Barry Jackson

ESPN analyst and former NBA team scouting director surprised by Heat’s new approach

Miami Heat president Pat Riley says it will be difficult for the Heat to make significant moves this summer because of their salary cap and luxury tax situations.
Miami Heat president Pat Riley says it will be difficult for the Heat to make significant moves this summer because of their salary cap and luxury tax situations. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Among the questions we’ve heard from basketball people this summer: How could Heat president Pat Riley — who values the flexibility needed to pounce on opportunities to acquire a star — put himself in this position, with pretty good, but not elite, players clogging his cap until 2020?

“I always felt Miami’s strength was finding those diamonds in the rough, developing them, and when it comes time to paying them, let somebody else pay them and then we’ll go find the next guy,” ESPN analyst and former Suns scouting coordinator Amin Elhassan told me as he watched summer league games in Las Vegas last month.

“They do the best job in the league in terms of utilizing their G-league team, not only as a scouting device but as a development device. You look up and down their roster and see how many reclamation projects they have. I always felt like I would have thought they would have bet on their ability to do that and see some of those guys leave. They didn’t really do that.”

And now, Elhassan said, “it’s going to be interesting to see how they maneuver. The nice thing about the way the cap is nowadays is most of these contracts are four-year deals so we’re coming out on the end of them anyway. The goal is not just to be cap solvent immediately but if we need to make room, we can. That’s one of the philosophies, ideas, that this is Miami, we don’t tank no matter what. They were a competitive team last year. If they had Dion Waiters, it [could have been better].”

Elhassan said working with ESPN’s Dan Le Batard has given him some additional insight:

“Dan obviously is really close to Pat, and Dan always talks about, Pat’s at a different stage of his life now. He’s not the Pat Riley of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, maniacal, obsessed. He’s sort of more relaxed and mellowed out as he is coming toward the end of his time doing this on a full time basis.”

Others say the Heat is hardly doomed by its lack of financial flexibility.

“Pat’s done a fantastic job because he has contracts you can move and if you are not able to move them, you have players who can still play at a playoff level,” NBA TV analyst and former Heat guard Steve Smith said

Former NBA executive and Vancouver Grizzlies (and ex-Knicks coach) Stu Jackson, now an analyst for NBA TV, said in Las Vegas last month that he doesn’t view the Heat as “stuck” despite the fact Miami isn’t projected to have cap space until July 2020.

“I don’t think you can ever look at it as being stuck,” Jackson said. “That’s why NBA teams have invested so much money in skill development. Miami still has some young players that have some upside. That’s where the focus needs to be and that will be the barometer to determine how much better they can get, even in the face of being locked in cap wise. They are not locked in in terms of improvement wise.

“And with Miami, you can never count them out because they have one of the best head coaches in the league. You know they’re going to play hard, be competitive and I do think sorting out the situation with Hassan Whiteside will be a big key for them so they can better take advantage of what it is that he can do.”

Riley gave lucrative longterm deals to James Johnson and Dion Waiters in 2017 because he was encouraged by their strong play during the Heat’s 30-11 finish in 2016-17 and because there were other serious competitors for their services in free agency, with Miami concerned about Denver or Utah luring Johnson.

The Heat matched Brooklyn’s four-year, $50 million offer to Tyler Johnson in 2016 because it had just lost Dwyane Wade and believed the backloaded nature of the deal would give it cap space to add players before then (which Miami did with Wayne Ellington, Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and others).

And the Heat didn’t hesitate to offer Whiteside a four-year, $98 million deal in 2016, because it believed other teams would offer him the max.

“You have seen with these players that got a real legit opportunity that they could perform and could perform on a playoff team,” Riley said recently.

THIS AND THAT

ESPN’s Zach Lowe said this week on his podcast that Houston has explored trading perimeter-shooting power forward Ryan Anderson, with the possibility of attaching a first-round pick as a carrot and that “I’ve heard [the Rockets] have talked to the Heat. The Heat are kicking a lot of tires. I can’t figure out what they’re trying to do, but I could see like Tyler Johnson, same package, same idea: two years of salary left at about the same number.”

But I’m not sure why the Heat would do that, considering Johnson is making $19.2 million each of the next two years compared with $20.4 million and $21.3 million for Anderson. And Miami, already set at power forward, certainly isn’t eager to add to its luxury tax bill.

We’ve been told by two NBA general managers that the Heat has made Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters available in trade talks this summer.

The Heat’s best hope of getting back under the tax threshold might be trading Tyler Johnson for a worse player earning a few million dollars a year less. Such a deal could be appealing to a team not up against the luxury tax.

The Heat hasn’t found an attractive trade market for those three players.

Miami stands $3 million above the luxury tax threshold, with Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem having invitations to return.

Using a complicated analytic formula, ESPN this week predicted Miami will finish with 44.8 wins (yes, 44.8) and sixth in the East. Miami was sixth in the East this past season at 44-38.

But ESPN writer Kevin Pelton said Miami’s projected wins “would take a slight hit if future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade (projected minus-2.4 RPM) decides to return for a 16th season.

So yes, Pelton – citing ESPN’s formula – suggest Miami would win two fewer games if Wade plays.

Heat fans can watch Whiteside play in the third NBA Africa game at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2, from Pretoria, South Africa.

Pat Riley explains why it’s been hard thus far to upgrade the Heat’s roster via trade and why it could be a quiet summer for Miami.

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