Miami Heat

Pat Riley says Heat current roster ‘has not come together’ as he expected. What’s next?

As the Heat enters an offseason with no cap space and approaching the luxury lax threshold, Pat Riley conceded the current roster hasn’t been as productive as he expected and didn’t rule out changes this summer.

“This has not come together the way that I thought it would,” Riley admitted during his 45-minute season-ending press conference Saturday afternoon. “I thought this year for sure in my mind that we would be in the top half of the Eastern Conference. Fourth, fifth, that would be a step forward.”

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Instead, the Heat finished 10th in the East and missed the playoffs for the third time in five years after finishing this past season with a 39-43 record.

“Whether you believe me or not, I think we’re right at the launching pad right now,” Riley said. “It took us a couple of years to pay back our student debt, our loans. We did have to borrow some money to get the Big Three and give up picks to get them and we would do that again.”

Riley’s cautious optimism stems from the fact the Heat is projected to have about $35 million in cap space in the summer of 2020 when the contracts of Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic expire. Plus Miami has seven of its next eight first-round picks.

Adding a player who could make the Heat significantly better next season will be challenging, though. Miami is already $20 million over the projected $109 million salary cap for next season with a few contracts that could be hard to include in trades.

“There are no obstacles,” Riley said when asked about the obstacles of overhauling the roster this summer. “There are decisions. And if there’s an opportunity out there that is presented to us that we all feel is worthwhile, then we could say yes to it or no to it. Those opportunities are going to be there, whether you have room or not, whether you’re at the tax or not. They’re always there.”

But Riley made clear tanking to finish with a better draft pick is still not part of the Heat’s plan for rebuilding the roster.

“First of all, it’s hard to do that. You got to be really bad to do that,” he said. “I’d have to go to the G League and get everybody out of the G League and do that. But it’s hard to finish in the bottom five. But if you’re ever sniffing around that area when you’re trying to win, then you get maybe down. I’ve done that twice. I did it in 2003 and I did it in 2008. And that was in the best interest of the organization.”

Despite leaving all possibilities on the table, the 2020 offseason is still the most realistic for the Heat to make significant changes. Between six players — James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo — and smaller non-guaranteed deals, the Heat has about $74 million invested in its roster for the 2020-21 season.

With a projected 2020-21 cap of $116 million, the Heat is expected to have about $35 million in cap space (accounting for the Heat’s first-round draft pick in 2019 and 2020), which is enough for one max player in free agency. Although Riley noted that championship caliber teams “have two transcendent superstars.” Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, and Serge Ibaka are some of the top players eligible for free agency in 2020.

If the Heat can’t land a big-name free agent in 2020, the Heat could also use the cap space in a trade.

“Having room doesn’t mean you have to sign anybody. You can take players in,” Riley said. “Room is valuable, but you don’t have to just save it for an unrestricted free agent. Who knows? We could be a bank. We could use it as a bank.”

As for improving the team this offseason, the easiest way to free cap space is if Dragic ($19.2 million) and Whiteside ($27.1 million) opt out of their contracts this summer. Both players hold player options for next season.

If Dragic and Whiteside both opt out, which is considered unlikely, and the Heat waives and stretches Ryan Anderson’s contract before July 10 to cut his cap hit to $5.2 million in each of the next three seasons, the Heat could open about $28 million in cap space this summer when also accounting for the 2019 first-round pick’s salary and other cap holds.

“Don’t be making any kind of conclusions about next year in that we’re stuck with certain contracts or whatever it is you think we can’t get out of,” Riley said. “That would be foolish thinking on your part.

“If you were to plant a Chinese bamboo tree and it expect it to grow in a year, you won’t see anything for 10. And then in the 10th year, it grows 100 feet. Well, we ain’t waiting 10 years. We want to be one of those Chinese bamboo trees already. And if you can’t get it from your top four players that are developing, if you don’t see that kind of growth or anticipate that kind of growth next year, that one of them is going to be that transcendent player.”

And Riley believes the Heat is still an attractive destination for stars.

“I think it’s indicative of a nice, little core of young players that will be good on the eyes of some possible free agents who want to come here,” he said. “That’s all a part of being an attractive place. It isn’t just a quick trip to South Beach and going over to Ocean Drive. The weather and the state taxes are great but they want to come to an organization that has a chance to win and I believe we have proven that in the 23 years that I’ve been here.”

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.