Barry Jackson

Examining the difficult decision looming on Heat’s Winslow

Heat forward Justise Winslow shoots over Sixers center Joel Embiid in the first half of Game 3 of this playoff series. Winslow is eligible for a contract extension this summer and can become a restricted free agent next summer.
Heat forward Justise Winslow shoots over Sixers center Joel Embiid in the first half of Game 3 of this playoff series. Winslow is eligible for a contract extension this summer and can become a restricted free agent next summer.

Among the fundamental questions facing the Heat during the next 13 months: Do you commit more big long-term money to a pretty good player on a team that’s up against the luxury tax and not a title contender?

Such is the conundrum with Justise Winslow, who improved his stock in the Heat’s eyes with his improved three-point shooting last season to complement his strong defensive and ball-handling skills.

But making a long-term investment in Winslow — a decision that now looms — will further restrict Miami’s cap and tax flexibility.

Winslow is set to become a restricted free agent next summer, and the Heat has three realistic options: 1. Sign him to an extension before the start of this upcoming regular season, the league’s deadline for such matters; 2. trade him next season or 3. attempt to retain him next summer, with the risk of another team making an offer that Miami would find unappealing.

Losing Winslow for nothing next summer would be the least appealing scenario, and one the Heat hopes to avoid. By previously extending a $4.7 million qualifying offer, the Heat ensured that it will have the right to match any offer next summer.

According to a team source, the Heat hasn’t given Winslow an indication of whether an offer will be made this offseason. Though no decision has been made, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Heat waits until next year to make a decision on Winslow. Last year, the Heat approached Josh Richardson with a four-year, $41 million extension in August.

But from all indications, the Heat hasn’t been offering Winslow in trades.

Allowing a player to enter restricted free agency comes with risks. Consider Memphis’ four-year, $37 million deal this week with 6-9 small forward Kyle Anderson, an offer that the Spurs declined to match.

For perspective, Anderson averaged 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 52.7 percent from the field but just 33 percent on threes.

Winslow, conversely, averaged 7.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists, while shooting 42.4 percent overall and 38.0 percent on threes.

Both Anderson and Winslow are very good defenders and ball-handlers.

One general manager said in Las Vegas this week that he could see Winslow getting a contract starting at $9 million or so.

What’s more, cap space will be more plentiful in the league next summer, creating a potentially richer market for restricted free agents. This summer, Anderson and Chicago’s Zach LaVine (four years, $80 million) got offer sheets and sizable deals, but other prominent restricted free agents (Clint Capela, Marcus Smart, Rodney Hood, among others) haven’t signed offer sheets or new contracts.

But the Heat already is in a difficult cap predicament, needing to shed $43 million next summer to carve out salary cap space for a max player, which at this point seems unrealistic. If Winslow gets $9 million from the Heat in 2019-20, that number grows to $52 million and would push the Heat’s current salary commitments to $128 million for that 2019-20 season, well above that season’s projected $109 million cap and barely below the $131 million tax threshold.

And that doesn’t even include Wayne Ellington, who will be a free agent again next summer but will have full Bird Rights.

A long-term commitment to Winslow also would lessen the Heat’s projected ample cap space in the summer of 2020.

Factoring in players under contract, plus first-round draft picks in 2019 and 2020, and an option year assuredly to be picked up on Bam Adebayo, Miami would have about $62 million projected on the books for 2020-21, barring trades. Adding Winslow at $9 million that season would leave the Heat about $45 million below the projected $116 million salary cap, removing any thoughts of having the space to add two max players instead of one.

After missing the second half of the 2016-17 season because of shoulder surgery, Winslow played in 68 games this past season and led the Heat in rebounding at 6.6 during the five-game playoff series against Philadelphia.

“It’s been a long ride, ups and downs,” he said of his Heat journey since being drafted 10th overall in 2015. “I definitely played better the second half of the season and in the playoffs.”