The Miami Heat didn’t “lose” Kevin Durant on Monday. It never had him. Never had a realistic chance beyond whatever legend-card Pat Riley might have been able to summon with a flourish, like a magician on a midway. Wasn’t enough. On the bright side, Durant deciding to leave Oklahoma City for the Golden State Warriors at least keeps the whale out West, as far away from Miami as possible.
I mean, Boston threw a lot of young talent and Tom Brady at Durant in a late play for his attention. Imagine if he had unexpectedly chosen the Celtics? And then suddenly the Heat were faced with going through LeBron James and Durant just to get to the NBA Finals? Sometimes there are small victories even in defeat.
It just wasn’t a fair fight. Golden State was offering Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and a Warriors team that won a record 73 games last season. Miami’s counterpunch was to offer a still-largely-unproven Hassan Whiteside, a Chris Bosh whom they hope will be healthy and a dissatisfied Dwyane Wade shopping himself around.
You know how the rest of the NBA felt around this time in 2010 when LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach? It’s that way now, only more so, as a true super team assembles in Oakland. Immediately arose speculation whether this would be the greatest team ever, and it didn’t even sound like knee-jerk hyperbole. It sounded plausible. A team this good adding Kevin Durant!? It’s like hearing that the record Powerball lottery was won by two people and finding out those two people are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Durant agreed to a two-year, $54.3 million deal that gives him the option to become a free agent again and do this all over again next summer. That gives teams like Miami another shot in ’17, but don’t hold your breath, dreamers. The deal he agreed to also means it could be financially advantageous for Durant to sign a long-term deal with Golden State next year, when the salary-cap money further grows. So, if the new-and-improved Golden State is as good as the rest of the league fears, this could be the start of a legit dynasty.
There were reports Miami did not even make Durant’s cut to four teams, which is depressing considering there were only six to begin with. Were the OKC Thunder named first runner-up, like in a beauty pageant? Hopefully, Riley at least won a Mr. Congeniality award or something for his effort leading the underdog Heat contingent to that Sunday meeting in the Hamptons of New York.
The flight back to Miami had to be a long one, fraught with reality, the franchise braintrust already resigned to not getting Durant and pivoting to a what’s-next mentality.
What’s next, clearly, is re-signing Wade, and Miami surely will, largely because the competition for him is weak. Other teams who want him and can afford him amount to bottom feeders Denver and Milwaukee. The Nuggets, three consecutive years out of the playoffs, never have won anything. The Bucks haven’t gotten out of the playoffs’ first round since 2001. Those are wonderful options if Wade’s desire is to see his career ebb in obscurity, fading by degrees in smaller, losing markets. Or, he can do as he should and end his career where he is beloved.
There will be some chafed pride to get past. Clearly, the Heat was initially low-balling Wade, wanting him on the cheap, in order to spend what would have been his money to get Durant. Now, only because Durant slipped away, the Heat has upped its offer to two years at $20 million a year with Wade having the second year as an option. The Heat plainly were willing to sacrifice Wade, let him walk, if it meant getting Durant. That’s cold business but also smart business. Even Wade surely gets that and within the next few days will end the drama and re-up with Miami.
So much of judging Heat 2016 free agency thus far rests now with keeping Wade, and rests too in the question that is unanswerable today but will come clear, by degrees, in the coming year or two:
Will Whiteside be all that? An All-Star big man? A maturing, difference-making talent who proves worthy of the large contract and does this franchise proud? Or will he verify instead why the long-term deal for him was seen as such a risk even within the club’s own front office?
I give Riley and the Heat credit for gumption, for swinging big — twice.
They went all in for the whale Durant even knowing the odds were long and even knowing it might mean losing Wade.
And they went all in for the budding, game-changing talent of Whiteside, rolling dice on the upside, even knowing the player’s mercurial nature.
They didn’t get the one out of two they’d have preferred; still, one out of two ain’t bad.
I wrote in a column previewing free agency that Miami’s nightmare scenario would be to not get Durant and to see Whiteside and Wade sign elsewhere. Well, they locked up Whiteside long term and figure to keep Wade, too, so that offsets losing Luol Deng and Joe Johnson to inflated offers elsewhere.
I like the starting five Miami can pencil in today:
A front line of Whiteside, a presumably healthy Bosh and an emerging Justise Winslow, and a guard tandem of Wade and Goran Dragic. Josh Richardson and, hopefully, Tyler Johnson would lead the reserves. Miami should match Brooklyn’s offer to the restricted free-agent Johnson and keep him if they can do so once first committing to keeping Wade. Johnson has too much youthful potential, too much needed touch on three-point shots. The bench beyond those seven would be bargain-priced add-ons, rendering depth a question, but Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have succeeded before in mining overlooked talent and making it dovetail with a system.
Moving beyond the Durant dream, so much of how good the Heat might be next season depends on how the big ifs all play out.
If Whiteside proves he’ll be earning his big money. If Bosh is back fully healthy. If Winslow takes a large step toward stardom.
We’ll see about all of those, but the one if that should no longer be a question is if Wade will be back.
Stay home, Dwyane. Miami is where you belong.