Barry Jackson

Could the Heat keep this team together and have cap space? Exploring

dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

When the Heat added James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed, Derrick Williams and Luke Babbitt after Dwyane Wade bolted last July, they seemed like the quintessential stopgaps, players who would be advised to rent, not buy.

Williams didn’t work out – he’s now in Cleveland – but during this stretch of 23 wins in 28 games, every one of the others has made a case to warrant a Heat offer this summer.

Heat president Pat Riley made clear he wants to use the post All Star break schedule to gauge which players are longterm keepers.

But what if the Heat keeps winning and James Johnson/Waiters/Ellington/Reed/Babbitt keep playing well? Could the Heat keep all five and still have cap space for others? Under certain scenarios, yes.

Sizing up where each stands:

• Johnson: Appreciative of how he has thrived playing for this coaching staff, Johnson said during a private moment recently that “I hope I spend the rest of my life here,” clarifying that he meant that both as a player (for the Heat) and a resident.

He calls this “definitely” the most enjoyable experience of his career.

We can assure you that Miami would love to keep him and very much values his versatility, ball-handling, defense and other aspects of his game.

But here’s the concern: Portland gave Evan Turner four years, $70 million last July ($17.5 million per) after a season in which he averaged 10.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists for Boston.

So what could Johnson make considering his numbers are slightly better: 12.1, 4.9, 3.5?

One scout said perhaps $10 million, but it’s easy to envision him getting more, perhaps far more considering the Turner contract.

• Waiters: As we detailed here last Sunday, Waiters told me he badly wants to sign here longterm.

Two things will help his value this summer: This mid-January-to-now surge in which he’s averaging 19.0 points per game and shooting 47 percent.

But here’s the other: If Wade opts into his Bulls contract (for $23.8 million), then the only unrestricted starting shooting guards will be Waiters, J.J. Redick, Tony Allen (great defender but 35 and 9.9 points per game) and erratic Nick Young ($5.7 million player option).

The list of unrestricted free agent two-guards, beyond those four and possibly Wade, is mediocre: Tyreke Evans (game has declined after three knee procedures in past two years), Thabo Sefolosha, Gerald Green, Randy Foye, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, Ian Clark, Andre Iguodola, CJ Miles, Jodie Meeks, Manu Ginobili, PJ Tucker and Shelvin Mack. (Atlanta’s emerging Tim Hardaway Jr. is a restricted free agent.)

Waiters, who ranks 12th among all shooting guards in scoring (15.8), could get a deal starting at $14 million, one scout said. But as one Heat person reminded (not speaking of Waiters in particular), all it takes is one team to make an astronomical offer to change the landscape.

• Ellington: In an unusual arrangement, the Heat doesn’t need to decide whether to guarantee Ellington’s $6.3 million for next season until the first day after the July 2017 signing moratorium (July 7), giving the Heat six days of legal free agent discussions with other players to determine whether Ellington is worth bringing back at that amount.

That was savvy of the Heat to insist on that date a week or so after players are typically informed if they will be retained.

At one point, it seemed unlikely that Miami would keep him because of the need to maximize space.

But the way he’s playing as we detailed in this post earlier today (career high 11.3 scoring average, 123 threes on 37.5 percent shooting) would warrant that salary in today’s economic landscape, and be a wise investment if Miami fails to land high-end players with its cap space. He’s 34 for his last 71 on threes, and Spoelstra loves his skill set and professionalism.

• Reed: He has displayed enough to opt out of a deal that would pay $1.5 million next season.

The Heat’s best hope to keep him might be dangling all or part of its $4.3 million roomexception, which cannot be combined with cap space.

• Babbitt: Retaining him wouldn’t have been a consideration two months ago, but it’s worth considering now, with Babbitt recently on a 40-for-79 streak on threes and his floor spacing an asset with this starting group.

And here’s the bonus: Because the Heat has his Bird rights, and because he’s being paid the minimum this season, his cap charge next season will be only $1.47 million, regardless of what Miami pays him.

So let’s recap: Presuming Chris Bosh is cleared from the cap, the Heat will have $41 million in space, removing three small cap holds. If they keep Ellington and Babbitt, use non-cap exception money on Reed, that shrinks the space to $33 million. Then, say they can get Johnson for $12 million next season and Waiters for $14 million. That leaves $7 million in space, though because of supply and demand, Johnson and Waiters could get more than that.

If Johnson gets $16 million and Waiters $17 million, you’re out of space in this scenario, beyond the $4.3 million room exception.

Riley assuredly will pursue the top free agents before committing to anyone on this year’s roster. That means a run at Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward and Steph Curry and potentially Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Serge Ibaka, though I’m not convinced the Heat would get into a bidding war on those last three if it can get Johnson at a reasonable price.

If he can’t land a star, keeping together this corps and adding another piece if possible – perhaps Rudy Gay, if he opts out after an Achilles’ injury – might make the most sense, presuming these impending Heat free agents keeping playing well and Miami keeps winning. (If that changes, all of this would need to be re-evaluated, though James Johnson has assuredly done enough to command a legitimate offer.)

Remember, aside from the top stars (plus Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry), this is mediocre free agent class largely devoid of All-Stars, and players again will be overpaid.

Hassan Whiteside had 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in loss against the Portland Trailblazers on March 19, 2017.

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