Pat Riley insists the Heat is not stuck, that he could get out from under these suffocating contracts that have eliminated the Heat’s cap space and much of its flexibility this offseason.
But unless Riley can do something miraculous and significant with an overpaid roster devoid of a true star, we could be looking at largely the same Heat roster for another year, with the same nucleus that has gone 125-126 the past three seasons, but now minus Dwyane Wade – the player who was the biggest reason to keep watching through another year of two steps forward, two steps back.
The little team that could - at least during a 30-11 stretch late in 2016-17 - ultimately became the little team that couldn’t, finishing 10th in the East and out of the playoffs.
And if Riley is again unable to overhaul this $140 million roster this summer, this middling nucleus could end up lasting as long in Miami as the Big Three team did – a pretty staggering notion. If that’s the case, the Heat and its fans will need to patiently wait for the summer of 2020, when more than $35 million of cap space will become available.
In the meantime, it’s important that the Heat learn these 10 lessons from the mistakes made in recent years:
▪ Never, ever give a contract of more than two years –preferably one – to a career journeyman. Yes, James Johnson was a revelation in 2016-17 and embodied all of the intangibles the Heat likes in a player, including toughness and versatility. And no, the Heat couldn’t have envisioned the sports hernia surgery that diminished his explosiveness.
After losing out on Gordon Hayward, Riley decided to go all-in on Johnson in 2017, fearing interest from Denver and Utah.
But there was no justification to go four years at that high a number - $15 million per, on average – for a player that had never averaged more than 9.1 points or 4.7 rebounds in seven NBA seasons before coming to Miami.
If Miami simply had gone two years and $30 million on Johnson, it would have considerably more flexibility each of the next two summers, including more than $50 million in space in 2020.
Riley said he had two year deals with Johnson and Dion Waiters if Hayward had signed with Miami. But he should have done two-year deals with each regardless.
▪ Never give longterm contracts to veteran players based on small sample sizes if there’s substantial evidence that the small sample size isn’t reflective of the player’s career body of work.
This could be said for Johnson but also for Waiters, who secured his four-year, $52 million deal basically for 25 exceptional games in the winter and spring of 2017. And Miami knew his ankle could end up being a problem, which it was.
The Heat shouldn’t have assumed he would consistently replicate those 25 games (18.4 points, 49.3 percent shooting, 44.8 on threes) because they were so inflated from his career averages: 13.2 points, 41.2 shooting, 34.7 percent on threes.
Waiters’ four-year deal averages $13 million but will end up closer to $12.5 million because he couldn’t reach game appearance incentives the past two seasons because of ankle surgery. Waiters was a justified risk on a two-year deal, but not a four-year one.
Take Avery Bradley, a better defender than Waiters who has a comparable career scoring average; the Clippers last summer gave him two years and $25 million, which would have been a fair allocation for Waiters.
The hope is that Waiters, 27, still has a ceiling he hasn’t reached; he said he’s going to get in the best shape of his life and come back like an “action figure.” But Erik Spoelstra said he won’t have a major role if he isn’t in shape.
▪ Don’t be afraid, at times, to sacrifice defense for an offensively gifted player.
The Heat on rare occasions will do that, as it did with Wayne Ellington, but Spoelstra had little use for him this season and he was shipped to Phoenix, which waived him.
In retrospect, Indiana made the far wiser move in 2017 free agency by giving Bojan Bogdanovic a two-year, $21 million deal while the Heat was giving four years and $60 million to James Johnson.
Yes, Bogdanovic is a small forward while Johnson is a swing forward.
But Bogdanovic (18 points, 49.7 percent shooting, 42.5 percent on threes this season) has been the far more productive player.
Even though the Heat ranked second in the league in points allowed per game and opposing field goal percentage, that wasn’t enough to compensate for Miami finishing 26th in points per game on offense (ahead of only four teams, all well below .500), 22nd in shooting percent and 23rd in three-point percentage.
In an era with increased scoring, offense must be prioritized alongside defense.
▪ Pay attention to clutch shooting stats.
No team shot worse in the clutch this season than Miami, with only Bam Adebayo, Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk and Josh Richardson shooting better than 39 percent late in close games. Waiters was 2 for 24.
This shouldn’t determine whether a player is signed or not, but it should be a metric considered among many others.
The Heat was 21-24 in games that had a margin of five points or fewer in the final five minutes.
▪ Never succumb to the temptation of matching an onerous backloaded contract for a player who isn’t close to an All-Star.
