Miami Heat Interested In Serge Ibaka?
“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 of 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. And Durant isn’t leaving Golden State. That’s 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.
The problem with trade scenarios, though, 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.
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.
While the Heat can exchange its 2017 first-round pick with a potential trade partner, or provide a trade partner the right to do so, the value inherent in that decreases as the Heat continue to win.
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.
Which means that if the Heat is to utilize an asset to entice a potential partner in trade, it’s likely to be some combination of Richardson, Winslow, and/or a distant second-round draft pick.
Who might the Heat be interested in acquiring in such a trade?
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%).
But why give up assets in trade for a player whom the Heat can simply sign in free agency next summer?
Well… a few reasons.
First, Ibaka figures to be in high 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. That’s a key advantage. 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 not only preempt any other team from gaining Ibaka’s Bird rights by trading for him, but also acquire those Bird rights themselves. Which would give them the clear advantage in re-signing him. The Heat could leverage those Bird rights to offer Ibaka a more cap friendly contract than they could without them — perhaps with a lower annual salary, but over the longer five-year term.
Third, the Heat would not only acquire Ibaka’s Bird rights, but they’d do it at just an $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.
If the Heat envision Ibaka as a core piece alongside Whiteside in its frontcourt, is that not worth giving up a potentially significant asset?
With Orlando likely to select the best among a ton of credible offers, that asset needs to be potentially significant.
In a straight up trade for Ibaka, the Heat would need to send back anywhere from $8.1 million to $17.3 million in salary to the Magic (who currently have an open roster spot).
So how has Riley put together a package that got him there?
Heat assets, in order of increasing value: its two second-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023, then Richardson, then Winslow.
Riley would love to surrender only a second-round pick, or even Richardson (who can be viewed as redundant with what the Heat has in Johnson). But that surely isn’t enough to entice the Magic.
If Riley’s interest is serious, he needs to offer more.
In his first two seasons, Winslow has shown promise as a defender. But his offense at times has proven to be so limited that defenders constantly sagged away from him, often effectively relegating the Heat to playing four-on-five basketball. Winslow’s shooting digressed dramatically in his second season — converting on just 35.6% of his shots from the floor, including just 20.0% from the 3-point line. If he improves his shooting, he could quickly become a star-level starter. If he doesn’t, his role as starter could quickly be jeopardized.
How critical is shooting to the Heat’s success?
Consider the correlation between 3-point shooting and Heat victories this season: the Heat’s 40.2% on 3-pointers in its 24 wins would be the best mark in the NBA, while its 32.2% on 3-pointers in its 31 losses would be the worst mark in the NBA.
The correlation has been even more pronounced since Winslow’s season-ending surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder: the Heat’s 42.0% on 3-pointers in its 14 wins since Winslow’s injury would be the best mark in the NBA, while its 30.9% on 3-pointers in its 7 losses would be the worst mark in the NBA.
Some degree of perspective is needed here. Winslow is also just 20 years old. He certainly has time to improve. And if he does, he could quickly become one of the Heat’s more valuable players. But that potential, in turn, is also what creates his trade value. It’s what could entice the Magic to complete a trade for Ibaka.
There are any number of permutations centered around a Winslow-for-Ibaka swap that would work within the confines of cap rules. Any player (or combination of players) making $5.5 million or more would get you there.
Think that’s too much to give up?
What if that $5.5 million or more isn’t composed of just expiring contracts? What if the Heat tries to leverage the potentially significant asset it would be giving up to also entice the Magic to take unwanted salary as filler in return? Does that help?
His first three seasons in Miami have been plagued by injury. He has a $6.0 million player option for next season he is sure to exercise. The best the Heat could do to clear it would be to waive him and stretch it, which would still produce an ugly $2.0 million dead-money cap charge for the next three seasons. A trade would fix all that.
Could the Heat’s rumored interest in a trade for Ibaka be centered around a potential offer of Winslow and McRoberts? Or perhaps a larger trade with that basic framework? Perhaps even to include draft considerations back to Miami in return?
Would it entice the Magic?
Would it be acceptable for the Heat?
Consider this: With a swap of Winslow and McRoberts for Ibaka, Miami could potentially re-sign Ibaka next summer, and still have its 2017 first-rounder, a $4.3 million Room-MLE, and as much as $29 million(1) in cap room (with Bosh relief)?
That $29 million would surely be more than enough to entice Gallinari.
Or to retain Dion Waiters. Or James Johnson. Or both.
