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Revamped Heat Roster Maintains Youthful Core, Flexibility for 2017

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The Miami Heat initiated its post-Dwyane Wade transition by completing a flurry of moves in rapid-fire succession on Sunday, the timing of which dictated by the man potentially set to replace him and the execution of which pursued with a singular goal in mind.

Pat Riley has always dreamed big. In the past 12 years, he has 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.

Title aspirations are standard course for Riley and owner Micky Arison. It represents the foundation for everything they do. How they think. How they plan. How they negotiate, even if the parameters for negotiation ultimately lead to the loss of a franchise icon.

Facing the potential overwhelming loss of the team’s most critical ever player, Riley and Arison were unwilling to concede so much in their negotiation with Wade as to paralyze their team’s ability to build a title contender. They believe the Heat is currently in a better position to succeed than would have been the case if they were to have met Wade’s demands. They believe they have compiled a solid core of multi-talented youngsters in guards Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson, forward Justise Winslow and center Hassan Whiteside. They believe they have a potentially perfect, floor-spacing frontcourt compliment to Whiteside in Chris Bosh, assuming health. And they believe they have an All-Star caliber lead guard in Goran Dragic to spearhead the charge.

They may be right.

Johnson will compete with Richardson for the starting shooting guard role (a battle which he’ll win to start the season, with Richardson still sidelined with a partially torn medial collateral ligament). But, perhaps more importantly, he also serves as insurance against a lack of development from Winslow.

In his first season, Winslow showed great promise as a defender. But his offense at times proved to be so limited that defenders constantly sagged away from him, often effectively relegating the Heat to playing four-on-five basketball. If he improves his shooting, he could quickly become one of the Heat’s most vital players. If he doesn’t, his future as a starter could quickly be jeopardized.

Imagine, for a moment, a Dragic – Johnson – Richardson – Bosh – Whiteside unit.

In an offense system designed to capitalize upon it, what was once a shocking inability to space the floor – predicated largely on the always imperfect backcourt tandem of Wade and Dragic — could now be considered a strength. And depending upon where Richardson – who led the entire NBA in three-point shooting percentage after the All-Star Break, at 53 percent – and Johnson – who shot 41 percent on three-pointers last season (excluding heaves), despite often being miscast on offense as a point guard — level off with their shooting, a potentially big one at that.

That type of shooting could provide Whiteside — now a franchise cornerstone with his four-year, $96.4 million contract secured – the much-coveted floor-spacing into which to maneuver.

At 7-feet, 265-pounds, and with a ridiculous 7-foot-7-inch wingspan, Whiteside alters the geometry of the game. His individual statistics last season were silly – 17.6 points (on 60.6 percent shooting), 14.7 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per 36 minutes played. And he did it despite constantly having two, three, and sometimes four defenders hanging all over him every time he touched the basketball. Because why not collapse at even the hint of danger? Who was going to hurt you from the perimeter if you do? Not Wade.

He’s not all a back-to-the-basket big, but he can a huge initiator of offense — whether or not he ever even touches the ball. He hasn’t yet mastered the art of either the pick or the roll, but he has the tools to become of the best roll men in the NBA. And his mere presence in the paint sucks in defenses with more force than a Dyson. That yields tons of garbage points and rebounds for him, and open shots for others.

This Heat team may well have lost its best player, but it will be fast in transition and it will look to capitalize upon a type of floor spacing it has never before had in the half court.

Imagine what Dragic and Whiteside could do in an offense that spaced the floor around them.

Is it so preposterous to envision a constant stream of Whiteside pick-and-rolls, Bosh pick-and-pops, and swished corner three-pointers when defenders rotate away from Heat shooters to try to stop it?

Is it so preposterous to imagine that with Dragic’s penetration to initiate the offense, Whiteside down low, Bosh and Richardson and Johnson to space the floor around it all, and Winslow’s defense thrown into the mix; that the team, despite the absence of Wade – it’s leader and, perhaps more importantly, it’s closer — could still be a force with which to be reckoned?

