Miami Heat Interested In Serge Ibaka?

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“We’re dealing with that word that you hate to use — that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild. Quick. I’m not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami. We have great, great fans. They’re frustrated. They’ve been used to something great over the last 10 years, and so right now we’re taking a hit. I think we can turn this thing around… You can use that word rebuild. But we’re going to do it fast.”

That was Heat president Pat Riley two months ago, conceding to WQAM’s Joe Rose that after nearly a decade of success, his organization would finally need to initiate a true rebuild. His team was in the midst of an excruciatingly painful season that started with the shocking (if not altogether unpredictable) departure of Dwyane Wade, followed by the gut-wrenching loss and stunning war-of-words with Chris Bosh, followed by a depressing 11-30 record that culminated with a demoralizing wire-to-wire loss at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks exactly one month ago today.

What followed could well be the most extraordinary 13-game winning streak in league history.

The streak helped to stave off what many believe would have been a Heat firesale at the Feb. 23rd trade deadline.

While Riley’s willingness to sell off pieces such as Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside was likely always overblown, the consensus now seems to be that the streak has flipped Miami from sellers looking to trade pieces for future assets to buyers looking to solidify a potential playoff push.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The streak revealed some possible building blocks for the future, but it wasn’t necessarily real. Or sustainable. The Heat still need to reload. And, as Riley said, they need to do it quickly.

The reasons why are readily transparent.

The Heat figure to have a ton of financial flexibility this summer.

Based upon the league’s current $102 million cap projection for next season, Miami currently projects to have as much as $13 million in available cap space (assuming Josh Richardson’s non-guaranteed minimum salary is retained). With Bosh relief, the total will grow to $38 million. It could grow further, to $40 million if Dion Waiters were to decline his player option ($3.0 million), to $41 million if Willie Reed were to do the same ($1.6 million), to $44 million if the Heat were to waive and stretch the salary of Josh McRoberts ($6.0 million).

From that, the cap room required by the Heat’s first-round draft pick (assuming Miami keeps it) would need to be subtracted. It the Heat continues to hover around the playoffs, the pick would cost another $1.5 million or so in cap space, leaving Miami with anywhere from $37 million to $43 million with which to attack free agency next summer. 

That’s a hefty sum. But it’s also a short-term opportunity.

For the 2018-19 season, the salary cap is projected to rise only modestly, to $103 million. That’s also the summer when Tyler Johnson’s salary explodes higher, to $19.2 million. Add it all up and the most the Heat could reasonably project to produce is around $25 million in cap space, and even that would require the team to maintain maximum flexibility this summer (i.e., no multi-year contracts).

For the 2019-20 season, things get even more challenging. The league hasn’t yet provided projections that far out, but one could reasonably expect a cap of somewhere approaching $108 million. By that time, Richardson may have already been re-signed, the $19.2 million player options of Dragic and Johnson may have already been exercised, the $10.3 million cap hold of Justise Winslow may be further strangling the team’s flexibility, and the Heat could be looking at less than $15 million of cap space with which to maneuver.

For the Heat, then, if it is to initiate a rebuild, the time is now.

But who might they target?

Among those who may be available in unrestricted free agency next summer: point guards Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry; shooting guard JJ Redick; small forwards Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward and Danilo Gallinari; and power forwards Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka and Paul Millsap.

Curry isn’t going anywhere, thanks in part to the league’s new designated veteran player rules. Paul could very well be staying in L.A., thanks in part to the league’s new Over-38 rules. Lowry may not be a wise investment even if he were available, at nearly double the price of Dragic. Redick is about to turn 33. Durant isn’t leaving Golden State. And Millsap isn’t really a fit.That’s more than half the list gone.

Among the rest, with up to $43 million, the Heat could have the cap room to potentially add one, but nowhere near the room to add two. Not with the larger roster charges and higher maximum salaries, among various other changes that will take effect with the implementation of the new collective bargaining agreement in July.

The Heat, however, has apparent needs at both forward positions.

Riley and salary cap expert Andy Elisburg are surely considering all of this right now, and may as a result be altering their plans – to incorporate things like trade scenarios.

Who might the Heat be interested in acquiring in such a trade?

According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, Orlando Magic upcoming free agent forward Serge Ibaka is on Miami’s radar.

Ibaka, 27, has been given a more prominent role this season upon his trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Magic. He has taken well to it thus far, posting a career-high in scoring (15.1 points per game) on impressive efficiency, as his game ventures further out to the perimeter. Ibaka has become a rare defensively-capable stretch-four, averaging career highs in three-pointers made (1.5 per game), attempted (3.9 per game) and percentage (38.5%). He athleticism is declining despite his age, but his skill-set could be an ideal match.

