Without Dwyane Wade, Where Do The Miami Heat Go From Here?
It is still impossible to believe.
After 13 seasons, the best and most important player in the Miami Heat’s 28-year history is gone.
Dwyane Wade is headed to the Chicago Bulls.
How could it be that the team’s franchise icon could leave the only professional team he has ever known?
Wade will get paid $47.0 million over the next two years, with a player option on the second season. That’s more than the Heat’s two-year, $40.0 million offer. But this wasn’t about the money.
Wade’s decision was predicated on a deteriorating relationship that resulted from a fundamental difference in philosophies. A difference that was two years in the making.
Last summer, Wade petitioned the organization for a final three-year, $60 million contract to close out his career. It was a lofty first proposal, to be sure, which he subsequently reduced into the range of $45 million to $50 million.
His desire for one last large, long-term contract could easily be justified. He had guided the Heat to five NBA Finals appearances, and three titles. He had played a critical role in luring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami. And through it all, he had consistently chipped away at portions of his own potential salary to make it all possible. Wade had never been the Heat’s highest-paid player.
The Heat countered at one-year, $20 million. Wade accepted. Reluctantly.
The deal was positioned as something of a compromise. For Wade, it provided an increased single-season payout. For the Heat, it maintained “flexibility” for the summer of 2016.
Flexibility, of course, could in this context be loosely be defined as: “the opportunity to re-allocate elsewhere monies otherwise meant for Wade.”
So, naturally, frustration ensued again this summer when Wade was made to sit tight as Pat Riley and the Heat organization made its first priority to retain Hassan Whiteside, and second priority to pursue the never realistic pipe dream that was Kevin Durant. Wade, a future Hall-of-Famer, is no third option – particularly when successful pursuits of either or both of the first two severely limits that which is left over for the organization to compensate himself.
Whiteside in hand and Durant pursuit having failed, the Heat offered Wade every ounce of salary cap space it had left to give: the full $19 million.
Total contract value built onto that starting salary: two-years, $40 million.
More than the Heat would have liked to offer. More than enough to destroy any prior plans for next summer. Imminently fair. Perhaps even acceptable in an emotion-free environment. But that’s not the environment in which it was given.
For Wade, it was his time to be put first. He needed a win. A face-saving, power-shifting victory. It’s how we get when we’re angry.
Wade’s counterproposal? Increase the offer to $50 million, or add a third $20 million season.
The former alternative effectively meant jettisoning Josh McRoberts, no easy task (for a Heat team that has but one first-round draft pick to offer in trade, in 2023, and but two second-rounders, in 2022 and 2023) and a severe hit to the team’s depth in the frontcourt (and trade assets) if so.
The latter alternative effectively meant such severe financial unrest for the team as a whole in that third season – a season during which Wade would be 37-years-old – as to possibly force the Heat to part with youngsters Tyler Johnson or Josh Richardson or both in order to make it happen. Golden parachutes are wonderful in theory, but costly in practice.
Riley simply couldn’t acquiesce. He has an undeniable obligation to Wade. But, as general manager, he has a larger obligation to the Heat organization. He simply had nothing more to give.
Wade’s reaction? Naturally, an emotional one. Perhaps against the better interests of himself, the Heat and the Bulls.
But it’s done.
And so, the Heat must now trudge on. Without Wade.
It’s a painful reality to contemplate, but Heat fans have reason for hope!
The team has a solid, multi-talented core of youngsters in guards Johnson and Richardson, forward Justise Winslow and center Hassan Whiteside. It has a potentially perfect, floor-spacing frontcourt compliment to Whiteside in Chris Bosh, assuming health. And it has an All-Star caliber lead guard in Goran Dragic to spearhead the charge.
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 draped all over him every time he tried to touch the ball. Because why not collapse at even the hint of danger? Who’s going to hurt you from the perimeter if you do? Not Wade.
