Barry Jackson

Where the Heat and Wayne Ellington stand weeks from free agency

The Miami Heat's Wayne Ellington reacts after shooting a three-pointer in a March game against Philadelphia. The Heat would like to re-sign him this summer.
The Miami Heat's Wayne Ellington reacts after shooting a three-pointer in a March game against Philadelphia. The Heat would like to re-sign him this summer.

With the start of NBA free agency looming on July 1, one thing has become clear:

Wayne Ellington, an impending unrestricted free agent, and the Heat would like to find a way to keep him on the team next season, according to multiple people with direct knowledge.

But his return is not certain because of the possibility another team could offer Ellington more than Miami is comfortable paying, especially with the Heat needing to eventually trim salary to keep Ellington and avoid paying a luxury tax.

With $120 million committed in salaries and a $123 million tax threshold, signing Ellington would push the Heat at least several million dollars above the luxury tax threshold – a position the Heat historically has been reluctant to be unless it has a genuine championship contender.

But keep in mind that the Heat has until the final day of the 2018-19 regular season to get below the tax line before a team’s tax bill is determined.

So even if Miami goes above the tax to sign Ellington – which would happen with the current roster – Miami would have nine months to get back under.

And both parties would like to make it work. Ellington has said he wants to stay, and the Heat has conveyed privately that it would like him back.

Ellington’s 227 three-pointers this past season were tied for sixth in the NBA and the most in history by an NBA non-starter. Beyond his shooting, the Heat appreciates his character, conditioning, work ethic and efforts to improve his all-around game.

The fact that Miami has an overloaded backcourt hasn’t deterred the Heat from conveying interest in re-signing Ellington.

Next season, the Heat already has considerable money invested at shooting guard, with Dion Waiters under contract at $12.7 million and Tyler Johnson at $19.2 million. And that doesn’t even include small forward Josh Richardson, a natural shooting guard who’s due to earn $9.4 million – or Dwyane Wade, who’s mulling whether to return and would stand to potentially get the Heat's $5.5 million exception if he chooses to play.

The Heat would like to move Johnson’s contract, according to an official who has spoken to Miami – but isn’t especially optimistic about it. Miami is comfortable with the 6-6 Richardson continuing to play small forward, because his defensive acumen helps compensate for his height disadvantage at times.

Ellington will have early Bird rights this offseason, which means the Heat can surpass the cap to pay him 175 percent of his $6.23 million salary this past season, which would be a deal starting at $10.9 million next season. (That's the maximum he could make with Miami, though he obviously could receive a contract paying less.)

He would be eligible for a four-year contract with annual raises of 8 percent off the first year salary. So let's say - hypothetically - that the Heat gave Ellington $10 million next season, pushing its payroll to more than $130 million. That deal would cost the team more than $12 million in tax money (beyond his salary) if Miami kept the rest of its roster intact.

The Heat generally prefers not to pay a heavy tax unless it’s a genuine championship contender. But general manager Andy Elisburg has been a magician at trimming salary to get Miami below the tax threshold. One scout said Ellington easily could command a salary starting at the $8.8 million mid-level exception, if not higher.

Ellington led the Heat in fourth quarter points in the regular season (287) and the team was 20-8 when he made at least four three-pointers. Ellington ranked second on the team in plus/minus in the regular season, with Miami outscoring opponents by 127 points when he was on the floor.

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