But why trade for a player whom the Heat can simply sign in free agency next summer?

Well… a couple reasons.

First, Ibaka figures to be in demand next summer. But if he’s traded, he’s very likely to re-sign with the team to which he’s traded — for reasons that are both subtle and apparent. Ibaka, by rule, would be restricted from talking to the team to which he is traded (or may be traded) about a future contract until after the season is over. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or even that they won’t agree to a new deal at the time of the trade. And, even if he doesn’t, that team acquires his Bird rights — which gives it the right to offer a longer contract (five years, vs. four) and higher annual raises (8.0% of the first-year salary, vs. 5.0%) than can any other team. The extra year would probably not be a wise investment for a player with declining athleticism, but the higher annual raises could prove valuable. Which means that the Heat could acquire him as a preemptive strike, to avoid losing out on the chance next summer.

Second, the Heat would acquire not only Ibaka’s Bird rights but also his $18.4 million cap hold. It’s conceivable his starting salary could push into the low to mid $20 million range. That could take a huge bite out of the Heat’s cap space in free agency. But with his Bird rights intact, at a cost of just $18.4 million against the cap, the Heat could utilize all of its cap space elsewhere, and then circle back to Ibaka to exceed the cap to re-sign him to a new deal. Which would, in turn, save the Heat millions of dollars in cap space. It could also allow the Heat to get creative in structuring his new deal, potentially starting with a higher salary that declines in future season to provide maximized flexibility.

But what does the Heat have available to offer in a trade for Ibaka?

The problem with trade scenarios is that the Heat don’t have many trade assets with which to pursue them.

Among its potential draft assets, the Heat currently has just one first-round pick (2023) and two second-round picks (2022 and 2023) available for outright trade. The Heat can also exchange its 2017 first-round pick for that of a potential trade partner, or provide a trade partner the right to do so, but the value inherent in that decreases as the Heat continue to win.

Miami owes its 2018 first-round pick (top-seven protected in 2018, unprotected in 2019) and its 2021 first-round pick (unprotected) to the Phoenix Suns, which also makes it technically impossible to trade any of its first-rounders in 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2022 (teams can’t trade all of their first-round picks in consecutive future seasons). And since teams can only trade draft picks up to seven years into the future, the 2023 pick would be the only one available for trade; that’s not happening.

Miami owes is 2017 second-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks or Memphis Grizzlies, its 2018 pick to the Grizzlies or Hawks (whichever team doesn’t get the 2017 pick), its 2019 pick to the Charlotte Hornets, its 2020 pick to the Boston Celtics, and its 2021 pick to the Portland Trail Blazers. And since teams can only trade draft picks up to seven years into the future, the 2022 and 2023 picks would be the only ones available for trade.

As far as cash is concerned, the Heat has just $3.1 million available to trade away. Cash is hardly ever a primary motivator in trade anyway.

As far as player assets, all Heat players are currently tradeable other than Marcus Georges-Hunt and Okaro White, though some have various trade restrictions. Among them:

  • Udonis Haslem can’t be traded without his consent
  • Luke Babbitt can’t be traded to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Dion Waiters has a 15% trade bonus
  • Tyler Johnson: (i) can’t be traded without his consent until Jul. 10, 2017, (ii) can’t be traded to the Brooklyn Nets until Jul. 10, 2017, (iii) has a 15% trade bonus, and (iv) has a contract which explodes higher, to $19.2 million, in each of the last two seasons.

So… What are the Heat offering in trade for Ibaka?

I don’t know. But here’s what I would offer.

Trade Proposal: Serge Ibaka and Damjan Rudez in exchange for Justise Winslow, Josh McRoberts, Tyler Johnson and James Johnson.

Let’s break that down to see why.

Justise Winslow is a polarizing figure in South Florida. He’s an aggressive, physical, bruising type of player who can handle the ball, see the floor, and muscle past his defenders on offense, and lock down nearly every position on the court on defense. But he has one glaring problem which, if he overcomes, could make him a future star in this league and, if he doesn’t, could make him virtually unplayable — he can’t shoot. He averaged just 10.9 points on 35.6% shooting from the floor and 20.0% shooting from 3-point range this season. He’s still just 20 years old. He certainly has the potential to improve. And if he does, losing him would be a significant blow. But consider what the Heat would be gaining by doing so.

