Barry Jackson

Here's when the Heat will be a player in free agency again and what they are doing about it

With the Heat's big contracts difficult to move, Pat Riley might need to wait two years to make another free agent splash.
With the Heat's big contracts difficult to move, Pat Riley might need to wait two years to make another free agent splash. mocner@miamiherald.com

The Heat’s inability to dump sizable contracts so far this summer not only has left Miami with little flexibility this year but also has diminished its chances of achieving cap space next summer.

And unless something significant changes, it’s increasingly likely the Heat will need to wait until the summer of 2020, not 2019, to again be in position to make a franchise-altering free agent signing.

That wasn’t necessarily the plan. The Heat has tried to move Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson this offseason but has not found a trade market, according to three people in contact with the team. Dion Waiters’ name also has been raised, one of these people said.

Dealing Whiteside and Johnson for expiring contracts or draft picks would give the Heat $36 million in cap space next summer without factoring in 2019 restricted free agent Justise Winslow. That would be enough to pursue a max player from a free agent class potentially including Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love.

Instead, Miami stands more than $10 million over the projected 2019-20 cap.

With Miami up against the luxury tax threshold this summer and Wayne Ellington’s status still unresolved, the Heat has $119.7 million in guaranteed money committed for eight players for 2019-20, with the cap that season projected at $109 million. And that doesn’t even include allocations for Miami’s first-round draft pick next season and other players who would round out the roster.

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Nor does it include Winslow, who is eligible to be a restricted free agent next summer and is eligible to sign an extension until the regular season opener in October.

Creating significant space next summer would take moving mountains, either trading at least two — likely three — significant contracts or hoping that Goran Dragic opts out of a $19.2 million payment for 2019-20 or Whiteside opts out of $27.1 million for that season.

Dragic could opt out if he has a big season, though there’s a good chance he plays out this contract. It seems unlikely Whiteside opts out, unless he has an All-Star caliber season.

Even if the Heat makes Whiteside miserable by further diminishing his playing time, it would seem improbable he walks away from that big a paycheck, according to a source.

But 2020 should be a different story. The cap for 2020-21 is projected at $116 million and Miami has $52 million committed, with Dragic, Whiteside and Tyler Johnson all coming off Miami’s books that summer of 2020.

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That $52 million includes a $16 million player option for James Johnson, $12.7 million to Waiters on the final year of his deal, a $12.2 million player option for Kelly Olynyk, the $10.9 million committed to Josh Richardson and the $350,000 stretch payment for center A.J. Hammons, who was released last season.

But that figure likely will grow by more than $10 million to include a $5.1 million 2020-21 team option on Bam Adebayo's rookie-scale deal, plus contracts for first-round picks in 2019 and 2020.

So that would be more than $62 million in commitments, not including a potential multiyear contract for Winslow and anyone else added on multiyear deals over the next 24 months.

But even with a reasonably priced commitment to Winslow, that would put the Heat in position to have the cap space to bid in 2020 for Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis, if he opts out of a $28.7 million deal for 2020-21 and if he doesn’t sign a super max extension with New Orleans before then.

Miami also would have 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, or Kyle Lowry, not to mention any of the 2019 free agent All-Stars who sign short-term deals.

And the Heat — if it doesn’t add significant money — should have the cap space to accommodate at least two very good players that summer, including one max contract superstar if any are available besides potentially Davis.

Even if the Heat could carve out cap space next summer, it would come with no guarantees, of course.

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Keep in mind that Thompson and his father have both said the All-Star shooting guard wants to remain with the Warriors past 2019, and Leonard’s strong preference is to play in Los Angeles.

Though Irving last summer listed the Heat among four teams he told Cleveland he would like to be traded, there’s growing speculation he could sign with the Knicks if he leaves Boston. And he could get five years and $188 million by signing with Boston next summer compared with four years and $139 million elsewhere.

Butler would be a legitimate option if the Heat somehow created cap space next summer, but creating enough space for buddies Butler and Irving would be nearly impossible.

So if the Heat wants to get involved in 2019 free agency, sign-and-trades remains the most likely course, which requires the other team being a willing participant. And even if Irving wanted to come to Miami, the Celtics might not cooperate in that scenario.

Per source, the Heat signed Duncan Robinson to a two-way contract today. Here's my post with details.

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