Heat president Pat Riley, during his always fascinating annual postseason news conference, wasn’t specifically asked to defend doling out more than $190 million in long-term commitments last summer to Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Josh Richardson and Kelly Olynyk — on top of the $50 million to Tyler Johnson and the $98 million to Hassan Whiteside the previous summer.
But Riley did anyway.
“All of our guys that we paid last year — and everybody talks about how much money was have committed to them — the average salary is $8 [million] to $9 million,” Riley said, which is true if he’s talking about last season only and factoring in the $6.3 million earned by Wayne Ellington, and the $5.9 million earned by Tyler Johnson before his deal spikes this coming season.
But allow Riley to continue:
“We’re $9 [million] to $14 million with some guys we think have an upside,” Riley said, with Olynyk, Richardson, James Johnson and Waiters fitting into that category.
“We’re going to add to that if we can. But we’re not afraid of paying those kinds of deals to those players because I think they were very committed to what we are doing.”
Still, paying those contracts is having significant consequences.
With Miami well over the projected $101 million cap and up against the $123 million luxury tax, general manager Andy Elisburg will need to work his usual cap magic for Miami to sign Wayne Ellington and re-sign Dwyane Wade (if he chooses) without incurring a big tax hit.
And Miami likely will be limited to a $5.5 million exception, if it uses an exception at all, instead of the $8.4 million non taxpayer exception, which could have potentially lured a significantly better player.
So is the Heat overpaying some of its players? A few things to consider:
▪ There are 269 active players under contract next season, according to hoopshype.com. And the Heat has six among the 88 highest salaries — which is nearly 7 percent. That includes Whiteside (19th at $24.4 million), Tyler Johnson (36th at $19.2 million), Goran Dragic (43rd at $18.5 million), James Johnson (62nd at $14.6 million), Dion Waiters (76th at $12.7 million) and Kelly Olynyk (88th at $11.1).
▪ Perhaps the biggest impediment is Tyler Johnson’s deal, which spikes from $5.9 million (which was very good value) to $19.2 million each of the next two years (which is great for him but not for the Heat).
Miami wanted to smooth out the contract numbers in the Nets’ offer sheet that the Heat matched 22 months ago after losing Wade. In other words, pay Johnson in the range of $12.5 million annually. But Johnson wasn’t willing to do that.
The upshot is that Johnson will earn more next season than John Wall, Klay Thompson, Dragic and Draymond Green, among others.
▪ A postseason analysis shows James Johnson’s production this past season was below more than a half dozen forwards who earned considerably less, though it’s important to note — in Miami’s defense — that several of those are still on contracts signed before the cap exploded.
We should note that only players who were previously eligible for free agency were considered for this assessment. It would not be a fair comparison to include very good players still on rookie deals.
James Johnson earned $13.7 million last season (85th most in the NBA) in a four-year, $60 million deal that will pay him $14.4 million, $15.1 million and $15.7 million the next three seasons.
Among forwards, the Pacers got far better value with Bojan Bogdanovic, who signed a two-year, $21 million deal last July.
Now these are different players playing different frontcourt positions, of course. Johnson — who averaged 10.8 points and 4.9 rebounds and shot just 30.8 percent on threes — is the better rebounder and by far the better defender. But Bogdanovic, who averaged 14.3 points and shot 40.2 percent on threes, is the much better perimeter shooter and clearly the better value from a cap and economic standpoint.
The Houston Rockets arguably got better value last summer with forward PJ Tucker, who signed for four years and $32 million. Tucker (6.1 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game) wasn’t quite as good as Johnson in the regular season but had some very good moments in postseason.
Heck, Ersan Ilyasova posted numbers better than Johnson’s — 10.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 36 percent on threes — while playing on a one-year, $8.4 million deal for Atlanta before a buyout landed him in Philadelphia.
Johnson is a better defender and the superior player when both are at their best, but Ilyasova was arguably the better value factoring in the big money owed Johnson long-term.
Another example: You saw Marcus Morris playing pretty well in postseason for Boston the past month, earning well under half what Johnson makes.
But remember Eastern rivals Boston and Washington — unlike Miami — had the benefit of acquiring the Morris brothers’ contracts before the cap exploded.
Boston’s Morris (13.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 36.8 percent three-point shooting) produced better numbers than James Johnson in the third year of a four-year, $20 million extension.
The Wizards’ Markieff Morris produced 11.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 36.7 percent three-point shooting on a four-year, $32 million deal that has one year left. Both contracts originally were signed with Phoenix.
Utah enjoyed the benefit of having Derrick Favors (12.3 points, 7.2 rebounds) on the final year of a four-year, $48 million contract. He will make considerably more as a free agent this summer.
So the point is this: The type of player similar to Johnson was getting substantially less money just three years ago and other teams (Boston, Utah) reaped the benefits of that this year. And among players who signed last summer, a few forwards who earned less than Johnson outplayed him.
Nobody, of course, forced the Heat to go to four years and $60 million with Johnson. Miami could have offered two years and $30 million and walked away if he declined that offer, which would perhaps have been the more prudent move in retrospect.
But the Heat gambled that Johnson — with his 2016 weight loss, defensive acumen and diverse skill set — would consistently deliver the across-the-board production served up during much of the Heat’s 30-11 run to close 2016-17. We saw flashes of that in the second half of last season.
Perhaps the well-intentioned Johnson — who cares deeply — will be closer to that player next season, especially after undergoing sports hernia surgery. The Heat can only hope.
▪ While the Heat is expected to try to dump Whiteside, getting equal value will be awfully difficult, considering Whiteside’s production isn’t on par with players earning the same $23.7 million salary this season — Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Bradley Beal.
The options could be as simple as taking a bad contract with one year left — instead of the two remaining on Whiteside’s deal, which will pay him $24.4 million and $27 million.
▪ It’s too soon to judge the wisdom of the four year, $52 million investment in Waiters, considering the ankle injury that limited him to 30 games.
He’s worth it if he plays like the guy who was among the league’s top shooting guards in field-goal percentage and three-point percentage in the second half of the 2016-17 season. He’s not worth it if he plays like he did to begin last season, when his three-point shooting was next to last in the league at his position.
▪ Riley predicts that even though “the economics are going to be crazy, I think people are going to be more disciplined [this summer]. There might be 10 teams that have $20 million or more in money this summer.
“I think people are getting smarter, a lot smarter with their teams and their rosters where you’re going to give that kind of a contract to somebody that is going to be a transformative night-in-and-night-out-all-of-the-time player.
"And every now and then you might make a mistake and you might not be an all-of-the-time — he might be a some-of-the time — but he still can be very effective. So I’m sure when those kinds of contracts are doled out, they’re going to be to the superstars and then from that point on. Then you’re in the currency game and also how much do you want to win and how much do you want to stay competitive?”
Riley gambled that Whiteside would morph into a mostly “all of the time” player. He hasn’t. And that’s the biggest reason Miami is at a roster crossroads this summer.
HOWARD TO INTERVIEW
▪ As I reported on Twitter on Wednesday (@flasportsbuzz), Heat assistant coach Juwan Howard will interview for the Detroit Pistons’ head coaching job. Howard previously interviewed for the Knicks job before New York hired former Heat assistant David Fizdale.
TNT’s Kenny Smith is among others also interviewing in Detroit, according to Yahoo. Former Toronto coach Dwane Casey has been mentioned as a candidate.
▪ Whiteside will be among players participating in an Aug. 4 exhibition featuring NBA players in Pretoria, South Africa.
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