Recapping the Miami Heat Summer of 2016
Update (10/22/16): The Heat has chosen to waive Briante Weber and Beno Udrih, and keep Rodney McGruder. The Heat’s backup point guard duties effectively therefore fall to Tyler Johnson.
The final 15-player roster is as follows: Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder, Justise Winslow, Chris Bosh, Josh McRoberts, Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Luke Babbitt, Udonis Haslem, Hassan Whiteside and Willie Reed.
The summer of 2016 was perhaps the most polarizing and divisive in Miami Heat history.
For Pat Riley, it was largely about two things: Retaining Hassan Whiteside, and maximizing flexibility to target a whale to complement him in the future. Despite the ensuing hell-fire it would cause.
Dwyane Wade is gone, having felt disrespected by Riley for years.
He would argue that Riley’s refusal to offer one last long-term contract, one befitting the most vital player in Heat history – whose 13-year tenure spanned nearly half the team’s 28-year existence – exemplifies that disrespect. That in the wake of LeBron James leaving two summers ago, Riley clearly made retaining Chris Bosh his first priority (offering a full five-year, $119 million max contract) while leaving himself toiled with a sub-par offer for a talent of his caliber ($15 million, with a player option for a second season at $16 million). That the offer was better last summer ($20 million), but only after owner Micky Arison intervened when highly contentious negotiations with Riley had stalled and only in exchange for an even shorter term (one year). That Riley clearly made his first priority for this season to retain Whiteside, and his second priority to pursue the never realistic pipe dream that was Kevin Durant. Wade is no third option – particularly after what had happened the prior two summers, and particularly when successful pursuits of the first two would severely limit that which would be left over for the organization to compensate himself. After all, it was only Riley’s failed pursuit of Durant that made even the two years and $41 million he did offer possible. The initial offer was downright appalling (some speculating in the neighborhood of $10 million per season).
He would argue that Riley didn’t even have the decency to present that $41 million offer. That Riley never even met with him this summer. That his inaction was intentional. That every move he made this summer had an ulterior motive. That he never truly wanted Wade back.
Riley would surely object to the assertion that Wade was disrespected.
He would argue that he was eager to sign Wade (and James and Bosh) to a full max contract in the summer of 2010, which would’ve paid out an NBA-second-best $126 million over the past six years; it was Wade who chose to take less.
He would argue that he was fully prepared to honor the two years and $42 million remaining on Wade’s contract, which would’ve been sixth highest in the NBA, in the summer of 2014; it was Wade who chose to opt out.
He would argue that offering a string of shorter-term deals is not a sign of disrespect but rather a sign of compromise toward a common goal, in which the Heat could gain flexibility and Wade could benefit financially for enabling it. That these past two summers were a perfect microcosm. Wade had petitioned for a three-year deal paying out in the range of $45 million to $50 million in the summer of 2015; adding the one-year, $20 million deal he took that summer to the two years and $41 million he was offered in July totals to $61 million.
Both would be right. And both would be wrong. But did Riley truly want Wade back?
Wade has never been an ideal fit alongside point guard Goran Dragic in the Heat backcourt. Despite rejuvenated health, he was coming off perhaps his worst full season as a pro (posting the worst true shooting percentage of his career). For large stretches of the season, his team performed substantially better with him off the court than on it. He was a massive part of the team’s past, but almost certainly not the leader of a future title team. And, perhaps most importantly, had he accepted his $41 million offer, his $21 million second-year salary would have destroyed the team’s flexibility for the summer of 2017.
Tyler Johnson is back, but not if Riley had his way.
Wade’s $41 million offer was telling. Its $20 million first-year salary utilized every ounce of cap space that remained after securing Whiteside. So much, in fact, that, had he accepted, it wouldn’t have left enough to room for the Heat to retain Johnson. The Heat would have lost Johnson if Wade had accepted. Even though a mere $1 million reduction in the Wade offer, from $41 million to $40 million, would have enabled the team to retain both.
This wasn’t a matter of Riley thinking the Heat would retain either Wade or Johnson. As it turns out, he may not have wanted either player.
It’s not that Riley didn’t value Johnson, but rather the reality of the situation.