Is it so preposterous to imagine that while it might struggle on offense at times with the absence of its most reliable crunch-time scorer, its defense will be undeniably improved without him?

Is it so preposterous to imagine that the addition of one elite player could have it competing for titles? Riley surely believes it.

But how do you get that elite player?

With Wade’s departure, the Heat found itself with just $19 million in salary cap space left to be spent on any one player, not nearly enough to grab an elite contributor, if even he were willing and available. It simply wasn’t going to happen this summer.

That, in turn, made Riley’s goal for filling out the roster crystal clear: Maintain maximum flexibility for the summer of 2017. 

The 2017 class is loaded.

The list of players who can be unrestricted free agents in 2017 includes: point guards Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry; shooting guard J.J. Redick; small forwards Kevin Durant, LeBron James (if he signs another one-year deal this summer) and Gordon Hayward; and power forwards Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap and Greg Monroe.

If Riley is looking for an elite player, there will be no better opportunity.

So how you do build out a roster for this season, if your primary goal is to maintain maximum flexibility for next season?

Well… By giving single-season contracts. Which, of course, means pursuing the types of players willing to accept single-season contracts. Which, in turn, also means pursing only unrestricted free agents; by rule, restricted free agents require contracts ranging from two to four seasons in length.

The list of unrestricted free agents willing to accept single-season deals? Not a great one.

Made all the more difficult by the time constraints under which the Heat were operating. Time constraints brought forth by Wade’s potential replacement, Johnson.

Johnson, who was on the books at just $1.2 million (the amount of his qualifying offer) to start the summer, signed a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets on July 7th.

Johnson’s official execution of his offer sheet served as the trigger upon which the team’s entire summer was based. It provided the Heat three days, until midnight Sunday, to decide whether to match it and retain him.

The Nets (in accordance with NBA rules) structured the contract to make it more difficult for the Heat to match, which would produce cap hits of $19.2 million in each of the last two seasons. Johnson will receive $5.6 million the first year and $5.9 million the second year. The Nets attempted to make the contract as poisonous as possible, also attaching a 15 percent trade bonus which would take effect if the Heat were to subsequently try to trade the contract down the road.

The question, then, becomes: Why would Johnson have signed it?

Johnson had reportedly met with the Heat organization in the hours leading up to his signing the offer sheet with Brooklyn. What they discussed, and why he ultimately signed the offer sheet, is still unclear.

Had he chosen not to sign the offer sheet and instead sign with the Heat outright, it could have leveraged a portion of its $19 million of remaining cap room to provide him the same $50 million payout, but in a more standardized way (say, $12.5 million per season).

That, in turn, would seemingly have benefited all parties. For the Heat, it would’ve meant smoother cap hits with no poisonous back end, and no rush to try to match anything. For the Nets, it would’ve provided immediate clarity, and eliminated the need to tie up $12.5 million of cap space for three valuable days (i.e., the Nets, by rule, were required to maintain cap space equal to the average value of the offer sheet from the moment it was signed to the moment the Heat announced its decision on whether or not to match). For Johnson, it would’ve meant a more accelerated payout of equal money.

Nevertheless, Johnson signed it. Which necessitated that the Heat match.

Doing so, however, had implications for how it was to round out the roster. It meant one of two things: (i) having access to $19 million of cap space if spent before matching, or (ii) having access to just $14 million if spent after matching.

The reason? Once a team officially matches an offer sheet, the player’s cap hold (in Johnson’s case, $1.2 million) is replaced on his team’s books with his actual first-year salary ($5.6 million).

Of course, it isn’t necessarily wise for a team to rush to utilize all of its cap space in just three days, even if it does come with a potential $4.4 million benefit. A mere $4.4 million in extra spending power doesn’t justify spending recklessly.

