Aside from when the Dolphins are going to be any good again, here’s the most common question I get from South Florida fans:
When is Pat Riley going to land another in-his-prime star?
Riley has been inextricably linked with stars throughout his career, but it has been 36 months since Riley acquired an All-Star who isn’t a quintessential star (Goran Dragic) and more than seven years since he lured neon names LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.
It doesn’t diminish Riley’s legacy or damage the compelling case that Riley, 72, belongs in the Hall of Fame as an executive (he’s already there as a coach), but it does raise questions about whether he would retire before reeling in another whale, to borrow his term.
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Since Miami acquired Dragic, these stars have changed teams: LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin.
The Heat fell short in free agent pursuits of Durant (always a long shot), Hayward (it was always going to be difficult to beat out a team with his college coach, Boston’s Brad Stevens) and Aldridge (lack of cap space); and didn’t have the future draft picks or enough young assets to acquire Cousins, Butler, George or Irving.
Miami had no interest in Anthony, limited interest in Griffin because of injury issues and wasn’t going to pursue Thomas.
And now the Heat is capped out this summer and possibly in 2019. And with no first-round pick eligible to be traded until 2023, that further limits Miami’s options.
So let’s examine summer options for luring a star:
▪ Summer of 2018: Unlikely to happen via free agency, with the Heat well over the cap.
James, Durant, Anthony, George, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Cousins can all be free agents this summer. It’s difficult to see any ending up here.
▪ Summer of 2019: Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love can all be free agents that summer, with Irving ($20.3 million), Leonard ($21.3 million) and Love ($25.6 million) holding 2019-20 player options at those amounts.
The Heat would have the space to pursue any of them if both Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic opt out of deals with player options for 2019-20 — Whiteside at $27.1 million and Dragic at $19.2 million.
With a projected cap of $108 million for 2019-20, the Heat would have max money available in 2019 if Dragic and Whiteside both opt out and if the Heat doesn’t take on substantial commitments before them.
If Dragic and Whiteside opt in, the Heat has $118 million committed for 2019-20, without factoring in a looming October deadline for a right-of-first refusal option for Justise Winslow for that 2019-20 season (paying him at least $4.7 million) or keeping Rodney McGruder or Wayne Ellington or paying its 2019 first-round pick.
If Dragic and Whiteside opt out, then Miami’s commitments would be $72 million, without factoring in that aforementioned 2019 first-rounder or any deal for Winslow/McGruder/Ellington.
But if only one of those two players opt out (Dragic or Whiteside), Miami wouldn’t have the space for a max contract in 2019 unless it’s able to trade at least one (and perhaps two) among Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson, James Johnson and/or Tyler Johnson while taking no money back.
The Heat, with sweeteners, presumably would find a taker for at least one of those players if it needs to, though Richardson would be difficult to pry away from Miami unless an All-Star were involved.
And even if the Heat doesn’t have the cap space, any of those players (Irving, Leonard, Thompson, Walker, Love) could hypothetically try to force their teams to do sign-and-trades with Miami, though none of their teams would be obligated to do so.
Unless he falls in love with Boston, Miami would be a legitimate consideration for Irving, who listed the Heat among four preferences when he asked the Cavs to trade him last summer. But if Whiteside or Dragic does not opt out, landing Irving would be very difficult, because a sign and trade would be needed. There has been animosity in the past between the Heat’s Pat Riley and Boston’s Danny Ainge, though there is great respect between Riley and Stevens.
Love could be an option not only in free agency in 2019 (if he opts out and Whiteside does, as well), but also as trade option if Cleveland looks to reshape its roster next summer or beyond. A Love-for-Whiteside trade would work within cap parameters, and a Love/Bam Adebayo/Olynyk power rotation — while not great defensively — would be good enough.
Though there’s no indication the Spurs are shopping Leonard, that bears monitoring, amid ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi reporting that the handling of Leonard’s quad injury has been “fraying the fabric of what was once a strong partnership.”
Leonard, who can pick the team of his choice in 2019, has been medically cleared to return from his injury but at this point has opted not to do so because of pain, ESPN reported Wednesday.
Miami’s hope with Thompson would be predicated on an unsubstantiated notion that, like Irving, he might want to go to a team where he’s not a third or fourth fiddle.
Thompson said last week that he wants to spend his entire career in Golden State but also told ESPN that regardless of whether he stays or goes, “I definitely want to play somewhere warm.” So Miami would clearly have a chance if it has the cap space and if Thompson decides to consider other offers.
▪ Summer of 2020: There will be space to sign anyone, if Miami doesn’t add a big-money star before and if it doesn’t re-sign Whiteside and Dragic at big money. Tyler Johnson will be off Miami’s books then, as well.
For 2020-21, Miami has only three firm commitments: James Johnson at $15.8 million, Waiters at $12.6 million and Richardson at $10.9 million.
But the Heat’s cap commitments would grow to $56.6 million that summer of 2020 if Olynyk exercises his $12.2 million player option and the Heat exercises its option on Adebayo $5.1 million (highly likely).
That’s more than enough space for potential 2020 free agents Harrison Barnes (if he doesn’t opt out of $25.1 million for 2019-20), Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, Butler (if he doesn’t opt out of $19.8 million for 2019-20), Marc Gasol, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Lowry or Reggie Jackson, among others.
Of course, none of those are traditional whales, though Green, Lowry and Butler are multitime All Stars.
There’s also the possibility that New Orleans’ Anthony Davis could opt out of $28.7 million he’s due in 2020-21, and he would immediately shoot to the top of any free agent list.
Davis expressed concern earlier this season about the team’s lack of depth, but the outlook was looking positive before Cousins’ injury and there’s never been any indication the Pelicans would trade Davis or that he would ask for a trade.
As for trading for a disgruntled star already under contract after the season, there’s no clear option that has emerged, at least not yet.
Any Heat trade package for a disgruntled star likely would need to be built among at least two players among Dragic, Whiteside, Richardson, Adebayo and Olynyk, with Tyler Johnson, Waiters and James Johnson viewed as unappealing contracts.
So Riley’s whale hunting might need to wait until 2019 or 2020 unless a disgruntled star suddenly becomes available and Riley offers the aforementioned pieces to fit.
Riley is more patient than some might perceive, and that patience will continue to be tested as the clock ticks on his Hall of Fame career.