How much do you believe in this Miami Heat roster?
Pat Riley believed in it enough to make it his Plan B before free agency began, and after listening to him talk about it for nearly an hour Monday afternoon inside his office at AmericanAirlines Arena, it’s evident he still feels the same way.
Although landing Gordon Hayward would have been his first choice, he still likes what the Heat did this summer a lot.
“The pursuit of Gordon [Hayward] was a no brainer,” Riley said Monday when he began explaining his thought process and the Heat’s actions at the start of free agency 10 days ago. “What I said at the end of the season was present-moment oriented then obviously. We were all geeked, really happy about the team we had assembled, how we came together and how certain players committed and kept their promise. Their peformances, I think, showed that they deserved that consideration. However, in this game you've got to try to stay one step ahead of the posse and that posse happens to be Cleveland in this conference, and also a growing Boston. Then, Golden State is the gold standard.
“That’s where we were coming from,” he continued. “The fact Gordon had interest in us, we felt the need to pursue that and we did. But not at the risk of [not] negotiating hard after July 1st with our other free agents and talking to them. Even though Dion [Waiters] went out and visited and entertained offers, as soon as we found out Gordon was not going to be with us we moved very quickly on all of them. On the plane back from the West Coast, we saw that [Kelly] Olynyk was waived and from 35,000 feet made contact with his agent and pursued him from up in the sky. Everything came together very quickly after Gordon made his decision.”
Ultimately, Riley, 72, put the best team together he could. He executed Plan B with general manager Andy Elisburg, his right-hand man and salary cap specialist, using every available penny and trick in the book (performance bonuses in contracts) to get the team to fit right under the league’s $99.093 million cap.
“From the draft through free agency, he was the star of this whole thing,” Riley said of Elisburg. “He’s the best in the business and I could never do this without him.”
Riley said it would have killed him to lose three-point specialist Wayne Ellington. So Elisburg found a way to create the $6.27 million needed to keep him by trading Josh McRoberts and his $6 million salary to Dallas.
The price, though, was hefty. Miami not only included a 2023 second-round pick in the deal with Dallas, but also all of the $5.1 million available each team received for trades in this new NBA calendar year.
Though some may scratch their heads at how the Heat has now tied up its salary cap space for the next three seasons with six players (Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson included), Riley said signing James Johnson, Olynyk and Waiters to four-year deals at between $11 million and $15 million per season last week was “by design.”
If it works, the Heat could eventually be in position to push Cleveland and Boston and have the core group together for several years to come. If it doesn’t, Riley won’t hesitate to find a new path.
“Being able to secure the services of a 26-year-old Olynyk, a 26-year-old Dion, a young 30 in JJ, who I think is going to be a key to our core, I thought was important,” Riley said. “These guys believe in themselves. They believe in the 30-11 record in the second half of the season. We’ll see if that was smoke and mirrors or if it’s reality.
“A lot of times with all this going on, we forget that we have one of the best point guards in the NBA and one of the top centers in the NBA in Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. I think the team deserves a chance to grow organically, and I think even though we have some long-term contracts, they are assets. We don’t look at our players like assets, but they are assets. If something comes along somewhere along the way, there are opportunities to do other things. I don’t have plans to do that, but you need those kinds of assets.”
▪ Riley said this team reminds him a lot of the 2003-04 Heat team, which reached the second round of the playoffs.
“[Caron] Butler, Eddie Jones, [Brian] Grant, Lamar Odom, Udonis Haslem – just something about it reminds me of that kind of team and that kind of spirit,” Riley said. “And it took Shaquille [O’Neal] to screw that thing up. Not really, but we won a championship making that trade.”
▪ Riley said the reason the Heat opted to sign Olynyk over looking for a small forward was because it helped shore up the frontcourt. “Needing a three or going after a shooter was a priority if we could have gotten somebody like Gordon,” he said. “But we didn’t.”
▪ Riley said the Heat will likely hold onto its $4.3 million cap exception. “We have 10 guys that we really like, 11 or 12 guys that we feel are going to be fighting for rotation minutes,” Riley said. “So why am I going to add another mid-level guy who’s going to be fighting for 10 minutes or eight minutes?”
▪ Riley said the Heat do not need a backup point guard and has more than enough ball-handlers on the roster.
▪ The team is working toward a contract with 14-year-veteran and captain Udonis Haslem, who would have to sign for the $2.3 veteran’s minimum, and has had talks with the agents of Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed. But it’s not a given Babbitt or Reed return.
“We really like Luke and he can shoot the ball, so, it’s still open there,” Riley said.