The Heat finalized its offer to Wade just hours after learning that Johnson, a two-year NBA veteran with fewer than 1,500 big-league minutes, had agreed to an offer sheet of his own: a shocking four-year, $50 million pact with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets (in accordance with NBA rules) structured the contract to make it exceedingly difficult for the Heat to match. It paid out a reasonable $5.6 million in the first year and $5.9 million in the second year. But it then jumped to a borderline ridiculous $19.2 million in each of the third (2018-19) and fourth (2019-20) seasons, crushing totals for a Heat team trying to preserve cap space for future seasons. Matching his offer sheet would substantially limit the Heat’s flexibility for both the summer of 2018 and the summer of 2019.
It was difficult for Riley to justify such an investment, particularly for a player who didn’t seem to have a definitive position.
Johnson is not a point guard. He can be many great things, but a premier ball-handler, passer, or pick-and-roll operator hardly seem among them. It’s not all that hard to imagine him becoming a key weapon for the Heat when playing off the ball, but for the offense to completely stagnate with him as the lead guard. You don’t pay someone $19 million per season to be a backup point guard anyway.
Johnson is very much a shooting guard. But the Heat already has a youngster with the potential to be incredibly special to fill that position in Josh Richardson, who is under minimum salary contract for the next two seasons.
Without Wade or Johnson, the Heat would be just one potential Dragic trade away from creating a full max salary slot in any or all of the next three seasons. That’s exactly the type of flexibility that Riley was seeking.
Trading Dragic this summer, however, would seem awfully premature. He’s a top-tier point guard on a relatively inexpensive contract who figures to thrive in the absence of Wade. To not allow him the chance to thrive in such circumstances and make his case for being a strong long-term fit would be awfully short-sighted. And with nearly a third of the league in need of a point guard, he’d surely be in high demand if need be next summer anyway. Rumors nevertheless suggest that Riley may have engaged in such discussions throughout the summer with the Sacramento Kings, reportedly in exchange for a relatively paltry return Darren Collison and Rudy Gay.
Collison is a fringe starting point guard on an expiring $5.2 million contract who was about to be suspended by the NBA to start the season after pleading guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery in early September.
Gay has long been rumored as a potential target for the Heat. The Heat would presumably require as a prerequisite to any such trade that Gay amend his contract to eliminate his $14.3 million player option for next season (which can legally be done, in accordance with NBA rules, while keeping his Bird rights intact), which, in turn, would theoretically give the Heat a season to evaluate him, and the opportunity (but not the obligation) to bring him back on a longer-term contract next season should Riley’s primary plans fail.
But a return of Collinson and Gay, both on expiring contracts, hardly seems enticing enough for Riley. If he engaged in such discussions, he was surely seeking more. Miami gave up two first-round draft picks for Dragic. That doesn’t matter now. It’s a sunk cost. But the Heat surely want something good for him. The Kings don’t have much. They can only trade their 2017 first-round pick if it lands in the top 10, and can’t trade any other firsts until 2021. Which could work out well for Miami, as a replacement for the unprotected 2021 first it will be shipping to Phoenix. If the rumors were indeed true, maybe that’s what Riley was asking. And maybe that’s what blew up the deal. What truly transpired in those discussions we may never know.
It did give us rather clear insight into Riley’s vision for the future though – to maintain as much future flexibility as possible to lure a potential whale.
He didn’t get exactly what he wanted.
Arison intervened, choosing to bring Johnson back. In doing so, he did the one thing Riley didn’t want – reduce the team’s future flexibility. By retaining Johnson, the Heat relinquished a ton of flexibility for the summers of 2018 and 2019, pushing the Heat all in on the summer of 2017.
But it was a damn good thing he did.
Johnson has the potential to be a special player. He is short (6-foot-3) and slight (185 pounds), but he makes up for it with freakish athleticism, strong outside shooting, and tough defense. He’ll drive to the rim and finish with a highlight-reel dunk just as easily as he’ll swish a three-pointer when his feet are set. He’ll leap over a small building or two to grab a rebound which was meant for those who are a foot taller. And he has the versatility to play off the ball on offense, yet defend point guards on defense.
Johnson will presumably compete with Richardson for the starting shooting guard role (a battle which he’ll likely 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 eventually be jeopardized. His play-making is far more advanced than his shooting at this point, suggesting his best role could evolve into leader of the team’s second unit.