The Heat did, however, choose to exhaust its remaining cap space within the three day window.

Miami completed the process with six rapid-fire Sunday transactions: shooting guard Wayne Ellington was signed as a free agent, forward Luke Babbitt was acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, power fowards James Johnson and Derrick Williams were signed as a free agent, and Udonis Haslem was re-signed. The Heat also agreed to terms with center Willie Reed on a two-year contract that won’t require cap room, and will be completed in the days to come.

Wayne Ellington

The Heat doled out a two-year, $12.3 million contract to Ellington to provide veteran floor-spacing. He’s a shooting-specialist (37.6 percent on three-pointers for his career) who doesn’t shoot as well on the catch-and-shoot as Johnson or Josh Richardson. He is, however, more of a gunslinger than either of the other two, and, unlike the other two, doesn’t necessarily need his feet set to get his shot off with accuracy. He can shoot off the dead run. That ability alone can create space for others. Which makes him a solid addition for a team which doesn’t otherwise possess such a capability.

At $6.0 million this season and $6.3 million next, he’s expensive for someone who played at around the minimum salary in each of the last two seasons. But with the second season subject to a non-guarantee until the day after moratorium, giving the Heat time to pursue any outside options before deciding upon whether to guarantee it, the contract itself doesn’t necessarily hurt the team over the long-term (though why the Heat, which squandered $1.9 million of cap space, didn’t use a small piece of it to structure his contract to decline from $6.3 million to $6.0 million rather than increase from $6.0 million to $6.3 million is unknown; doing so would have have lowered his cap hit for the summer of 2017, and lowered his cap hold for the summer of 2018, if the Heat ultimately choose to keep him). The worry with Ellington in the fold, however, is two-fold: first that it will lead to fewer minutes for Johnson and Richardson, and second that head coach Erick Spoelstra will be inclined to play either or both Johnson and Richardson out of position at point guard to compensate, destroying their growth potential. Those are both big worries.

The Heat doesn’t currently have a single backup point guard on the roster capable of effectively running the offense. Goran Dragic gets tired. He can’t play the full 48 minutes. With Briante Weber a developmental project, that role now presumably falls to Johnson and Richardson. The problem with that? They can’t effectively do it. But, even more importantly, to convince an elite player to sign with the Heat next summer, the Heat needs to prove that Johnson and Richardson can be quality (or even special) starters at their natural position(s), not as reserve point guards.

Miami, now with the regular-season max of 15 players under contract, may be best served creating a roster spot, even if it means sacrificing one of Weber or Rodney McGruder, to take a no-risk flier at the minimum salary on play-making point guard Ty Lawson for depth behind Dragic. Lawson, issues notwithstanding, is still just 28 years old, and is still just one season removed from a 15-point, 10-assist season in Denver, during which he excelled as a dual threat passer and scorer in the pick-and-roll. Is there any better description of a true Heat need?

Luke Babbitt

Babbitt also seems like a nice fit. A career 40.3 percent 3-point shooter, he can supply much-needed shooting from off the bench. Of course, there is a reason why he was available at very little cost in trade — he doesn’t anything else but convert three-pointers on offense, and doesn’t have a position defensively. He’s too slow to defend wings, and not big enough to defend power forwards. He would be best served for the Heat in the latter role, as an undersized shooting specialist in one of several possible small-ball, max-floor-spacing rotations.

At a cost in trade of just cash considerations and a return to New Orleans of their essentially worthless top-55 protected 2018 second-round pick originally acquired from the Pelicans in the Jarnell Stokes trade last season, and at a salary of just the $1.2 million minimum (which becomes fully guaranteed on July 12), it’s a solid gamble. If it works out, he could play a nice role for the Heat in limited minutes. Better still, the Heat would retain his full Bird rights next summer at a cost of just a minimum salary cap hold, effectively allowing Miami to exceed the cap to pay him whatever he commands as a free agent next summer.

