The strangest thing about what happened to Brian Roberts on Thursday isn’t that the journeyman point guard was traded for the second time in three days, or that he had just gushed to the media about the welcome text he’d received from Pat Riley, when The Vertical website reported that the Heat had sent him as far diagonally across the country as the NBA presently makes possible.
It’s that there’s a chance that this day actually moved Roberts — the point guard we hardly knew — closer to the 2016 postseason.
Miami has a better record than Roberts’ latest new team, the Portland Trail Blazers, and a better seed, fifth in the East entering Thursday’s play compared to seventh in the West.
But the Heat’s postseason status seems even more tenuous, not only because of the uncertain return of Chris Bosh — even with sources confirming that his condition has improved since the initial evaluation — but with the reality that there’s no cavalry coming to compete in a conference that didn’t get any easier.
That’s the primary takeaway from Thursday that was more dud-line than deadline, and not just in Miami, which took part in two of the final hours’ seven mostly minor deals.
First, the Heat sent forward prospect Jarnell Stokes to New Orleans for a second-round pick that’s protected enough to put the secret service to shame, before shipping Roberts along with an unprotected second-round pick to Portland — all after Stokes and Roberts had combined to play fewer Heat minutes (14) than Geico needs to change your car insurance.
These were separate transactions in terms of timing and counterparties, but fit snugly together into Miami’s plan since early last summer.
First, return to the summer prior, the regrettable summer of 2014, when LeBron James left. As part of the recovery effort, the Heat handed two-year contracts to two Heat champions, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen. But there was always the possibility that neither would fulfill both years in Miami, since the expirations after their second seasons meant they could have value for teams looking to clear cap space for 2016. Then, the in-season 2014-15 acquisition of Goran Dragic and the emergence of Hassan Whiteside, among other things, made each even more expendable.
Chalmers went to Memphis in November, along with James Ennis, for Stokes and the cheaper Beno Udrih — whom Miami saw as more willing to accept a backup role — and Andersen went Tuesday to Memphis, along with two-second picks, for Roberts. Now with Roberts and Stokes gone, the sum is this: Chalmers, Andersen and three-second round picks were traded for Udrih, one second-round pick that Miami probably won’t see, roughly $25 million in luxury tax savings and some future flexibility.
That last element is not insignificant, even if fans won’t be buying jerseys with “FF” on the back. If Miami closes a second consecutive season beneath the luxury tax line — and it currently has just enough room to slip a sticky note — it won’t be a repeater team again until it goes over the tax in four of any following five seasons.
Repeater teams run the risk of losing some acquisition vehicles but, more notably, the higher penalties they pay make it more expensive to sign the same player for the same salary as another team would.
Understandably, many fans won’t sympathize with this strategy, not when the Heat’s owner is among the sport’s richest.
Still, that’s the logic: The Heat wanted to cleanse itself, to level the field. It’s reasonable to accept that approach, but it comes with the expectation of less fettered spending going forward.
Of course, for this season, the cleansing won’t help much, when what the Heat really needed was shooting (even before Bosh’s latest blood clot scare), not when teams in the East scrum (Atlanta, Chicago) did not dump stars (Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Pau Gasol) as some had forecast, and not when Detroit (Tobias Harris, Donatas Montejunas, Heat-killer Marcus Thornton) and Washington (Markieff Morris) made useful additions.
The buyout deadline is coming, and Miami could add a player or two that way, still potentially stay under the tax line. Dwyane Wade is already pitching friend Steve Novak on social media, and he’ll pitch Joe Johnson if the latter comes free.
But there’s no certainty; Johnson hasn’t committed to leaving Brooklyn, and Cleveland will also likely come calling.
On Thursday at 3:27 p.m., Wade posted a video on Snapchat from the nearly empty team plane, joking that “we got Goran [Dragic] over here, and nobody else. The trade deadline at 3, flying at 3:30, everybody have to be patient, but everybody in our rotation stayed here, so it’s time to go.”
It is. To the last 29 games, likely with the current crew, not even 13 strong, not until (or unless) Bosh comes back.
Now we see where this season goes.