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 Whiteside could do in an offense that spaced the floor around him. Is it so preposterous to imagine he could become one of the best, and most efficient, scorers in the whole of the NBA?
Is it so preposterous to envision a constant stream of Whiteside pick-and-rolls, Bosh pick-and-pops, and swished three-pointers when defenders rotate away from Heat shooters to try to stop it?
Is it so preposterous to imagine that with Whiteside down low; Bosh, Richardson and Johnson to space the floor around him; and Dragic’s speed 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?
And here’s another question: Is it so preposterous to imagine that it could be just one elite player who fits the structure away from competing for titles?
But how do you grab that one elite player?
With Wade’s departure, the Heat currently has $18.9 million in salary cap space with which to improve this summer.
The team is under a time constraint in its decision as to how most effectively utilize it.
Johnson, who is currently on the books at just $1.2 million (the amount of his qualifying offer), has officially executed a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets. The Heat now has three days (until Sunday at 11:59 pm) to decide whether or not to match the offer sheet and retain him.
The Nets (in accordance with NBA rules) structured the deal to make it harder for the Heat to match, which would produce $19.2 million cap hits in the third and fourth years of the contract. Johnson will receive $5.6 million the first year and $5.8 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.
That $19.2 million third year? Impossible to keep when coupled with whatever it will take to retain Richardson (who becomes a restricted free agent that summer) AND a $20 million payout to Wade. Without Wade? Certainly not ideal, but far more manageable when considering the flexibility it provides in the season prior.
The Heat will likely keep Johnson.
If so, it benefits the team to use all of its cap space within the next three days, before matching the offer sheet.
If Miami uses its remaining $18.9 million of cap space before matching, Johnson’s cap hit would be just $1.2 million. But if Miami matches before using its remaining cap space, Johnson’s cap hit would increase to $5.6 million.
In other words, the Heat would have about $18.9 million in cap space to sign other players if it waits to match Johnson’s offer sheet, but just $14.5 million to spend on other players if it retains Johnson before using all of its cap space.
Of course, it isn’t necessarily wise for the Heat to rush to utilize all of its cap space, even if it does come with a $4.4 million benefit. A mere $4.4 million in extra spending power doesn’t justify spending recklessly.
Perhaps some will be used to do right by Udonis Haslem and Beno Udrih. Or to find veteran depth, for which the Heat has needs at point guard, both forward slots and center. However, and whenever, it elects to utilize its cap space, any contracts the Heat doles out are likely to be limited to just one-season in length (which, by the way, limits the pool of available free agents to those who are unrestricted; restricted free agents require contracts of between two and four seasons in length). Because with Riley, there’s always something next.
His next big, legacy-defining mission: make a big splash during the free agency summer of 2017. Grab that elite player. Build an entirely different title contender under an entirely different construct.
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 the Heat is looking for an elite player, there will be no better opportunity. The key targets in the bunch: Durant (if available), Westbrook or Hayward.
The salary cap for that summer, released earlier today, is currently projected to reach $102 million.
The Heat has just seven players under contract for the 2017-18 season, at a total cost of $76.8 million. Adding Johnson’s $5.9 million salary (assuming the Heat matches) and incorporating necessary cap holds would leave the Heat with up to $17 million of cap space ($22 million without Johnson).
That’s not nearly enough to lure a potential free agent such as Westbrook or Hayward – whose maximum salaries both project to be $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:
How does the following starting rotation sound: Russell Westbrook – Tyler Johnson – Josh Richardson — Chris Bosh – Hassan Whiteside?
How about a starting rotation of: Goran Dragic – Josh Richardson – Gordon Hayward — Chris Bosh – Hassan Whiteside?
Can you feel the floor spacing? Can you see the points being scored?
What if you throw in a Briante Weber for developmental purposes and a 2017 first-round draft pick?
Does that intrigue you?
This may well be Pat Riley’s vision for the future.
If Johnson, Richardson and Whiteside become the players they have the potential to be, it certainly looks bright!