Tyler Johnson was good value at $5.9 million in 2016-17 and 2017-18. He’s not at $19.2 million this past season and next season. And even though Miami jettisoned him to Phoenix, it’s instead stuck with needing to pay Ryan Anderson $15.4 million simply to go away, with an onerous $15.4 million cap hit next season.
I could understand the Heat believing that Johnson was still an ascending player when it agreed to match that backloaded Brooklyn offer, after losing Wade to Chicago. But Miami unwisely glossed over the downside of having Johnson on the cap at $19.2 million the final two years. It proved more burdensome than the Heat could have imagined, coupled with the James Johnson and Waiters contracts.
▪ Don’t assume that giving most everyone good contracts will result in a happy locker-room.
As one Heat person explained, the organization believed that by giving most everyone sizable contracts, players would consistently play with maniacal effort and everyone would be happy. Neither has been consistently true.
Several players bemoaned inconsistent or diminished playing time.
This November comment from Tyler Johnson was telling: “Most of us got paid. Most of us got good contracts to be able to come back here. So, what are we complaining about?
“I think what’s crazy is before any of us got any money, we were just some dogs. I think that’s what the beautiful thing is. We had to just come together.”
These Heat players are good guys who want to do the right thing and want to grow their games. Nobody is intentionally giving lax effort.
But for some players who defy the odds to become NBA players with big contracts – in other words, truly make it - it’s human nature to lose something of that edge – perhaps only a tiny fraction.
As Wade suggested, some Heat players didn’t get up as much for games against marginal teams as they did for marquee teams –and that shouldn’t happen on a roster with pedestrian talent.
Win a couple more games that Miami should have won (Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix) and this would be a playoff team.
▪ Depth is not always your friend.
Even beyond several players being unhappy about minutes, having a roster with a dozen similarly skilled players has had this negative effect: Some players never knew exactly where they stood.
This comment from Kelly Olynyk, to Miami Herald colleague Anthony Chiang, was telling:
Asked the reason for Heat inconsistency the first half of the season, Olynyk said: “I don’t know. I think the rotations are constantly changing. Guys are in and out of the lineup, the starters are playing and not playing. It’s tough to be consistent there.”
The depth certainly helps when there’s an injury infestation. But in some ways early this season, the depth was counter-productive.
▪ You can’t have the league’s leading rebounder per 36 minutes –and your highest paid player - averaging just 17.3 minutes over his final 19 games.
Unless the Heat can trade Hassan Whiteside or he surprisingly opts out of $27 million next season, Miami must find a way to make it work with Whiteside and Bam Adebayo playing 10 minutes or more a game together next season.
They played just 14 minutes together all season and Spoelstra never gave that tandem a fair chance in games, though they were often paired in practice. Multiple Heat players have said that pairing would work.
Richardson said it would be a “terror” on the boards. Riley will push Spoelstra to use them more together, but Spoelstra’s lack of full trust in Whiteside - or a lineup with Whiteside and Adebayo - is transparent.
▪ Don’t undervalue free throw shooting.
In their one and two-point losses this season, the Heat missed this number of free throws: 9, 8, 10, 6 (out of 12 attempts) and 3 (out of 12 attempts).
If the Heat shot free throws at even an average percentage – instead of the worst team in the league – in those games, that would have been four more wins and a playoff berth.
The Heat finished worst in the league at 69.5 percent from the line, with Winslow (62.8), Waiters (50) and Derrick Jones Jr. (60.7) all far worse than wing players should be.
Spoelstra has said there’s nothing more Miami can do about that. Really?
▪ Don’t assume that culture can mask deficiencies.
Being the so-called hardest-working, best-conditioned team in the league is a noble goal, and one that has paid considerable dividends for Miami over two decades (especially the conditioning part).
Culture – as a marketing slogan – is fine. And you don’t want corrosive characters in your locker-room. But culture cannot overcome talent deficiencies or the type of mindless mistakes and foolish turnovers that plagued this team.
Miami should keep pushing its players to be the best conditioned. But perhaps it’s time to reel in repeated references to Heat culture as a public talking point until this team is good again.
Down cycles are natural in sports, and the Heat has given us plenty of winning. Riley is still a Hall of Fame executive -- and architect of three Heat championship teams --- despite the confounding free agent missteps of recent years.
But besides enjoying Wade’s reunion, the best thing that can be taken from this forgettable cycle of Heat basketball is to never forget these 10 lessons learned.