Not sexy enough to warrant giving up a potential star in Winslow? How about this?
It’s also pushing right up against Gordon Hayward’s projected $30.6 million max, which he’ll surely get if he declines his $16.7 million player option. With a mere $1 million of cap help and a bit more maneuvering, the Heat could get all the way there.
Would offering Winslow guarantee the Heat will acquire Ibaka? Nope.
Would acquiring Ibaka guarantee the Heat will be able to entice a player such as Hayward this summer? Nope.
But Riley has always dreamed big.
What if he could pull it off?
How would you feel about a Dragic – Richardson/Johnson – Hayward – Ibaka – Whiteside starting 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 Dragic and Wade — could now be considered a key strength, led by the three-point shooting of Dragic (44.0%, third overall in the NBA), Hayward (39.2%, seventh in the NBA among small forwards) and Ibaka (38.5%, fourth in the NBA among power forwards). And depending upon where Richardson – who led the entire NBA in three-point shooting percentage after the All-Star Break last season, at 53% – and Johnson – who shot 41% on three-pointers last season (excluding heaves), despite often being miscast on offense as a point guard, retarding his growth — level off with their shooting in roles that require less offensive initiation, a potentially massive one at that.
At 7-feet, 265-pounds, and with a ridiculous 7-foot-7-inch wingspan, Whiteside alters the geometry of the game. He’s not at all a back-to-the-basket big — and the Heat is doing the offense a huge disservice by treating him as such — but he can be a huge initiator of offense, whether or not he ever touches the ball. He hasn’t yet mastered the art of either the pick or the roll, but he has the physical tools to become one of the best roll men in the NBA. But even if not, his mere presence in the paint sucks in defenses with more force than a Dyson. That yields tons of garbage points and offensive rebounds for him, and open shots for others.
Imagine what Dragic and Hayward, relentless attackers of the paint, and Whiteside, a dominant interior presence, could do with all that space.
Is it so preposterous to envision a constant stream of Dragic and Hayward penetration, Whiteside lobs, and swished corner three-pointers when defenders rotate away from Heat shooters to try to stop it? Is it so preposterous to imagine this could become one of the best offenses in the whole of the NBA?
Is it so preposterous to imagine how imposing an Ibaka-Whiteside front line could be, allowing the Heat’s perimeter defenders to push up even closer to their defensive assignments? Is it so preposterous to imagine this could become one of the best defenses in the whole of the NBA?
Is it so preposterous to imagine, whether or not any of it were likely, that it would be exactly how Riley would pitch Hayward if he could first get Ibaka?
If you’re Riley, and your goal is a quick rebuild, is it all that hard to envision an Ibaka trade as a potential first step?
If you were to ask me to read Pat Riley’s mind to determine what he is offering in exchange for his pursuit of Serge Ibaka, my heart and my gut might say different things. This post contains what is in my heart. My gut tells me he’s more likely offering Josh Richardson and a host of expiring contracts. But that may not be enough to entice Orlando, and it doesn’t get you close enough to my pipe dream scenario for Gordon Hayward :).
Why do I feel Richardson is more likely what Riley is offering? Because Riley would need to have a specific use for that marginal extra cap space to warrant giving up such a valuable asset in Winslow (whereas, alternatively, Richardson is more redundant). The basic rule of thumb in the NBA is this — you don’t trade away an asset until what you get in return is not only possibly better, but probably better. Dreaming about the possibility of Hayward doesn’t qualify because it’s not even close to imminent. And if what you got instead was, say, Danilo Gallinari, then you probably didn’t need that extra cap space.
But I take a different approach. I, unfortunately, have never been all that high on Winslow. I tend to believe that, ultimately, his shooting will not improve, and that his effectiveness will be more and more marginalized as the years wear on. I also tell myself that trading for Ibaka doesn’t just get you a bit of extra cap space. It also gets you a far better chance to sign him for the long-term, and far better flexibility in how you would structure that long-term contract. If you envision Ibaka as a five-year starter in Miami, that alone could be worth more than the weighted average outcome of what Winslow could reasonably be projected to offer — let alone the cap-hold-generated savings or salary dump.
(1) Any trade scenario in which the Heat would acquire Serge Ibaka would start with the Heat having its ability to re-sign him, plus its 2017 first-round pick, plus its $4.3 million Room-MLE, plus as much as $25 million in potential cap space left over. Depending upon which player assets were traded away in return, that potential cap space could increase accordingly.