swallow it in order to help his team out for a season, Early Bird contracts must be at least two seasons in length.
So, unless you think that Whiteside could be enticed to accept a two-year contract paying out no more than roughly $12 million (utilizing the Early Bird exception), whatever contract Whiteside signs in the summer of 2016 (assuming, of course, it’s higher than the $2.9 million mid-level exception for room teams) will require the Heat to utilize cap space.
The Heat can utilize cap space to sign him for as little as the $1.1 million minimum salary, as much as the $20.9 million projected maximum salary, or anything in between. It can sign him for as little as one year, as many as four years, or anything in between. It can try to persuade him to accept a one-year deal at a smaller payout, with the (technically illegal) promise of a higher payout on a long-term deal utilizing his full Bird rights the following summer (when his maximum salary is projected to shoot substantially higher, to $25.8 million). The possibilities are endless, and depend highly on what he will demand. It would certainly be reasonable to conclude that he will be gunning for as much of his $20.9 million maximum salary as he can get. And if he continues to perform as he did last season, the Heat would be foolish not to give it to him.
In February, the Heat acquired what it hopes is its point guard of the future in Goran Dragic.
Dragic will opt out of the final year of his four-year contract that would have paid him $7.5 million. He has indicated that he enjoys Miami, and will remain with the Heat if his financial goals are met. The Heat paid a steep price to get him, headlined by two future first round draft picks, which tells you everything you need to know about how willing they will be to pay him his money. Dragic will be eligible to receive a five-year deal, with a total payout of as much as $108 million (based on a $67.1 million cap projection). If he gets it, the contract would pay out $20.2 million for the 2016-17 season.
For a player entering his age 29 season, however, it would almost certainly prove to be a substantial overpay, even with the cap due to rise dramatically. A smaller deal that gives the Heat more flexibility for the summer of 2016 seems likely. But, to the extent an arrangement has not already been negotiated (which seems likely, though it too would be a violation of cap rules), Dragic will hold all the leverage.
The foundation of the Heat’s future championship aspirations start with Dragic and Whiteside. They figure to be highly successful in plying their trade, but only if they have the floor space with which to do so. Whiteside needs it to maneuver freely down low. Dragic needs it to create clear driving lanes for himself and open looks for others.
Chris Bosh is an ideal fit in such an approach. But Wade isn’t.
In that respect, 6-foot, 6-inch Kentucky shooting guard Devin Booker represents an intriguing candidate for the Heat’s selection with its No. 10 pick in the draft next month. While there are players in the draft who might have bigger overall impacts, no one player had a skill more tailor-made for his team than would be Booker’s elite three-point shooting for the Heat.
Booker is, quite simply, the best shooter in the draft. His tremendous mechanics and his quick, smooth and high release suggest it will transition well to the pro game. But he’s also a deceptive athlete and a solid defender. He helped his draft stock during agility testing in the combine, coming away with the fastest lane agility score of any player in attendance. Part of Booker’s allure is his potential to become a two-way player. Another part is his age. Booker was the youngest player to register for the draft (he won’t turn 19 years old until Oct. 30), a fact that belies his maturity.
Riley seems to agree.
“A great, great meeting,” Booker said of the face time he received with Riley at the combine. “It’s humbling. He said D-Wade is getting older now, is on the last part of his career, and come and learn from him. And I thought that would be a great fit for me and I’m willing to learn from all veterans, especially one of the best two-guards to ever play the game. So I think that would be a great fit for myself.”
It isn’t all that difficult to imagine the potential that could be unlocked with the perfect symmetry of an inside-outside backcourt combination of Dragic and Booker along with the perfect symmetry of an inside-outside frontcourt combination of Whiteside and Bosh, particularly when the Heat could potentially have tons of cap space to search for a long-term solution at small forward in the summer of 2016.
Could Riley’s vision be Use a Dragic, Booker, Bosh and Whiteside core to entice a big-name free agent to push this Heat team over the top when the cap explodes in 2016?
Can that big-name free agent be Durant? And, if so, where would Wade fit in?
Let’s do the math.
The league issued initial salary cap guidance for the 2016-17 season in April of $89.0 million.
The Heat, as of now, has only two players under guaranteed contract for the 2016-17 season: Bosh at $23.7 million and Josh McRoberts at $5.8 million. The tenth overall pick in the coming draft would cost up to another $2.6 million(1).
Let’s assume an aggressive scenario – one in which the Heat trades McRoberts without taking back any future salary in return, declines its team option on Shabazz Napier (which seems likely, with a decision required by Nov. 2), renounces its rights to all of its then free agents, and otherwise takes on no multi-year salary commitments this summer.
That leaves just Bosh and the Heat’s 2015 first-round pick (potentially Booker) under contract for the 2016-17 season, at a total cost of $26.3 million.
To that, let’s add the necessary roster charges.
Roster charges are a temporary placeholder charged against a team’s team salary if it has fewer than 12 players on the roster (including players under contract, free agents included in team salary, players given offer sheets, and first round draft picks) at any time during the offseason. The amount of the charge for each player fewer than 12 is equal to the rookie minimum salary, which will be $543,471 for the 2016-17 season.
The charges get removed when the team builds back up to 12 players. Since a team must carry a minimum of 13 players on the roster to start the regular season, no teams can ever exit the offseason with roster charges remaining. Therefore, while these charges do not reduce the calculation of a team’s maximum available cap space, they greatly affect how such cap space can be allocated amongst a team’s players.
The least expensive way for the Heat to secure the services of six players – Dragic, Wade, Durant, Bosh, Whiteside, its 2015 first-round pick, and nobody else – will require the presence of seven roster charges before the last of the five is signed. Seven roster charges, at $543,471 each, comes to $3.8 million.
So: $89.0 million – $26.3 million – $3.8 million = $58.9 million of cap space remaining.
The complicated scenario that is creating the necessary cap room for a potential Heat acquisition of any key free agent can therefore be reduced to a simple question: At a projected $89.0 million salary cap, can you split $58.9 million of 2016-17 money between Dragic, Wade, Whiteside and that key free agent(2)?
In the case of Durant, who will not take anything less than his full $25.0 million maximum starting salary, the scenario can be further reduced to the following question: At a projected $89.0 million salary cap, can you split $33.9 million of 2016-17 money between Dragic, Wade and Whiteside(2)?
Basic mathematics, then, suggests that the chances Miami will have enough cap room to make a serious run at Durant next summer will be possible only with a great deal of creativity even without Wade, and all but nonexistent if Wade takes up any of that room at all (no matter how small his salary).
Can you see why the Heat is so reluctant to commit long-term funds to a Wade?
If you were Riley, how much would you be willing to commit in a long-term contract to Wade this summer, knowing how drastically it will affect your ability to re-sign Whiteside and/or add a key free agent next summer?
Anything at all?
(1) First-round draft picks are paid based upon a salary scale. The 2016-17 salary of a player selected with the No. 10 pick in the 2015 draft will be $2.2 million. However, first-round picks can receive between 80 percent and 120 percent of their scale amount and, in practice, almost every such player receives the full 120 percent.
(2) In the most aggressive scenario plausible, one in which the Heat would also trade away its 2015 first-round pick, the Heat would gain an extra $2.0 million of cap space ($2.6 million salary, less one $545K cap hold), which would increase the Heat’s total possible room from $58.9 million to $60.9 million. Subtracting a hypothetical $25.0 million maximum salary for Durant, the Heat’s remaining possible room would increase from $33.9 million to $35.9 million.