This out-of-nowhere seven-game winning streak not only has delivered a jolt of joy to the Heat and its fans, but also raised questions that would have been unfathomable weeks ago.
If it fails to land any of the top free agents, does the Heat give serious thought to using much of its $40 million in cap space on its own impending free agents? Simply re-signing Dion Waiters (opt-out), James Johnson and Willie Reed (opt-out) could consume much of the space --- if Waiters keeps playing at this level and if Reed has more big games as a Hassan Whiteside fill-in.
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The good news: The answer will become clear as the season plays out.
And even if the Heat should somehow make the playoffs with this group (or keeping rolling and barely miss), Pat Riley’s history suggests he will pursue “whales” and other high-level free agents elsewhere before deciding to keep together a group that isn’t championship caliber.
But Riley, for all his success, must know that it will be difficult to snag any of the elite free agents this summer.
So what happens if he cannot lure any of the clear five top free agents: Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin or Gordon Hayward? Then what? The Heat is a long shot for the top three and an underdog for Griffin and Hayward, who can make more by staying with the Clippers and Jazz.
Keep in mind that Hayward would have a first-year max salary of $30.9 million, leaving Miami without enough cap space to add a second high-impact player even if can surprisingly lure the 22-point-a-game small forward, who has no reason to leave an on-the-rise Utah team.
That’s unless Goran Dragic is traded for a lottery pick, which would raise the Heat’s cap space to just above $54 million but also create yet another hole that could potentially be filled in a draft with several high-lottery point guard prospects (Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, NC State’s Dennis Smith). That is, assuming the Heat makes the lottery, which is no longer assured with Miami standing five games behind the current 7th and 8th seeds (Chicago and Charlotte).
If those five aforementioned veteran standouts eschew signing with Miami, here’s who would be available at positions of need:
• Shooting guard: With Waiters assuredly opting out of a contract that would pay him $3.1 million next season, the Heat will weigh whether to make a longterm investment in the enigmatic guard – something that would have been inconceivable before his recent offensive burst.
If Waiters can somehow sustain this level of play for the next two months - he’s averaging 22.1 points and shooting 50 percent in this win streak - the Heat assuredly would look at making a legitimate offer.
In a market rich with cap space, Waiters could be one of the more appealing shooting guard options in a weak free agent list headlined by the Clippers’ JJ Redick (32 but averaging 15.7 points and shooting 43.7 on threes) and potentially Dwyane Wade, who has an opt-out.
Other options, most of them backups: New Orleans’ Tyreke Evans (balky knee that has required three procedures), the Lakers’ Nick Young, Cleveland’s Kyle Korver, Indiana’s CJ Miles, Golden State’s Ian Clark, Oklahoma City’s Anthony Morrow, Memphis’ Tony Allen (very good defender but 28 percent career three-point shooter); Sacramento’s Omri Casspi and Orlando’s Jody Meeks.
Because it has swing guards Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson under contract, the Heat won’t need to sign a veteran starter if it is in position to draft Kentucky’s Malik Monk. Odds are against Miami exercising Wayne Ellington’s $6.3 million option.
Though the Heat would be expected to explore a trade for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler if he’s made available (3 ½ years left on a five-year, $95 million contract), it’s dubious if Miami has the assets to pull that off.
So Waiters and Wade could end up topping the free agent class at two-guard (along with Redick). And the Heat could have a fascinating choice between its starting shooting guard of the previous 13 years and its emerging starting two-guard this season.
• Power forwards: If Miami doesn’t land Griffin, top options would include Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, Orlando’s Serge Ibaka and potentially, Philadelphia’s Ersan Ilyasova, who has emerged as a quality stretch four.
The next tier: Chicago’s Taj Gibson (11.5 points, 7.1 rebounds but no three-point game), Memphis’ Zach Randolph (on the back end of his career but averaging 13.7 points and 8.2 rebounds and still effective), the Heat’s James Johnson and the Clippers’ Marreese Speights (40.4 percent three-point shooter and ability to play center make him appealing).
After that, there’s Boston’s Amir Johnson and Toronto’s Patrick Patterson (neither better than the Heat’s Johnson), Terrence Jones (has put up good numbers in New Orleans but Heat was dissuaded by maturity issues last year), Toronto’s Jared Sullinger (10.3 points, 8.3 rebounds as a Celtics starter last season but missed first two-plus months after foot surgery) and Jonas Jerebko (more of a backup).
If the Heat signs Millsap or Ibaka, there probably wouldn’t be space for another high-end acquisition unless Dragic is traded. (Remember, Evan Turner got four years and $70 million from Portland last season.)
With perhaps Ilyasova, Randolph, James Johnson or Sullinger, there should be space to make another high-quality pickup.
• Small forwards: If Miami cannot snag Durant or Hayward, options would include Sacramento’s Rudy Gay (if the Heat is sufficiently satisfied by his recovery from a torn Achilles) and potentially Denver’s Danilo Gallinari, a skilled offensive player (17 ppg, 39 percent on threes) who hasn’t played more than 62 games since 2010-11.
Beyond those four, the small forward class is weak, with others available including Andre Iguodola (34 and numbers in sharp decline) and Jeff Green (averaing 9.5 points and shooting just 38.2 percent for Orlando).
If the Heat strikes out on the top half dozen free agents, it could do worse that splitting its cap space between Ilyasova and Gay, who would give Miami two skilled frontcourt shooters around Whiteside and some money left. Or Justise Winslow could return as a starter by default.
But the most interesting development during this win streak is this: There are now players on this roster that might be worth a longterm investment. None of them will keep Riley from going whale-hunting, but bringing back Waiters and James Johnson - while gauging the market for Reed - can no longer be discounted, especially with a free agent class that isn’t especially deep beyond the top five players.