The great cap boon for 2016 will leave the Heat with interesting decisions next summer: Do Pat Riley and Micky Arison keep most of the team together and leave themselves with very limited cap space to spend on outside free agents, or do they use what could be $40 million to $50 million in cap space to dramatically retool the roster?
The answer probably will become obvious next spring, when it will be clear whether this team is good enough to legitimately challenge Cleveland for the Eastern Conference championship. It also will depend on whether the Heat can lure one of the very few elite free agents next summer.
With the salary cap set to spike by more than $20 million to an estimated $89 million next season, the Heat has left itself flexibility to accommodate the salary of any of the top-tier free agents — from Kevin Durant to DeMar DeRozan to Al Jefferson.
But signing a top-tier player might mean the departure of Hassan Whiteside and difficult negotiations with Dwyane Wade.
One thing is clear: The Heat intends to make a long-shot bid to lure Durant, who sold his Miami condo earlier this year.
Here’s where the Heat stands, a year away from a seismic change in NBA economics:
▪ With Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, Josh McRoberts and Justise Winslow, the Heat has $47.8 million in guaranteed commitments for 2016-17, about $41 million below the projected cap. That number rises by $874,000 if the Heat retains promising rookie guard Josh Richardson.
But here’s the catch: The Heat very likely will need to use salary cap space to re-sign Whiteside next summer because he will not have full Bird Rights. The only way Miami could sign Whiteside without using cap space would be if he agrees to a two-year contract starting at barely above the NBA’s average salary this season (about $6 million). That’s unrealistic, and keep in mind that NBA rules prohibit deals from being heavily back-loaded.
What’s more, Wade will have a big cap hold (above his $20 million salary), and that number will stay on the Heat’s cap next summer until he re-signs, when that cap hold is replaced by his 2016-17 salary, or signs elsewhere.
So the Heat cannot spend $40 million in free agency to get to the cap limit and then re-sign Wade after that. The same also applies to Luol Deng, who will have a cap hold above his $10.1 million salary unless he’s renounced.
▪ It’s too early to know what Whiteside can command next summer, but if the Heat gives him a contract starting at $15 million — and Miami hopes it costs less — that would bring the Heat to about $64 million for six players.
Even if Wade took only $10 million for 2016-17 in that scenario, that would leave the Heat with about $15 million in space with at least six roster spots to fill — not enough to bid for Durant or even DeRozan or Chandler Parsons (who has a player option).
The Heat could clear out another $5.7 million in space by dealing McRoberts for a draft pick.
▪ For Miami to be able to make a competitive bid for Durant, the Heat would need to either pass on signing Whiteside; or trade McRoberts, somehow get Whiteside at something closer to $10 million for 2016-17, cajole Wade to take less than $10 million and fill out the roster with cheap labor.
The Heat could “promise” Wade that it would take care of him with a bigger salary in 2017-18 (when the cap is projected to rise to $108 million) and in 2018-19 ($127 million projection).
▪ If the Heat re-signs Whiteside, the most realistic option would be signing a free agent wing player such as Danilo Gallinari (his shooting would very much help), Wilson Chandler, Jeff Green, Aaron Afflalo, Jamal Crawford, Joe Johnson, Courtney Lee, OJ Mayo, Nicolas Batum, Gerald Henderson, Chase Budinger and Jared Dudley. Using cap space to re-sign Deng and Gerald Green also would be an option.
But remember: Players who might be easily affordable now would be less so next summer, because of the inevitable jump in salaries. For example, Gallinari will make $11.5 million this season for Denver. But if he has a good year, he could command far more with a higher cap. So the Heat might need to trade McRoberts to accommodate Gallinari (or somebody comparable), Whiteside and Wade next season.
▪ There’s also the possibility Miami could move on from Whiteside — if the bidding goes to uncomfortable levels — and instead sign an unrestricted free agent center from a group including Jefferson, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Timofey Mozgov, Dwight Howard (player option), David Lee, Roy Hibbert, Chris Kaman, Nene and Mareese Speights.