The great game has begun and the chess pieces are in motion.
Pat Riley and the Miami Heat ventured into the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. Friday night looking to score a king’s ransom.
By the end of the weekend, the Heat should have a good idea where that quest stands following two key meetings in New York — one with top target Kevin Durant and the other with center Hassan Whiteside.
Whiteside, the league’s leading shot blocker, has meetings scheduled in New York with the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers during the first 36 hours of free agency. The Heat, though, remains very much in play for his services, according to someone with direct knowledge.
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Riley will meet with the 27-year-old, 7-footer in New York sometime over the next two days — likely before the Heat becomes the last of six suitors to meet with Durant on Sunday.
One person who spoke to the Heat said there is growing sentiment internally to offer Whiteside a max deal (if Miami doesn’t get Durant), even though some inside the Heat do not view him as a max player. But that is not definite and the Heat has been going back and forth on whether to offer him the max, something Dallas and Portland are likely to do.
The Heat has told Whiteside it’s very interested in keeping him, but has a lot of moving parts to navigate through. The Heat could offer Whiteside four years and $98 million. Other teams can offer four years and $94 million. Whiteside’s first-year max would be $22 million if the cap settles at $94 million, as projected.
The Heat would love for Whiteside to wait until it has clarity on Durant, but Whiteside might not be willing to do that, according to an associate. Whiteside, though, has not made a decision yet.
If Whiteside tells the Heat he wants to sign with a team before Miami has clarity on Durant, the Heat can make plans to trade Goran Dragic and Josh McRoberts to create the necessary cap room to sign both Whiteside and Durant to max deals while providing a respectable deal to Dwyane Wade.
That scenario has been discussed internally, but the Heat would not trade Dragic unless it is sure it is getting Durant and needs to open cap space for it’s three primary free agent targets. It’s also uncertain if the Heat would do that if Whiteside wants a firm offer before Durant makes a decision.
With the salary cap rising $24 million from a season ago, salaries are expected to skyrocket across the league. The Heat enters free agency with $42 million in space, not including cap holds for Wade or any of its unrestricted free agents. So, Miami has the cap space to give Whiteside a max deal immediately if it wants.
Beyond its cap space, the Heat can add a player with its $2.9 million room exception. It can also sign players to minimum deals.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is expected to make a strong pitch to Whiteside shortly after the start of free agency. Dallas holds appeal to Whiteside. And Portland also is intriguing to Whiteside because it has a strong young nucleus and elite backcourt, which helped the Blazers advance to the second round of the playoffs last season.
But an associate of Whiteside cautioned that he still likes the Heat if Miami meets his financial expectations.
Besides Whiteside and Wade, the Heat has six other unrestricted free agents: guard Gerald Green, forwards Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, Udonis Haslem and Dorell Wright, and center Amar’e Stoudemire. Guard Tyler Johnson is a restricted free agent, but the Heat has the ability to match any offer he receives.
At the moment, here’s who the Heat has under contract for next season: Chris Bosh ($23.7 million), Dragic ($15.8), McRoberts ($5.7), Justise Winslow ($2.59), Josh Richardson ($874,000) and Briante Weber ($874,000).
Riley said at the end of the season Whiteside was the Heat’s No. 1 priority in free agency.
“I want to build a team that can win, and he’s got to be part of that,” Riley said. “I really believe it’s important for him to be part of that.”