Pat Riley speaks about why he believes Heat can improve this season
The Minnesota Timberwolves have traded Jimmy Butler, but not to the Miami Heat.
Minnesota finalized a deal to send Butler and Justin Patton to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday. In return, the Timberwolves received a package that includes Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jerryd Bayless and a second-round pick, according to The Athletic and ESPN.
The move puts an end to weeks of speculation, as Butler’s request for a trade from the Timberwolves became public on Sept. 19. It also adds Butler to a young 76ers core that features point guard Ben Simmons and All-Star center Joel Embiid.
Butler is not expected to make his Philadelphia debut in Miami when the Heat hosts the 76ers on Monday, though. ESPN reported Butler isn’t expected to play his first game for the 76ers until Wednesday against the Magic, at the earliest, because the league office trade call and physicals are set for Monday.
This is quite the plot twist after Butler, 29, reportedly informed Minnesota in September that he preferred to be traded to Miami. But trade talks between the Heat and Timberwolves hit a snag just before the start of the regular season.
ESPN reported Oct. 7 that a deal between the Heat and Timberwolves was close but fell apart when Minnesota asked for more from Miami. The New York Times reported Minnesota rejected a Heat offer for Butler that was headlined by Josh Richardson and a No. 1 draft pick, along with another player.
Heat president Pat Riley addressed the Butler trade discussions in a team meeting on Oct. 14. According to a Heat spokesman, Riley acknowledged the team’s involvement in the Butler sweepstakes and apologized for players’ names surfacing in rumors. The message was, “I’m pulling the plug,” after talks continued for too long, but there was no guarantee that a trade will not happen down the road.
“It calms you down, for sure, a little bit,” point guard Goran Dragic said on Oct. 18 of the meeting. “Of course, everybody is talking, including me. I just want to focus on my job. But deep down, it affects you a little bit. I want to stay here. I like it, really. So when Pat came after practice and sat us down and we had a small meeting, he told us that and you can feel a little bit of relief. But that doesn’t mean, in the near future it can’t happen. So we still need to do our job. We still need to be professionals.”
With Butler now being sent to Philadelphia, that specific trade has been ruled out for the Heat.
Instead, Miami will move forward with a roster that has $130 million in combined salaries for this season. With the Heat already about $6.3 million above the $123.7 luxury tax threshold, its tax bill stands at about $9.7 million in addition to normal player salaries.
Miami has until the end of the regular season to make moves to reduce the tax burden or get completely below the line to avoid paying the penalty. In order to avoid paying the luxury tax, a trade has to be made.
When asked where the Heat currently stands in the trade market, Riley said Thursday: “I’m not looking, I’m listening and [general manager Andy Elisburg] and I are … we’ve been doing this all the time. We’re not actively pursuing anything, we’re listening. But you have to be part of what’s going on in the conversation in the NBA, and there’s a lot of hypotheticals from that standpoint.”
Even though Butler is expected to decline the player option on his current deal to become a free agent next summer, the Heat doesn’t have the necessary cap space to sign him. He will be eligible to sign a five-year, $190 million contract extension with the 76ers, and a four-year, $141 million deal with a new team in free agency.
Trading for Butler would have been the only way for Miami to fit him in financially, since it would have acquired his Bird rights in a trade. Bird rights allow for a team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign a player.
Butler’s potential five-year deal comes with cap hits of $40 million and $43 million in the final two years of the deal. Butler will be 34 years old at the end of a five-year contract he signs next summer.
Instead, the Heat will stick with Richardson, who is on a more team-friendly deal. He is in the first season of a four-year, $42 million extension he signed with the Heat in the 2017, and the final season of Butler’s potential five-year extension is worth more than Richardson’s entire extension.
Now that trading for Butler is not an option, the Heat will lean on continuity and internal improvement to achieve more than last year’s first-round playoff exit.
“We’ve got six guys that have been here for four years and we’ve got the rest of the guys for at least three years,” Riley said Thursday. “That’s more than enough time to get your act together as a team. So, there should not be any chemistry issues or continuity issues. Players have gotten better, their development skills have gone through the roof. How much better they can get, I think will be determined by how much more work they want to put into it. Also, a lot of it has to do with the health of the team from that standpoint.
“But we were average, average is not bad. If you like to be average, then that’s what we were last year and that’s what we’ve been for the last three years. I think this team has a chance to go above that. I’ve discussed this with the team. They want to go above being average, which is maybe the bottom of the playoffs and then get out there in the fourth or fifth or third spot. It’s going to be quite a challenge, but I think they have the ability to do that, I really do. So, that’s what we’re looking at this year, and I think this year is a big year for the team.”