Derrick Williams, James Johnson and Udonis Haslem

The Heat also needed three-point shooting from the forward positions after losing their two best ones in Joe Johnson and Luol Deng. Replacing them with Derrick Williams and James Johnson seems less than ideal.

Williams is a supremely athletic player who can drive the basketball, but can’t shoot, pass, rebound or defend. The Heat, starved for players who can create their own offense, is hoping he will assist in that role. He got on a one-year deal worth $4.6 million, the exact amount of the player option he turned down with the New York Knicks.

Johnson can’t space the floor either, but he is a better passer, rebounder and defender than Williams. That is, when he’s in shape. He was massively overweight last season, and suffered through one of his worst NBA seasons. The Heat is hoping it can whip him into shape and allow him to recover his form. He got a one-year, $4.0 million deal.

Haslem has been the heart and soul of the Heat organization for more than a decade. He is a non-contributor on the court, but a huge presence off it. In the wake of Wade’s departure, and with the Heat running low on significant cap room to make a bigger splash, Riley stepped up and offered a contract higher than he originally expected. He got a one-year, $4.0 million deal.

Do any of the signings hurt the Heat over the long-term? No. But none figure to provide the floor spacing that the Heat truly needs. And adding three power forwards brings the Heat’s total to five (including Bosh and Babbitt), which is over-kill even with the uncertain future of Bosh.

Haslem was a given, but the Heat might’ve been better served signing one (at the most) of Williams and Johnson — perhaps Johnson, given his more versatile skill-set — and retaining the extra roster spot for future use. The Heat, after all, still has multiple areas of critical need — including a backup point guard who can run the pick-and-roll (perhaps Ty Lawson at the minimum salary), an offensively-capable small forward (perhaps a trade for Rudy Gay), and a power forward who can space the floor (perhaps Matt Bonner at the minimum salary) — which now figure to go unaddressed.

Willie Reed

Reed may well be the Heat’s most intriguing signing of the bunch. The Heat’s new style of play — pace, and space around the pick-and-roll — necessitates an offensive-minded big man, and Reed sets up as a solid protege to Whiteside in that regard. He’s a strong finisher in the paint — catching and dunking lobs, dunk-ins, and short hooks — despite limited range beyond it. He also gives the Heat a high volume rebounder and shot blocker to anchor the second unit for situations in which Spoelstra elects not to utilize a small-ball approach, and could prove to be a better defender for certain match-ups against whom Whiteside tends to struggle.

But he was signed in the least favorable of ways. Reed will sign for two-years at the minimum salary, with the second subject to a player option – an attractive price for a year, but little else. If he performs, he will decline his option and return to free agency next summer. If he doesn’t, he will exercise his option and stick the Heat with his full (albeit small) $1.1 million cap hit. There were perhaps better alternatives than how the Heat chose to sign him. It would appear that Reed was focused on maintaining his eligibility to return to free agency next summer, to earn his big payout if he exceeds expectations this season. In such a case, had it simply reworked the order of Sunday transactions, the Heat could’ve offered an increased first-year salary — as high as $1.9 million, nearly the full amount he will now earn over two years — in exchange for the lack of a second season guarantee that (marginally) eats into its summer of 2017 cap space. Nonetheless, he should be an excellent backup to Whiteside.

***

Contracts in hand, the Heat matched the offer sheet of Johnson on Sunday night.

At around this time a year ago, the undrafted Johnson had total career NBA earnings of $335K, a broken jaw from a collision in a summer-league game, and a non-guaranteed $845K salary for the 2015-16 season. Now, despite appearing in only 68 games for the Heat over his first two NBA seasons, he is guaranteed another $50 million – presumably set for the rest of his life, as a beneficiary of the summer of exploding contracts amidst an exploding salary cap.

Johnson is now on the books for the Heat at $5.6 million this season, $5.9 million next, and $19.2 million in each of the final two.

