Pat Riley had a plan. He executed upon it with deadly precision. He got the big things so right that it almost didn’t matter how he handled the little things.
But not all of those little things went perfectly.
What if he did better with those little things? With the 2011 NBA draft now bearing down on us, would it have made any difference?
Navigating the uncertain waters of the draft has always been a special kind of hell for Riley. Riley’s draft record with the Heat reads more like a comedy of errors than it does a serious attempt at identifying talent.
In 2003, Riley nearly drafted Chris Kaman with the fifth overall pick before being talked into selecting Dwyane Wade by his staff. Whew!
Since that time, only three players he’s selected have ever played more than eleven big-league minutes for the Heat – Dorell Wright, Wayne Simien, and Michael Beasley. The very next players taken in those drafts were Jameer Nelson, David Lee, and, two picks down, Russell Westbrook.
Perhaps it is something of a blessing that he now has just eight picks, just two first rounders, to deal with over the next five years.
Was it a combination of strong basketball decisions or his strong aversion to the type of scrutiny that comes with the draft that led Riley and the Miami Heat to this position?
Riley again yesterday openly described his aversion.
“I don’t think you win championships with young, athletic players that don’t have experience. I think we’ve learned over the years that building with young players is very frustrating.”
But what if things were different?
What if the Heat had made some different decisions along the way?
There was Dorell Wright.
In a season to that point mired in frustration, and seemingly defined by the anticipation of things to come, keeping Wright at the trade deadline was perhaps the single most popular decision the Heat brass made. Riley and crew decided that Wright’s presence was more of a priority than the estimated $7.7 million addition to owner Micky Arison’s already fat wallet.
Wright responded in kind, offering some of the best work of his career.
But not all of us were so thrilled. A select few among us realized that if the Heat were to be successful in its bid for three max contract free agents, the team would need to soak up every possible opportunity to create depth around them.
The Grizzlies were offering a lottery-protected first round pick in return for his services. This select few realized that, despite Wright’s overwhelming popularity and still very much untapped potential, 26 final games from a free-agent-to-be in a season going nowhere was simply not worth $7.7 million and a future first round draft pick. That pick ended up being No. 20 overall in tomorrow’s draft.
There was Daequan Cook.
We all understood the rationale behind surrendering the No. 18 overall pick in last year’s draft in order to be free of all obligations to Cook. With such high stakes, Miami could hardly afford to gamble on the $2.2 million devoted to Cook.
But not all of us agreed on the approach. Some of us felt that the $2.2 million could rather easily be shed simply by offering a potential suitor up to the $3.0 million cash limit the CBA allows as well as a selection of second round picks, if necessary. How many unprofitable smaller-market teams could realistically pass up the opportunity to add backcourt depth in the form of a young and developing Three-Point Shootout champion not only free of charge, but at an $830k profit?
These same people felt that treating the No. 18 overall pick with such apathy was imprudent, that it could be better utilized to draft a potential future starter, if available, and in a trade for a similar such pick in a future draft if not. They realized that while drafting a player would eat into the team’s valuable cap space, the very situation the Heat were trying to rid themselves of with Cook, in this case we’d only be talking about an incremental $760K, or roughly equivalent to the cap space the Heat was willing to eat up to retain the Bird rights of Joel Anthony. They realized that sacrificing one for the other was a good gamble.
There was the Big Three.
When Chris Bosh and LeBron James made their decisions, there was elation. When they were signed, there was controversy.
Surrendering four first round picks and two second round picks, in addition to two large trade exceptions, seemed a bit excessive to some of us for a couple of players who were otherwise already committed to the Miami Heat. It seemed a bit excessive in return for nothing more than a sixth season tacked on to an already huge five-year contract – a sixth year that both are likely to opt out of anyway.
The question has been asked. What if things were different?
Let’s try to answer it.
Mario Chalmers and Eric Bledsoe would be battling it out for starters minutes at the point.
Dwyane Wade would still be playing under a six year contract, earning $6 million more than he is today. Eddie House would be battling it out with Danny Green for reserve two-guard minutes.
LeBron James would be playing under a near maximum contract, sacrificing that sixth year guarantee in exchange for an added $3 million over the first five. Mike Miller would be battling it out with James Jones for reserve small forward minutes.
Chris Bosh would be playing under a near maximum contract, sacrificing his sixth year guarantee in exchange for an added $3 million over the first five. Udonis Haslem would, unfortunately, be playing under a five-year contract elsewhere, earning $13 million more under a full mid-level exception contract than he is today.
The disastrous contingent of Heat centers would remain unaltered. But, at least, Anthony would be playing under a much more palatable minimum salary contract.
And the Miami Heat would have five – yes, five! – more first round draft picks and two more second round draft picks over the next five years, including a potential unprotected first round pick from the Raptors in 2015 that could very easily turn into the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in the season immediately after the contracts of James and Bosh would expire.
In short, the Heat would have produced the very same roster, save for adding Eric Bledsoe and Danny Green and subtracting Udonis Haslem, and would have stockpiled a whopping seven first round picks and eight second round picks over the next five years.
That’s 15 picks in just five years! No other team in the league has anywhere near that total.
(For those who are counting, the first round picks would have been: Miami’s own 2011-15, Memphis’ 2011, and Toronto’s potentially unprotected 2015. The second round picks would have been: Miami’s own 2013-2015, Oklahoma City’s 2011, Minnesota’s 2011 and 2014, New Orleans’ 2012, and Memphis’ top-55 protected 2012.)
One has to wonder.
What would two first round picks (Nos. 20, 28) and a high second round pick (No. 31) get you? A top ten pick in this year’s draft?
What would two first round picks (Nos. 20, 28), a second round pick (No. 31), and what figures to be a fully unprotected Raptors first round pick in 2015 get you? The No. 2 overall pick from a Minnesota Timberwolves team actively looking to trade it?
The possibilities with that grouping of picks would have, in this fictional reality, been endless.
If Riley’s aversion to the draft was ever present, think of the potential trade possibilities. By way of example, rumor would have you believe that the Phoenix Suns were shopping Marcin Gortat and their No. 13 pick for the No. 2 pick. Imagine if the Heat had acquired that No. 2 pick, and then pulled the trigger on this trade (involving, perhaps, Haslem, the unguaranteed contract of Pittman, and any one of the minimum contractors who picks up his second year option to make the math work).
How would Gortat look in a Heat uniform? He’s huge, he’s athletic, he’s among the best pick-and-roll operators around, he’s got a soft touch around the rim, he’s got good range, he’s a solid post defender, and he’s a beast on the boards. Is there a more perfect fit for this Miami Heat team, outside of Dwight Howard, in the whole of the NBA? Can you imagine how dominant such a Big Four would be?
With the Heat second team backcourt flush with youthful talent, how would frontcourt options such as SF Kawhi Leonard, PF Markieff Morris, or C Nikola Vucevic look with that No. 13 pick?
How would it feel to have secured both Gortat and one of the above selections, and still have four first round and seven second round picks to play with over the next five years?
It’s not as if an entirely unrealistic scenario is being painted here. Many of us were questioning each one of these little decisions made by Riley and his crew as they were happening. Of course, they are now important only for those among us who choose to live in the past.
The lesson, however, remains the same: Ignore the NBA draft at your own peril.