The Miami Heat put the finishing touches on its stinging end to the 2016-17 season Monday when players returned to AmericanAirlines Arena to collect personal items from their lockers and conduct exit interviews with the coaching staff.
But as coach Erik Spoelstra put it, it felt more like a “clean up day, not a clean out day.”
“Hopefully this is dot, dot, dot continued and we can build on this,” Spoelstra said. “But, all those discussions are literally months away.
“We want our guys to still feel at home,” Spoelstra continued. “Free agency is going to happen. A lot of our players are going to have free agent possibilites, free agency opportunities in July. But that’s July.
“Once our staff gets away and is able to unplug we're going to be back in here and we're going to encourage guys to come back and continue to work to get better and build on this. We’re not taking down their lockers and shipping over their gear to them. Their practice gear and shoes will be there. Hopefully, we’ll have guys – even the ones that have free agent triggers – who will be back working out with us after a few weeks.”
If Monday’s exit interviews with reporters (and a weekend photo with an interesting caption by owner Micky Arison) wasn’t just lip service, then there’s a real chance the Heat, which turned an 11-30 start into an amazing 41-41 just-missed-the-playoffs finish, could end up keeping the core of its team together beyond July 1.
Not only is Spoelstra amenable to it, but so are James Johnson and Dion Waiters, the team’s two biggest free agents who are sure to receive hefty raises this summer (Luol Deng netted a four-year, $72 million deal last summer with the Lakers) that could put them outside the Heat’s budget.
In the end, it will be up to team president Pat Riley to decide how much of the team’s $38 million in available cap space (once Chris Bosh is released and his $25.2 million cap hold recovered) he’s willing to spend to keep them around.
Asked Monday, Waiters, 25, and Johnson, 30, both said they would like to stay in Miami – with Johnson saying he might even be willing to take less to stay with the team which brought out the best in him physically and allowed the 6-9, 250-pound ball-handling power forward to play the way he always envisioned he could.
“It’s not always greener on the other side,” Johnson responded when asked how he’ll weigh the benefits of playing another season in Miami versus perhaps signing the biggest contract of his career elsewhere. “That's the only thing that's going on in the back of my head right now. I might not have the same opportunities that I had this year -- to get out of the box and play the way that I can to contribute to winning. Who knows if I can get that on another team. Money has nothing to do with that. Basketball, I love the game and I love it here.”
Deng said many of the same things about staying with the Heat last summer. Then he received the kind of contract he didn’t expect from the Lakers. While Johnson said money will enter the discussion (one in which he says he will have to have with his family), he also said “the loyalty with this organization – that’s going to outweigh a lot of other things including money.”
Could Johnson envision sitting down with Riley and Waiters to discuss a financial plan – like the Big Three once did – to fit the two of them under the salary cap together and strengthen the team?
“I hope so,” Johnson said. “I really hope so. I love playing with Dion. His heart, his antics, they fire me up. So, I hope so.”
Waiters, who played in only 46 games because of ankle and groin injuries, was less committal to sacrificing money.
He could be in better standing honestly to net a big pay day considering the shooting guard position in free agency isn’t exactly loaded with stars. Dwyane Wade, 35, and JJ Redick, 32, are in line to be the most decorated players at his position to enter free agency. Wade would have to walk away from a $23.8 million player option in Chicago to put himself back on the market.
“Whatever it takes,” Waiters responded when asked if he would take less money to stay in Miami. “But I can’t answer that right now. I can’t control that.
“I can’t predict the future. The only thing I can do is be around, continue rehab and treatment. It’s only April right now, that stuff comes around in July. When it does come around, we’ll take care of it.”
Both Waiters and Johnson said their plan is to stay in Miami to workout this off-season.
Spoelstra said Waiters, like Johnson, is a player he doesn’t want to “put a ceiling” on in terms of potential.
That said, Spoelstra added: “It was a little bit disappointing that he wasn’t able to get 75-plus games in there. I think we would have had a lot better chance to, all of us, be able to see what he’s capable of.”