That $19.2 million third year? Certainly not ideal, for a player who will likely be utilized in a reserve role.

The Heat now has $93.1 million in salaries doled out for the 2018-19 season (including Winslow’s second team option, which the Heat will likely exercise), leaving around $10 million in potential cap space(1) below the projected $108 million salary cap for that season. And that’s before accounting for a potential new contract to Richardson, then a restricted free agent.

Which, in turn, does the very thing against which Riley traditionally rebels: Reduces the team’s future flexibility. If the plan is to improve the roster through free agency, it’s difficult to envision how it could be that summer (pending the treatment of Bosh).

Johnson’s contract does, however, provide one key advantage: He will be paid just $5.9 million next season. And that, in turn, provides the team with maximum flexibility for the summer of 2017.

The salary cap for that summer is currently projected to reach $102 million.

The Heat now has just eight players locked in for the 2017-18 season (including Winslow’s first team option, which the Heat will surely exercise by the upcoming October 31st deadline; Richardson’s non-guaranteed salary, which the Heat will surely keep; and Josh McRoberts’ $6.0 million player option, which he can choose to exercise), at a total cost of $82.8 million. That leaves the Heat with up to $17 million of cap space(1).

The key targets in the bunch: Durant (if available), Westbrook or Hayward.

$17 million will not be nearly enough to attract Westbrook or Hayward — with maximum salaries for both currently projected at $28.8 million – but it’s not that far away.

A trade of Dragic next summer – in whom at least a third of the NBA was interested this summer (according to reports, I believe by Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald) – would get the Heat all the way there in the event that Westbrook becomes a target.

Packaging Winslow, Johnson and McRoberts in trade scenarios would get the Heat all the way there in the event that Hayward becomes a target.

It remains to be seen as to whether Wade ultimately being unable to trust his 13-year relationship with Riley has caused any irrevocable damage in a potential pursuit of Westbrook or Hawyard, or anybody else. But players will always be interested in Miami with its advantages of weather, culture and no state income tax. The Heat is still a prime free agent destination.

So ask yourself this question:

Do you see the potential inherent in a starting rotation of: Goran Dragic – Tyler Johnson – Josh Richardson(2) – Chris Bosh – Hassan Whiteside? Can you see the floor spacing? Can you feel the defensive improvement?

What if, in one year, that becomes: Russell Westbrook – Tyler Johnson – Josh Richardson — Chris Bosh – Hassan Whiteside?

Or Goran Dragic – Josh Richardson – Gordon Hayward — Chris Bosh – Hassan Whiteside?

Could that be the Miami Heat future?

Only time will tell.

Notes:
(1) The Heat 2017 first-round draft pick would reduce this figure. 
(2) I am well aware that the Heat will start Justise Winslow at the small forward position to start the season but I tend to favor him contributing from off the bench until such time as he develops an improved shot. My logic is that while his defense is undoubtedly solid, I don’t see it as that much more solid than the near-term defensive potential of Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson as to justify his relative offensive shortcomings. In my opinion, the net cost of not having an imminent, floor-spacing offensive threat on the floor (one off of whom defenders cannot collapse) outweighs any relative defensive gains over two players who themselves figure to rather quickly become above average defenders. It is certainly a concept that can be debated. 

  1. juan
    July 17th, 2016 at 15:43 | #1

    albert great article, as always. i tend to agree with you. lawson for the minimum, jack for the minimum, terrence jones for the minimum, even crazy lance for the 2.9 mil exc. i respect riley highly but him and his team of experts beginning with andy are beginning to lose it. they made all these signings in one day in order to fit johnson as 1.2 cap hit this year. once again they ended up overpaying for mediocrity exactly what they weren’t willing to do with wade. they have been played by players since 2010 when the big three forced them into 6 years contracts, this ended up costing us the future (4 picks) and then we overpaid for bosh out of desperation and then we gave up two number ones for dragic once again out of desperation.

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