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) — 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 maximum contract secured – 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.
The Heat may well have lost its best player, but it was to be fast in transition and looking to capitalize upon a type of floor spacing it had never before had in the half court.
Was it really all that hard to imagine what Dragic, a relentless attacker of the rim, and Whiteside, a dominant interior presence, could do in an offense that spaced the floor around them?
Was it so preposterous to envision an offense predicated around 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?
Was it so preposterous to imagine that with so many high-efficiency options, the Heat offense could actually have been amongst the best in the whole of the NBA?
Was it so preposterous to imagine that while it might struggle at times in key situations with the absence of its most reliable crunch-time scorer, its defense will be undeniably improved without him?
And here’s another question: Was it so preposterous to imagine that such a roster could have been just one elite player away from competing for titles?
It wasn’t happening this summer.
Wade left the Heat so late in free agency, Miami could only fill his $20 million salary slot with unwanted spare parts.
Riley chose Wayne Ellington ($6 million), Derrick Williams ($5 million), James Johnson ($4 million), Udonis Haslem ($4 million), Luke Babbitt ($1 million) and Willie Reed ($1 million).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Ellington (though the payout seems excessive for someone who had played at around the minimum salary in each of the past two seasons, and was coming off perhaps his worst season as a pro). He’s a shooting-specialist (37.6 percent on three-pointers for his career) who doesn’t necessary shoot as well as Johnson or Richardson, and doesn’t do much else. He adds solid depth. The biggest worry with him in the fold, though, is that it will lead to fewer minutes for Johnson and Richardson, and that head coach Erick Spoelstra will in turn be inclined to play either or both out of position at point guard to compensate, destroying their growth potential.
Babbitt seems like a nice fit. A career 40.3 percent 3-point shooter, he can supply much-needed shooting. Of course, there is a reason why he was available in trade — he 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 the cost in trade of just cash considerations, and at a salary of just the $1.2 million minimum, it’s a solid gamble. If it doesn’t work out, no harm done. If it does, 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.
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, hitting 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.
Johnson and Williams are tougher to figure. Johnson’s defensive prowess is largely overshadowed by his severe inability to shoot the basketball. Williams’ scoring ability is largely overshadowed by a lack of shooting efficiency or defensive skill. Both figure to provide high energy contributions in bursts, but struggle over the course of a full season. The Heat might’ve been better served signing Matt Bonner at the minimum salary, and saving the remaining cap space and roster spot. Bonner’s ancient (36 years old). He doesn’t possess a scrap of athleticism in his entire body. And he won’t ever create a shot for himself or others. But he’s also an awesome shooter with range, a legitimate power forward, and an underrated defender. The Heat doesn’t have a single player who meets that description as depth behind Bosh.
But most frustrating about how the Heat chose to round out its cap space? They didn’t address their most critical need – a pick-and-roll-minded backup point guard to run the offense, ensure that Johnson and Richardson could be utilized appropriately, and provide depth in the case of a Dragic trade.
One such point guard which was imminently available: Ty Lawson.
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. Was there any better description of a true Heat need? Would not a minimum-salary contract seem like a virtually no-risk, potentially huge reward in return for Lawson (who ultimately signed a training camp deal with the Sacramento Kings)? And if he didn’t work out, would not his imminently waivable minimum salary make him easily swappable for any number of alternate options?
The Heat ultimately picked up shooting guard Dion Waiters at the mid-level to fill the role. He’ll get $2.9 million this season, with a $3.0 million player option for next.
Waiters, a limited shooter (33.4 percent on three-pointers for his career), represents an imperfect backcourt complement for Dragic and Whiteside, who both figure to perform better alongside shooters such as Johnson and/or Richardson. Waiters, for his part, doesn’t pair so well with Dragic and Whiteside anyway. He is a ball-dominant, score-first shooting guard who isn’t nearly as efficient as either one, and tends to struggle as a third scoring option. His best role for the Heat, therefore, figures to be as a reserve. Doing so would allow him to do that which he loves most – dominate the ball as an instant-offense contributor largely against an opponent’s second unit.
