For the second consecutive year, the Heat enters free agency with no cap space.
With Heat cap space on the horizon — a projected $35 million in space in 2020 and potentially much more in 2021 — this summer could be the final quiet one for the foreseeable future.
Except it seems like it won’t be that quiet for Miami, as a league source confirmed the Heat is expected to meet with free-agent forward Jimmy Butler early in free agency. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Heat-Butler meeting will come Sunday in South Florida.
Butler is expected to inform Miami officials during the meeting that he wants play for the Heat, according to the Associated Press.
Free agent negotiations are allowed to begin Sunday at 6 p.m, with free agents allowed to sign contracts starting at noon July 6.
Miami currently has 13 players under contract for 2019-20 who are due about $141 million, and add first-round pick Tyler Herro’s $3.6 million cap hit for next season and that number grows to 14 players with a combined team salary of about $144 million. That puts the Heat above the $109.14 million salary cap and even above the $132.627 million luxury tax line for next season, and seemingly not in a position to pursue free agents.
How can the Heat acquire the 29-year-old Butler — a four-time All-Star who is looking for a contract with a starting salary at or close to his max of $32.7 million for next season — without cap space? Unless Miami can somehow shed $60 million-plus in salary (very, very hard to do) to create the necessary space needed to sign Butler, it would have to add him through a sign-and-trade deal with the 76ers.
While finding a way to get a sign-and-trade agreement done is certainly possible, there are also very real challenges that come with it.
First, the Heat would need to convince the 76ers that it’s in their best interest to cooperate and agree to a trade with another Eastern Conference team rather than losing Butler for nothing and just opening cap space. That means Miami would need to include quality assets, like draft picks or part of its young core of Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow.
But the Heat is short on tradable first-round picks at the moment, with the next one it can deal coming in 2023. Miami is not allowed to trade its 2020 or 2022 first-round picks because its 2021 first-round selection was already dealt as part of the 2015 Goran Dragic trade.
Second, a sign-and-trade deal would leave the Heat hard-capped for the rest of the season at the $138.9 million apron, which would make the transaction complex.
Philadelphia, which reportedly will be aggressive in trying to sign Butler to a new deal, can offer him a full five-year, $190 million max contract. That’s more than the four-year, $141 million contract that the Heat, and every other team in the league, is eligible to offer Butler this offseason.
Looking at the numbers, the Heat’s team salary (with Herro) is about $146 million committed to 14 players because Dion Waiters’ unlikely bonus is included when calculating payroll for hard-cap purposes. That could be lowered by about $6 million by waiving Ryan Anderson by July 10 because only $15.6 million of his $21.3 million salary is guaranteed if he’s released by this date.
That still puts the Heat at about $140 million in combined salaries for 13 players, with the hard cap at $138.9 million. Assuming second-round pick KZ Okpala signs a minimum contract with the Heat, that number would rise to about $141 million for 14 players.
There are ways for the Heat to pull off the sign-and-trade transaction to acquire Butler and finish the trade below the apron, but it’s just not a simple process.
Among the ways the parties involved can make the sign-and-trade experience a little easier: Butler can accept less than his maximum salary, the Heat can get a third team involved in the sign-and-trade transaction to shed additional salary, the Heat can make other trades to shed salary, and/or the Heat can use the “stretch provision” when waiving Anderson by July 10 to reduce what would be a $15.6 million cap hit for 2019-20 to a $5.2 million annual cap hit over the next three seasons to create an extra $10.4 million in cap space this summer.
Making the situation even more complicated: The Lakers and Nets, which have maximum-salary cap space to offer, are also reportedly interested in Butler.
Butler is also expected to meet with the Rockets early in the week in Los Angeles, according to ESPN. Like Miami, Houston would also need to acquire Butler through a sign-and-trade agreement.
Back in September, Butler named the Heat as his preferred destination while trying to push for a trade from the Timberwolves. The Heat tried to trade for Butler then, but team president Pat Riley eventually broke off trade negotiations with the Timberwolves to avoid them from lingering into the season.
Butler, who turns 30 in September, was later traded in November to the 76ers. He averaged 18.2 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 33.8 percent shooting on threes, 5.3 rebounds and four assists in 55 regular-season games for Philadelphia.
This week, the Heat and the rest of the NBA are going to find out just how much Butler wants to play in Miami.
▪ The Heat opens summer league action Monday against the Lakers at 9 p.m. as part of the California Classic in Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center. The game will be aired on NBA TV.