Memphis Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers returns to AmericanAirlines Arena as a visiting player for the first time on Sunday, a “little anxious” about his homecoming but also eager to feel the warm embrace of former Heat teammates, coaches and a fan base that developed a kid-brother-type fondness for him over seven-plus seasons.
“There’s definitely going to be a special feeling just because that was home for me,” Chalmers told 790 The Ticket on Thursday. “Being able to play in Miami was a tremendous experience.”
Chalmers — traded with James Ennis on Nov. 11 for Beno Udrih and Jarnell Stokes — has provided the Grizzlies with the type of second-unit offensive punch that the Heat has lacked at times.
So why did Miami deal a contributor for two players who have made minimal impact?
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A Heat official reiterated in September that ownership preferred to lessen the team’s luxury-tax burden.
Jettisoning Chalmers and his $4.3 million salary (in the final year of a two-year contract) saved about $6 million in luxury-tax payments.
Heat president Pat Riley said hours after the trade that it had “a lot to do with the economics of the game” but then added that saving money “wasn’t the No. 1 reason why we did it.”
Riley explained the move by saying “we decided to give these young guys some room to grow and gain confidence. It has a lot to do with … where we see the team in the future.”
Heat people have said privately that Tyler Johnson simply beat out Chalmers for the backup point guard job, and the Heat was concerned that Chalmers would be dissatisfied with his playing time further diminished.
Chalmers did not address that issue in his radio interview but did say the Heat gave him no explanation for trading him.
Though Johnson has capably handled backup point-guard duties, the Heat also could have benefited from Chalmers’ presence, particularly when it’s missing a rotation wing player because of injury (including Luol Deng for six games recently and Johnson on Friday), as well as against certain small lineups.
The Heat entered the weekend 28th in bench scoring, at 25.7 points per game. Also, Miami’s reserves average just 2.1 three-pointers per game; only Indiana’s backups average fewer (1.7).
Meanwhile, Chalmers — during his first 15 games in Memphis — is averaging what would be career highs in both points (11.3) and field-goal attempts (12.8 per 36 minutes).
Chalmers said one reason he’s thriving is because Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger “wants me to score. I’ve always been the type of guy that gets my teammates involved. But being here, my job is really to score …. After being in Miami’s system for seven years … it’s a lot different here. There’s a lot more freedom. A lot more space and a lot more movement. That’s a good thing ... [but] that’s one of the hardest things about the transition.”
The players acquired by Miami haven’t been significant factors. Udrih has logged 62 minutes in seven games, with nearly as many turnovers (seven) as assists (eight). Stokes, an undrafted second-year forward from Tennessee, hasn’t played at all for Miami, aside from a D-League stint.
Asked what Miami misses without Chalmers, Chris Bosh reeled off a long list: “His length. His defensive capability. His offensive capability. His outside shooting. Being able to spread the floor. His knack for passing and getting guys involved in offense. Getting easy baskets. He’s a very talented player.
“When you miss those things, you notice. He created so many turnovers for this team. He had a knack for getting his hand on the ball, which was great for this team.”
But Dwyane Wade said “the trade was great for both sides. It gave Tyler an opportunity to make his own impact. What they both bring is totally different.”
At some point during Sunday’s game, public address announcer Michael Baiamonte will acknowledge Chalmers’ contributions in Miami, and they’re pretty substantial.
Chalmers ranks second in Heat history in steals, third in assists, fourth in games played and three-pointers, sixth in games started and minutes, 11th in points, 13th in field goals and free throws and 15th in rebounds.
He holds the Heat single-game record for steals (nine) and shares the single-game record for three-pointers (10).
Chalmers, 29, said he always will value “being with guys like [LeBron James], D-Wade, CB, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier … being able to pick their brains and see what it takes to actually be a champion.”
Chalmers said he has spoken with only two former Heat teammates since the trade — Wade and Udonis Haslem.
“Certain people come and go,” Wade said. “Some will be in your life forever. Rio came in as a young rookie. I was his vet. We have a special relationship.”
Chalmers, always good-natured after being subjected to several on-court scoldings by Heat teammates over the years, said nobody does that to him in Memphis.
“I get to do the yelling,” he said, “because they look at me as the vet.”
▪ The Heat listed Johnson (shoulder) as out for Sunday’s game and forward Josh McRoberts (knee maintenance) as questionable.
Sunday: Grizzlies at Heat
When/where: 6 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: Sun Sports; WAXY 790; WAQI 710 AM (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 20-17.
Scouting report: The key, as always with Memphis, is containing power forward Zach Randolph (14.1 points, 9. 1 rebounds) and center Marc Gasol (16.2, 7.6). The Grizzlies enter having won 10 of their past 15 but were routed 123-99 by Charlotte on Friday. … The Heat has lost three in a row.