Looking for some extra firepower in their sales pitch to try and lure Kevin Durant to Beantown, the Boston Celtics on Saturday brought along four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady to meet with Durant in the Hamptons.
On Friday, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer might have shed a tear or two during Los Angeles’ “intense” meeting that reportedly “blew away” the four-time scoring champion and former league MVP for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On Sunday, six members of the Heat’s front office — Pat Riley, Micky Arison, Erik Spoelstra, Alonzo Mourning, Andy Elisburg and Nick Arison — will try and sell Durant on a bright future on South Beach. But it won’t be easy, and Riley will likely need to throw something special on the table aside from his nine NBA championship rings.
With Dwyane Wade flirting with as many as five other teams in free agency (some reportedly offering him deals upward of $20 million per season), questions regarding Chris Bosh’s health and future after a second consecutive season ended by blood clots and only $20 million in available salary cap space, Riley has a tough task ahead with the Heat’s roster makeover.
And quality options across the league are thinning.
On Saturday, two starters on Miami’s playoff team that lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Toronto in May were plucked away with forward Luol Deng agreeing to a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers (four years, $72 million) and swingman Joe Johnson with the Utah Jazz (two years, $22 million).
Deng, 31, started 145 games for the Heat during the previous two seasons and earned $10 million last season from Miami. He will now earn $18 million a season with the Lakers — a number the Heat couldn’t have possibly matched.
After earning $126 million in his previous contract with the Hawks and Nets before Brooklyn bought him last February, the Heat’s hope was Johnson, 35, would be willing to take less to stay in Miami and possibly sign for the team’s $2.898 million midlevel room exception. That obviously didn’t happen.
Wade, who is waiting to see what the Heat will offer him while teams such as the Bulls, Nuggets, Knicks, Bucks and Mavericks court him, congratulated both of his former teammates on their new contracts Saturday with messages on Twitter. Wade told Johnson “dinners on you in Utah” and called Deng one of his all-time favorite teammates.
Unless Durant chooses to sign with the Heat, Johnson and Deng’s departures likely mean 20-year-old Justise Winslow will move into the starting lineup next season and play alongside Bosh, if he’s healthy, and center Hassan Whiteside, who agreed to a four-year, $98 million max contract Friday.
Winslow started eight games last season and was an excellent defensive player as a rookie, but he shot only 42 percent from the field, 27.6 percent from three-point range and averaged 6.4 points a game.
Overall, the Heat has seven players (Whiteside, Winslow, Bosh, Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Briante Weber and Josh McRoberts) in the fold for next season, and six of its own free agents still on the market (Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, Gerald Green, Tyler Johnson, Udonis Haslem and Dorell Wright).
If Durant chooses Miami or the Heat swings and misses and ends up spending most of what it has left in salary-cap space to keep Wade, the Heat won’t have much in the way of cap space to offer free agents or its own players.
Haslem, a 13-year veteran and tri-captain for the Heat, and Tyler Johnson, a rotation player last season before he was injured, both have suitors looking to drive up their asking prices.
Haslem, who has served as an important mentor for Whiteside, wants the Heat to offer him the club’s $2.898 million room exception but might not be offered more than the league minimum.
As for Tyler Johnson, a restricted free agent, he could end up receiving a sizable offer that would force the Heat to decide if it wants to sign him to a long-term deal. While Johnson’s salary-cap hit for next season would remain only $1.2 million, his overall salary would increase significantly in years three and four of a potential four-year deal.
Whatever happens with Durant in the next 24 to 48 hours, what has become evident for the Heat is that it needs to have Bosh, its highest-paid player ($23.7 million), healthy and on the court next season.
With Deng and Joe Johnson around last season, Miami was able to survive Bosh’s absence and remain competitive in the playoffs.
With salaries across the league rising, it’s clear the Heat is going to have a harder time filling its roster with the same kind of quality depth.