Barry Jackson

Heat isn’t in Durant mix, but injury and looming decision could create quandary for Riley

Raptors fans go wild after Kevin Durant goes down with Achilles injury

Raptors fans react at Toronto’s Mississauga Celebration Square after the Warriors' Kevin Durant went down with an Achilles injury.
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Raptors fans react at Toronto’s Mississauga Celebration Square after the Warriors' Kevin Durant went down with an Achilles injury.

Golden State star Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles’ tendon — which is expected to sideline him all of next season — will primarily affect the franchises that planned to try to sign him this summer, including his current team as well as the Knicks, Nets and Clippers - each of whom hoped to lure Durant and become immediate contenders next season.

But it also will have ripple effects on a bunch of other teams, including Miami, with Heat president Pat Riley now potentially facing an interesting philosophical decision.

If Durant opts for free agency this summer, the impact on the Heat for next season will be negligible and Riley won’t need to make any type of significant decision involving Durant.

But if Durant exercises his $31.5 million opt-in and spends next season around the Warriors rehabbing after surgery, then he would join Anthony Davis as the prized free agents in the 2020 class.

Because the 2020 free agent class is bereft of All Stars beyond Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green, the Heat has been considering ways to improve the team now — even if it means taking on additional financial commitments beyond next season — instead of necessarily waiting for cap relief in 2020.

If Durant delays free agency a year, that could make Riley rethink whether to maintain maximum cap space in 2020 instead of trying to acquire a player, such as Memphis point guard Mike Conley Jr. or even Houston’s Chris Paul, who would drastically diminish Miami’s potential space in 2020 presuming either Goran Dragic or Hassan Whiteside is part of such a trade. (Neither Dragic nor Whiteside can be traded until they formally exercise opt-ins for next season by a June 29 deadline, which is expected.)

Even with the major injury, there’s by no means any assurance that Durant will opt into the final year of his Warriors contract, with a decision required by the end of the month.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the Nets’ former assistant general manager, said on Tuesday that he spoke with three teams, and all of them remain willing to pursue Durant in free agency this summer if he opts out.

“I said … If you had cap space, would you go out and sign Kevin Durant knowing that he will likely be out maybe the whole year?” Marks said. “And the resounding answer was ‘yes.’ Each of the teams also said that they wouldn’t even put any injury language in there for maybe years three and four to protect. So, yes, there will be a marketplace for Kevin Durant this summer, either with a team for four years, [$160]million dollars or even back in Golden State here.”

Durant also could opt out of his Warriors contract and re-sign with them for five years and $221 million.

The notion of Durant exercising free agency this summer to sign with another team would be risky because he wouldn’t know at least some of the personnel that would surround him when he’s healthy enough to play in another year. He wouldn’t know, for example, if the player the Knicks select third overall in this draft will become a top player.

Signing a long-term deal with the Warriors would carry far less uncertainty about the players that would surround him.

Though the Heat was among six teams granted a meeting with Durant in 2016 free agency — when he ultimately opted to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State — Miami would be viewed as a long shot if Durant opts for free agency in 2020.

That could change if the Heat lands a highly-impactful player at No. 13 in next week’s draft, finishes high in next year’s draft lottery and/or if Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo significantly improve their games next season, thus making a potential Heat supporting cast far more attractive for high-end free agents.

At the moment, the Heat wouldn’t even have enough cap space in 2020 to offer max contracts to Durant or DeRozan. Davis — who hopes to be traded this summer — reportedly would like to join the Lakers or Knicks and hasn’t included Miami on a list of preferred destinations.

With its current contracts, factoring in an expected Ryan Anderson buyout this summer, plus a $4.2 million 2020-21 cap hit for this year’s first-round draft pick, the Heat has about $78 million in cap commitments for 2020-21.

But that figure will increase when factoring in next year’s first-round pick. If it’s a high pick, the cost could top $8 million. If it’s in the mid-teens, it could be in the $3 million range.

If next year’s first-round Heat pick is hypothetically in the mid-teens, Miami’s cap commitments would grow to nearly $82 million. With the 2020-21 salary cap projected at $116 million, that would leave the Heat with about $34 million in cap space next summer.

That wouldn’t be enough to pay Durant or DeRozan their $40.6 million first-year maximum salary, though Miami likely could achieve that space if either player decided to join the Heat. Green’s first-year max would be $34.8 million.

If the Heat decides not to take on more money beyond this season in a trade, then other unrestricted free agent options for the Heat’s cap space in 2020 — besides the aforementioned players — would include Toronto point guard Fred Van Vleet, the Clippers’ Danilo Gallinari, Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell, Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr. and potentially Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes.

Other potential ripple effects of the Durant news that could impact Miami:

Any fear of the Knicks building a super team immediately and overtaking the Heat in the Eastern Conference hierarchy next season has diminished at least to an extent.

With Durant unavailable for next season, the Knicks — who have two max salary slots this summer — will need to focus their efforts on Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Klay Thompson.

But ESPN has reported that Irving and the Nets have strong mutual interest, and the Warriors are considered front-runners to retain Thompson.

And the Knicks would be underdogs in the competition to lure free agent Kawhi Leonard, who has been linked to the Clippers if he doesn’t re-sign with Toronto.

Other teams hoping to lure Durant might instead turn to Harris or Butler, which could make it difficult for the 76ers to keep both. But even with only one of those two, the 76ers would still be positioned to remain ahead of the Heat in the East.

Here was our exclusive earlier today on a key Heat pre-draft session on Thursday.

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