What might have been if Riley’s acquisition of Juwan Howard was not voided by the league?
Do you remember the last time the Heat had substantial cap space?
It was the summer of 1996.
Owner Micky Arison had hired basketball’s most celebrated coach the year prior with one goal in mind: to build a championship-caliber roster. This was Pat Riley’s chance.
Without hesitation, Riley traded away Glen Rice, Khalid Reeves, Matt Geiger, Kevin Willis, Bimbo Coles, Billy Owens and Kevin Gamble in moves designed to create more salary cap room for the summer’s free-agent shopping spree, giving him maximum maneuverability in what was considered at the time to be the NBA’s biggest free-agent market ever.
The Heat began the offseason with just $3.8 million in salary commitments to three players (Sasha Danilovic, Kurt Thomas and Keith Askins), leaving $20.6 million of available room below the $24.4 million salary cap.
Free agent guard Tim Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning were the cornerstones of the team’s vision. The rest was to be filled on the open market.
One minute after the new labor agreement was finalized at 4:59 p.m. on July 11, the NBA’s free agent marketplace officially opened.
Riley kicked off the summer by turning his sights to budding young superstar Juwan Howard, in what was soon to become one of the most heated and controversial battles in league history.
Boosted by gaudy per game averages of 22.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists, Howard had opted-out of his existing contract with the Washington Bullets in favor of the big payday. Pairing Mourning with the 23-year-old first-time All-Star forward was expected to instantaneously boost Miami into the league’s upper echelon.
The Bullets opened up the bidding with an initial seven-year, $78.4 million offer. Although publicly stating his desire to stay with the Bullets, Howard was not impressed. Howard felt that his market value was far greater than that.
The Heat countered at seven years and $91.0 million, plus $3.5 million in bonuses. The Bullets then pushed their offer to an $84.0 million take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum that left Howard in tears about the prospect of leaving Washington. The Heat upped the ante to seven years and $95.2 million offer, plus an additional $5.6 million in bonuses and perks that included luxury hotel suites and limousine service during road trips. It was all but inevitable.
At around 1 a.m. on July 13, Riley’s phone rang. Howard was on the other end. “Coach,” he told Riley. “I’m coming to Miami.”
When the moratorium ended on July 17, the Heat officially signed Howard to a seven-year, $100.8 million contract, making him the NBA’s first ever nine-figure player. Howard was slated to earn more than the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
Riley made another big splash the next day, signing forward P.J. Brown to an incentive-laden seven-year deal with a $19.0 million base, but worth as much as $35.8 million based upon the achievement of certain individual and team milestones.
He then turned his sights back inward.
On July 23, Hardaway was re-signed to a four-year, $10.4 million deal, but worth as much as $20.8 million.
The final move in the master plan was to sign Mourning to a seven-year, $105.1 million contract, utilizing his Bird rights to legally exceed the salary cap by $1.5 million. This opportunity was made possible because Mourning’s $6.8 million cap hold was $2.5 million less than his $9.4 million first-year salary to be.
The vision was complete. The maneuvering was done. The Heat were set to become a perennial powerhouse.
But then, on July 31, with Howard parading around Miami as a member of the Heat, the NBA shocked the NBA world by voided Howard’s contract — a full two weeks after it was executed. Read more…