MIAMI — Each offseason since 2010, the Miami Heat has attempted to retool its lineup with veteran players willing to take less money in the hopes of winning a championship. That again appears to be the case.
Although team president Pat Riley has expressed an interest in younger players, he’s also keen on bringing in experienced players who are already mentally conditioned to the rigors of deep playoff runs, and the media scrutiny that goes along with playing for the Heat. Riley hit the team-building lotteries with Mike Miller in 2010, Shane Battier in 2011 and Ray Allen in 2012. The additions of Greg Oden and Michael Beasley in 2013 didn’t bear much fruit, though, and the subtraction of Miller last summer was a morale killer.
In no uncertain terms, adding the right players around the Heat’s core this week could be the difference between more championships or the end of an era. Players can’t sign new contracts until July 10, but agents and teams can agree to deals at any time.
“I’ve been a leader and a decision-maker, and that’s my level of expertise, and I’ll do everything I can to retool the team,” Riley said last week. “But everybody just get a grip. It has been a great run.”
Riley has already contacted the representation for several league veterans, including two-time All-Star Luol Deng, according to multiple reports. Other players linked to the Heat include Lakers center Pau Gasol, Washington forward Trevor Ariza, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry and Utah Jazz forward Marvin Williams.
That’s an impressive wish list, but it’s no guarantee that Riley can make a deal with any of them.
Free agency began at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, and Riley wasted no time scouring the market for talent. Conversely, player agents for free agents were also busy linking their clients’ names to the Heat, and other teams, in the hopes of drumming up interest.
CHESS MATCH BEGINS
Some of Riley’s targets might not be available for very long, but, regardless of what reports might emerge, it’s important to remember that nothing is certain until players sign. Lowry, considered one of the Heat’s top targets, was reportedly offered a contract worth at least $12 million per year shortly after free agency began. It’s doubtful the Heat could match that, or would even consider it, but a lot can change in a short amount of time in free agency.
As for Deng, it has been reported that he, too, is seeking a contract that prices out the Heat.
The Heat’s Big 3 — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — already agreed on frameworks for their contracts with the team, which has given Riley financial parameters to improve the team through free agency, according to multiple sources. Only backup point guard Norris Cole is currently under contract, and Riley has an NBA-record $55 million of salary cap space to build his roster.
Much of that cap space, of course, will be used to re-sign the Big 3. James is expected to command a max contract for nearly $23 million for next season, but Bosh and Wade could sign for less to give Riley the ability to add a player or two.
The league’s new salary cap, set to be released July 10, will be around $63 million with a luxury tax line around $77 million. The Heat would like to be below the luxury tax line, which would trigger a few salary-cap mechanisms, including the full mid-level exception ($5.3 million per season) and the bi-annual exception ($2.077 million per season).
Under that scenario, Riley would need to stay under the projected luxury-tax apron of about $81 million for the team.
“It could actually be a full middle level, but we have to be sort of under a hard cap if we went that way,” Riley said.
TUG OF WAR
With Riley busy trying to find new role players for the Big 3, free agency rivals are putting together pitches to lure James and Bosh. The Lakers, Rockets and Suns have been linked to James, and Dallas has expressed interest in Bosh.
“Free agency is a two-way street,” Riley said. “It’s not always the players who have the advantage because in the worst-case scenario we could have the most room of anybody in the NBA or in the history of the NBA if everybody decided to opt out and go somewhere else. I’m not planning on that. That would be my worst nightmare, but I think we’ve got to protect ourselves from the downside.”
With that specter as a backdrop, it’s no secret that James was angered by the Heat using its amnesty contract on Miller last year. Riley publicly assured players that Miller would not be amnestied only a few days before Miller was released. With free agency now in full swing, it appears the Cavaliers might be using that as ammunition if Dan Gilbert’s team can score a face-to-face interview with James. It should be noted that James is reportedly not meeting with teams, but leaving the bulk of free agency business to his agent, Rich Paul.
From the Akron Beacon-Journal: “If given the opportunity, the Cavs will remind James how the Heat parted ways with Mike Miller last summer in what was strictly a cost-cutting move.”
In his post-Finals news conference two weeks ago, Riley addressed the decisions to amnesty Miller and trade center Joel Anthony.
“The primary motivation for doing those things was to be in a better position this year, because they all had contracts,” Riley said. “And they would be under contract this year. And so we cleared, basically, those contracts. The residual reward was there was some tax money saved, but the thinking, the strategy behind it, was this year we would not have those guys under contract. We wanted flexibility.”
Riley also cited Miller’s history of injuries as a factor in the Heat using its amnesty clause. As for trading Anthony, Riley cited the center’s low number of minutes.
So scenarios abound as the Heat tries to augment its roster following an NBA Finals loss while other teams attempt to outmaneuver Riley.