Heat guard Josh Richardson hadn’t even signed his four-year, $42 million extension last week, and the cynics already started spouting off on social media.
Oh, the criticism didn’t have anything to do with Richardson specifically, but more so with the Heat’s decision to use all of its 2018-19 cap space – and likely all of the following year’s space, too – on players who might only be good enough to produce the fifth or sixth best team in the Eastern Conference.
“An entire roster of seventh men, making $10-14 million per year,” CBS’ Chris Towers wrote on Twitter, noting Miami now has “a bunch of totally decent, fine guys, locked on totally decent, fine contracts for four years. This isn't necessarily criticism. I think their roster is fine. It's mostly weird that THIS is what Pat Riley is doing, of all people.”
But here’s the thing: After failing to land Gordon Hayward, this approach – signing several good but not great players (Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Richardson) to multiyear contracts at current, albeit inflated NBA value - was the only logical strategy in the Heat’s opinion.
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So why not instead take the Philadelphia approach, tear down and build back up, even if not to the extremes that the Sixers took tanking?
I asked a high-ranking Heat official if that was ever considered. The answer was a resounding no, with the person noting that the Heat has a business to run and owes to its fans and sponsors that it will field the best possible team and not intentionally lose for years with the blind hope of getting lucky in the lottery.
So here’s where the Heat stands: Miami has 11 players under contract for 2018-19 who are due $119 million - well over the projected $103 million cap.
What’s more, that figure will swell by $2.1 million if Waiters and Olynyk reach their incentive bonuses. Waiters gets another $1.1 million this season if he plays in 70 games.
Olynyk gets another $1 million if he plays 1700 minutes. That would leave Miami just under the projected $125 million tax threshold for 2018-19, even with Chris Bosh no longer on Miami’s books.
That also would leave the Heat with no cap space and no first-round draft pick next summer but three avenues to improve: trades, minimum salary contracts, and a mid-level exception.
Should it choose to pay a tax, Miami can use a $5.5 million taxpayer midlevel exception next summer or a full $8.8 million mid-level exception, depending on where the tax threshold falls and whether Miami re-signs Wayne Ellington using its Early Bird rights.
A team using the full $8.8 million non-taxpayer midlevel cannot surpass the tax apron, which is $6 million above the threshold.
So was it sensible for Miami to cap itself out for 2018 and 2019 with players who likely aren’t good enough, as a group, to win a championship? A strong case could be made, for these reasons:
• Though the Heat cannot trade a first-round pick before 2022, at least it has a lot of other good (not great, but good) assets to use in a trade for a disgruntled standout player or anyone else who piques Riley’s interest or in a sign-and-trade next summer.
And the Heat was not going to have cap space next summer even before the Richardson extension, so having Richardson at a reasonable salary, by today’s standards, for the next five seasons benefits the Heat far more than allowing him to enter restricted free agency next summer.
“Even though we have some long-term contracts, they are assets,” Riley said this summer. “If something comes along somewhere along the way, there are opportunities to do other things. I don't have plans to do that, but you need those kinds of assets."
All of the Heat’s contracts are movable, with Miami likely positioned to deal any of them to a team that has the cap space and needs a big (James Johnson or Olynyk) or a guard (Goran Dragic for a big return, potentially Richardson or Waiters or even Tyler Johnson, depending on how those wings play this season).
Yes, Tyler Johnson’s deal is more difficult to move than the others, with his salary spiking to $19.2 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Remember, the Nets – who made offer sheets to Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe 15 months ago – traded Andrew Nicholson to Portland for Crabbe this summer, with Crabbe just one year into a four, $75 million deal.
The Blazers then waived Nicholson, using the stretch provision to pay off the last $19 million of his contract. The point is that Tyler Johnson, who had better numbers than Crabbe, is tradable.
• There isn’t necessarily anyone in next summer’s free agent market who’s a realistic, franchise-turning option, keeping in mind that the Heat doesn’t expect LeBron James to return here and that Russell Westbrook is a long shot and that Paul George has told associates he wants to go to the Lakers.
Among other big-name 2018 free agents, there’s Isaiah Thomas (can make more staying with Cleveland) or an aging Chris Paul, plus DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, who wouldn’t be targets if Hassan Whiteside isn’t traded. So what, exactly, would you be saving 2018 cap space for anyway?
Conversely, Miami would need to clear space in 2019 to make runs at Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson if they opt for free agency that summer instead of signing extensions before that.
• It’s not like the rest of the league will be awash in cap space to lure stars. Real GM’s Keith Smith notes that Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Indiana and the Lakers are the only teams projected to have cap space next summer. Conversely, 17 teams had cap space this past summer.
Hoopshype.com notes that Brooklyn, Detroit, Memphis, New York, Phoenix and Sacramento also are positioned to create cap space next summer if they part with at least one player.
Bottom line: Even without cap space the rest of the decade, the Heat still has 10 or so players with at least some trade value. And for the past 22 years, Riley has had a history of turning assets into something better.