Josh McRoberts gets a bad rap for good reason, but he’s not a bad player. He’s a deferential, slick-passing big man who doesn’t shoot the ball nearly as much as he should but is surprisingly potent when he does. If you’re expecting a Ryan Andersen type, this isn’t him. He is a stretch four, but primarily, he’s a passer. He tends to hang out along the perimeter and excels at keeping the ball moving with creative and sometimes spectacular passes, though he can put the ball on the floor and finish lobs at the rim if the situation calls for it. And he puts in all in a 6-foot, 10-inch frame, which can be useful. The problem is that he’s never healthy. By the time the season ends, he will likely have played just 81 of a possible 246 regular season games. He’ll be healthy next season. And his $6.0 million salary (assuming he exercises his player option) is affordable. But for a Heat team looking to maximize cap space, it’s more than a distraction.

Tyler Johnson is short (6-foot-3) and slight (190 pounds), and far too often miscast by the Heat as a point guard, but he makes up for it with serious hops and sweet shooting. He’ll throw down a highlight-reel dunk just as easily as he’ll swish a three-pointer when his feet are set. But he’ll also do the little things you may not notice — like grab a rebound typically reserved for a player twice his size, or surprise you with his defensive energy. He’s got Sixth-Man-of-the-Year if not starter level potential. But he also has a unbearable large contract.

Pat Riley never wanted to match the offer sheet that Johnson signed with the Brooklyn Nets last summer. Owner Micky Arison overruled him, feeling that he did not want to lose Johnson in exchange for nothing. A trade involving Johnson would fix all that, and eliminate the Heat’s excessive $19.2 million cap hits for the final two seasons. Riley would surely love to get rid of it. But there would be a couple of complicating factors that make such a proposal unlikely. First, Johnson would need to approve the trade. Second, his trade bonus would need to be dealt with.

Johnson’s trade bonus would pay out up to $4.0 million if he’s dealt at the trade deadline, which would paid by the Heat but increase the cap hits for a potential trade partner to $7.0 million for this season (vs $5.6 million), $7.2 million for 2017-18 (vs. $5.9 million), and $20.6 million for 2018-19 (vs. $19.2 million), along with his $19.2 million player option for 2019-20.

Players can’t waive their trade bonuses, even if they want to, except in very limited circumstances. The circumstances in which they can? If it is necessary to make the trade legal for salary matching purposes. And that’s where this particular trade structure comes in. By adding James Johnson and Damjan Rudez (an aging, seldom-utilized forward on an expiring contract), the corresponding trade math would dictate that Johnson would be able to waive all but $680K of his trade bonus, making it hardly a decisive factor.

So… Let’s look at what this trade does in the context of what the Heat is trying to do — address needs at both forward positions.

At an $102 million cap next season, the Heat could create as much as $44 million next season if they get Bosh relief, Waiters and Reed decline their player options, and the Heat waives and stretches the salary of Josh McRoberts. From that, Ibaka’s cap hold would subtract $18 million. Clearing McRoberts and Tyler Johnson would add $9 million. That’s $35 million!

Think about what just happened.

Without the trade, the Heat were poised to enter the summer of 2017 with $44 million of cap space… and a need to address both forward spots.

With the trade, the Heat would enter the summer of 2017 with $35 million of cap space… and their need at the power forward position addressed.

What could $35 million of cap space buy you?

Re-consider the list above.

It had two small forwards: Danilo Gallinari and Gordon Hayward.

Gallinari will probably get a starting salary in the neighborhood of $20 million this summer. Hayward will be maxed out; that’s a projected $30.6 million. Which means $35 million could get you either one (with room to spare)!

What if, to start next season, he could pull off a Goran Dragic – Josh Richardson – Gordon Hayward – Serge Ibaka – Hassan Whiteside starting unit?

Would that excite you? Would it be worth surrendering Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson?

But here’s the thing: Even if you say yes, and even if Tyler Johnson gives his approval to be traded AND to reduce his trade bonus, Magic general manager Rob Hennigan is sure to say no.

As a Heat fan, Winslow and Johnson surely have more value to you than they do on the open market. This isn’t fair value.

For Riley, however, there’s no harm in trying!

6 Responses

  1. Zoran says:

    Trade the crown prince of Miami and we’re going to riot

  2. Lorenzo says:

    Risky but it makes sense to get something for Winslow now. At this point Waiters has greater potential for being able to shoot consistently from any part of the floor.

  3. Alex says:

    @Zoran
    And who would that be … Winslow?

  4. Alex says:

    What do the Magic get out of all of this? They lose Oladipo for Ibaka to trade to us for just Winslow and/or McRoberts/Babbitt? Why would they do that?

  5. Albert says:

    @Alex
    The Magic will likely take the best offer on the table for Ibaka, regardless of how or for whom he was acquired.

  1. February 13, 2017

    […] 3. Miami Heat interested in Serge Ibaka? Albert Nahmad, Heat Hoops […]

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