After leaning into a team that barely missed out on the playoffs in 2016-17, the Miami Heat are fully capped out for at least the next two years and almost entirely devoid of draft assets for the next five. It might get ugly on South Beach in the long-term, but Pat Riley knew the risks going into last summer, in which he re-signed James Johnson and Dion Waiters and brought in free agent Kelly Olynyk, all on four-year deals that look to be varying degrees of atrocious less than a year later. It doesn’t stop there, as Hassan Whiteside will make $52.5 million over the next two seasons and Tyler Johnson’s Arenas-limited contract has come home to roost—he’ll earn $38.5 million over the same time frame. Spending big is (mostly) how teams win in the NBA; unfortunately, it’s also how teams can dig themselves into holes when they swing and miss on multiple big-ticket signings.
When evaluating a team’s roster and cap sheet, it’s often useful to go though each player and decide which ones are positive and negative assets. Who on the Heat are positive assets? Goran Dragic, probably. Josh Richardson, definitely. Justise Winslow, but his rookie-scale contract only has one year left. Bam Adebayo, absolutely. Is there anybody else on the roster who even sniffs this list? Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Dion Waiters all fall in the negative column at varying levels.
The top of that negatives list is Whiteside, who is less talented and less valuable than Adebayo on the floor, to say nothing of the contractual differences between the two. Of course, given the dynamics involved, it seems unlikely that Adebayo will win the starting job or play starter’s minutes next season, but it won’t be long until the consensus is that he’s the better player and that the organization is actively hurting itself by playing Whiteside in a larger role. Riley is apparently fishing for a trade for his mercurial big man, but the Heat don’t have the future assets to make a deal worthwhile for another team: they’re already out their 2018 and 2021 first-rounders to Phoenix and have just one second-round pick in their arsenal between now and 2023. There was plenty of interest surrounding Whiteside in 2016, but as we’ve seen with a number of free agents from that fateful year, the teams that ended up signing those players aren’t nearly as happy with their investment two years later. It’s likely that Miami would have to package Whiteside with a pick and one of their young players (Winslow or Richardson) in order to get off his onerous contract, or take back equally bad money in a swap.
Richardson’s already received his extension, which will kick in for the 2018-19 season, whereas Winslow is up for an extension this fall. After being the subject of much speculation during the 2015 draft and beyond, Winslow hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of the rumored offer of four first-round picks. Still a defensive stalwart, Winslow’s offensive game never blossomed as it as supposed to; he hit his threes at a decent rate, but the usage was extremely low, and defenses were still leaving him wide open. His playmaking also hasn’t evolved to the point at which he could play the Marcus Smart role—he’s not an every-possession ball handler on bench units that many thought he could be when he was drafted.
Hanging over everything Miami does is their proximity to the luxury tax threshold. Will owner Mickey Arison greenlight more forays into the tax for a team that doesn’t look particularly close to competing for the Eastern Conference Finals, much less the second round? They’ve avoided the tax since LeBron James left to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, so there are no repeater tax issues pending and dipping their toes into the tax this year and next wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world since Whiteside and Tyler Johnson will be free agents in 2020, but it’s still cash out of Arison’s pockets to pay a significant amount of money for a middling team. Miami begins the summer $3.8 million from the tax and $8.8 million from the apron, which doesn’t give them much wiggle room to bring back their own free agents and make an addition.
Riley has but one key free agent with whom to negotiate: Wayne Ellington. Ellington enjoyed the best year of his career in 2017-18 with the Heat but will be 31 early next season and represents another pitfall into which Riley may fall if he re-signs the team’s best outside shooter to a long-term deal. Miami has Early Bird rights on Ellington, allowing them to give him up to four years and $49.2 million, but something shorter and cheaper is probably in the cards for him. Dwyane Wade is also a free agent after returning to Miami for the remainder of the 2017-18 season but at this point isn’t worth a ton more than a small part of the mid-level exception. The Heat will have to dip into an exception to bring him back since they only hold his Non-Bird rights.
There’s plenty of speculation about the stars Riley could bring in to supplement his team full of role players, but it’s hard to see how a deal gets done unless a player absolutely forces his way to the Heat. Whatever the obstacles, it’s never wise to bet against Riley getting what he wants when it comes to superstars in this league, but even this task might be too tall for him. Names like Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, and DeMar DeRozan have been thrown out in fake trade and sign-and-trade scenarios for the Heat, all of whom would obviously change the trajectory of the franchise in a major way. However, if those players are looking to leave their current teams, there are plenty of other places they can go where they’ll fit much better and be in a contending situation. A far more plausible scenario may well be the one that awaits the Heat: stay mildly competitive for the next few years until their bad money comes off the books, then retool in free agency with a more open cap sheet. It’s not the sexy move and may not sit well with Riley, who is 73 and may be looking toward retirement at some point in the near future, but for the long-term health of the franchise, spending good money after bad to try to move up a spot or two in the standings isn’t the best thing for the Heat.