In the end, the Heat might have been better served filling out its first two lines as follows:
Starting Five: Goran Dragic – Tyler Johnson – Josh Richardson – Chris Bosh – Hassan Whiteside
Second Five: Ty Lawson – Wayne Ellington – Justise Winslow (with the potential to swap into the first five as he improves his shooting) – Matt Bonner – Willie Reed
Two lines, each with a strong pick-and-roll point guard and center, and solid shooting to space the floor around it. With roster spots to spare for youngsters Briante Weber at point guard and Rodney McGruder at shooting guard, additional forward depth in Luke Babbitt and Josh McRoberts, as well as team captain and motivational leader Udonis Haslem.
The Heat, ultimately, chose a different route in filling out its roster — without a natural point guard behind Dragic (expect Johnson and Richardson to fill that role), shooting guard heavy, with Winslow as the starting small forward and without any depth behind him (expect Babbitt, 6-foot, 4-inch Waiters and 6-foot, 4-inch Ellington to fill that role) and without an ideal backup at power forward.
Nevertheless, the Heat were poised turn some heads this season.
That is, until it received the most sobering news of all: Bosh had failed his physical.
The best floor-spacing power forward in the game today. The heart and soul of the team. Gone.
Bosh remains adamant that he will return to the NBA. But he won’t play for the Heat again. Despite three years and $75.9 million remaining on his contract. It’s a massive blow. There’s simply no way to replace him.
And it’s not imminently clear who will try. The strong shooting but poor defending Babbitt? The thus far underachieving McRoberts (in an effort to rebuild his trade value)? The six-foot, six-inch Winslow? The athletic, but poor shooting and defending Williams? Expect Spoelstra to mix and match throughout the season.
However it works out, Bosh’s absence will crush the Heat’s hopes this season. But it can potentially provide a window to a brighter future.
Bosh’s salary is guaranteed. He will be paid all of the $75.9 million due him no matter what happens from this point forth. But the Heat can potentially remove it from its cap sheet on or after Feb. 9, if it waives him in conjunction with a doctor who is jointly selected by the league and players association agreeing that his condition is severe enough that playing would subject him to medically unacceptable risk of suffering a life-threatening or permanently disabling injury or illness.
The Heat, projected to have $16 million in 2017-18 cap room before the Bosh situation, would see that total grow to $41 million. That room could increase to $43 million if Waiters were to decline his player option, to $44 million if Reed were to do the same, to $48 million if Heat elect to waive and stretch McRoberts or $49 million if the Heat were to trade him, and further still if the league’s current $103 million salary cap projection for the 2017-18 season proves conservative.
A potential trade of Dragic would leave the team with between $57 million and $66 million of room (depending upon the assumptions for McRoberts, Waiters and Reed), or more if the cap rises.
That’s enough to surround its young core of Johnson, Richardson, Winslow and Whiteside with not only its 2017 first-round pick in what figures to be a loaded draft – which could become valuable if the Heat struggle — but also not one but two max-salary players.
Among those who will be available: point guards Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry; small forwards Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward and Danilo Gallinari; and power forwards Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka and Paul Millsap, among others.
It’s unlikely that the Heat acquires any of these players. But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s possible. It’s why Riley was so adamant about retaining maximum flexibility, even if it cost him the most beloved player in team history. He’ll surely try like hell to make it happen.
Which two could it be?
Stephen Curry + Kevin Durant? A pipe dream that will never happen, but mathematically possible.
Chris Paul + Blake Griffin? A long-shot, but again, possible.
How about more realistic possibilities?
Retain what could become an All-Star caliber talent in Goran Dragic + Danilo Gallinari + Serge Ibaka?
Or maybe even Goran Dragic + Gordon Hayward + Danillo Galinari?
Whichever combination you choose, that is surely Pat Riley’s vision for the Heat future.
For now, though, it’s all about the present.
It was a strong start but brutal end to the summer for Miami. It will take its toll. The Heat will struggle this season. But even if it is not necessarily a successful campaign, this team will run with reckless abandon, score in transition, drain some three-pointers, create some highlight-worthy dunks, block an avalanche of shots, and, hopefully, see Whiteside evolve into a dominant low-post presence and Johnson, Richardson and Winslow into versatile two-way weapons – the types of weapons to convince two potential whales that the core is strong enough that they’d make the difference in pushing the team into title contention.
It may not always be pretty. But it will be fun. And if things break right, perhaps the prelude to the next Miami Heat dynasty.