There will be no midnight meetings and no whale-chasing for Pat Riley this time around.
When NBA free agency begins Sunday the Miami Heat’s 73-year-old Hall of Fame team president will not be preparing a sales pitch for LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. There’s no cap space for that. James opted out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday morning.
Instead, Riley will be plotting — like he has since the ink dried on his free agent signings last summer — on how to put the Heat back into position to compete for championships. It starts with an eye on the free agents available in 2019 and 2020 and the potential to flip what he already has on the roster into something better as soon as he can.
“We're already planning for the future like we did in 2006 for 2010,” Riley said shortly after the Heat considered making a move to acquire a draft pick on draft night, but didn’t. “As soon as LeBron left [in 2014], we were in it with Durant [in 2016], and we were in it for [Gordon] Hayward .
“I don’t think we're going to be in it that way [this summer] because we can’t. We don’t have the cap space and we’re up against the tax. So, we have to do some other things in reversing that direction. Sometimes you have to go through that. And at the same time we go through it, we believe that we're a playoff team and that we can get better.”
The secret to success in the league is well established: the goal is to build super teams heavy on star power. The path to achieving that isn’t easy.
The Golden State Warriors, winners of three of the past four championships, built its dynasty from the ground up, drafting two-time MVP Steph Curry and perennial All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green before signing Durant as a free agent two summers ago.
The teams closest to chasing down the Warriors are doing it similarly with a mix of draft picks and free agent signings.
Houston, which pushed the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals, traded for league MVP James Harden before he became an All-Star in 2012, drafted center Clint Capela with the 25th pick in the 2014 draft and then traded seven players and a first-round draft pick for Chris Paul last summer.
Boston used a slew of draft picks from the infamous Nets trade in 2014 to build a talented, young foundation with forwards Jaylen Brown (2016 first-round pick) and Jayson Tatum (2017 first-round pick). The Celtics used one of those Brooklyn picks (2018 first-round pick) to trade for All-Star Kyrie Irving after signing Al Horford and Hayward as free agents during the past two summers.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who knocked the Heat out of the playoffs in five games, tanked for five seasons and netted young stars Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric with lottery picks while swinging and missing with Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and potentially last year’s No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz.
Now, the Lakers, flush with enough cap space to sign two max players and brimming with young talented lottery picks after five consecutive losing seasons, appear primed to win James over and potentially pair him with George or the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, who both are Southern California natives who have said in the past they want to play in Los Angeles.
Riley, who formed the Big 3 in the summer of 2010 with the help of 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade, had the opportunity each of the past two summers to keep the Heat financially flexible to make a run at free agents this summer.
But instead Riley opted to sign center Hassan Whiteside to a four-year max deal two summers ago after he led the league in blocks before tying up another potential max slot last summer by signing James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk each to four-year deals worth a combined $158 million.
That has left the Heat with $118 million in salary cap space committed to 10 players this summer ($5 million under the luxury tax) and $118 million in salary cap space to eight players (unless Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson unexpectedly opt out of lucrative deals) in the summer of 2019 (when stars such as Irving, Leonard and Thompson could be available).
The financial flexibility Riley has almost always committed himself to having every summer will not realistically become available until the summer of 2020 when five players (James Johnson, Waiters, Olynyk, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo) combine to make roughly $57 million among them.
Of course there are other decisions to make before that.
Will forward Justise Winslow, the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, be in the plans for the Heat long term? Will the Heat find a way to keep Wayne Ellington? Will Wade return for a 16th season?
The bigger, overlying issue remains finding a transformative player to build around. Other than its 2021 first-round pick (which now belongs to the Sixers after Phoenix traded it to Philly on draft night), the Heat has a full complement of first-round picks through 2025 to offer in trades.
Riley has found ways to land whales in the past via trade.
He did it 1995 for Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning. A year later Riley traded for five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway.
In 2004, Riley shipped off three players and a first-round pick for Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.
In 2010 to form the Big 3 Riley gave up four picks — including two first-rounders — to acquire James in a sign and trade. He also shipped off a first-rounder for Chris Bosh.
Riley said on draft night there has been a restlessness — and reluctance — on the part of good teams in the league to make trades thus far. But things can change quickly in this league.