The Heat has arrived at the intersection now, and in the coming days or weeks, there will be no turning back.
Whichever path the Heat takes will shape the franchise’s future for years.
Miami could take the road to immediate relevance, the one that involves sacrificing future cap space by trading for Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook. That’s the course that the Heat is pursuing, according to multiple league sources.
Or, if the Heat finds OKC’s asking price to be unappealing, it could hold off on adding a second star this summer and leave itself flexibility to do so in 2021 or potentially earlier in a sign-and-trade.
Basing these numbers on the strong possibility that Westbrook would waive his 15 percent trade kicker to facilitate a trade, here’s how each road for the Heat could look, in the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021:
▪ Summer of 2020 if Miami gets Westbrook: It’s difficult to imagine the Heat having any cap space next summer if it acquires Westbrook this summer, because Westbrook will be earning $41.4 million in 2020-21 and Miami likely will trade at least one expiring contract (Goran Dragic and/or Meyers Leonard) to acquire him.
So in this scenario, Miami’s only ability to upgrade next summer would be through trades or with a mid-level exception.
▪ Summer of 2020 if Miami does not get Westbrook: In this scenario, the Heat would have less than $15 million in space, not enough to sign a top player from a weak free agent class.
Miami now stands at $102.5 million in commitments for 2020-21, below the projected $118 million cap. But that doesn’t include the cost of a 2020 first-round draft selection ($3 million or so if the Heat picks in the mid-to-late teens).
It also doesn’t include the $1.6 million non-guaranteed deals for Yante Maten and Duncan Robinson if they’re still with the team, plus whatever it would cost to re-sign Derrick Jones Jr. if Miami chooses to do so when he becomes a free agent next summer.
But even if Miami has only $10 million to $15 million or so in space next summer, that flexibility would make it easier for Miami to absorb salary if it trades for any player, including a top 2021 free agent, in exchange for expiring contracts and other assets. The Heat also would have a $5 million room exception that cannot be combined with cap space.
The top 2020 free agents, beyond Anthony Davis, include DeMar DeRozan ($40.6 million first-year max), Draymond Green (a $34.8 million first-year max), and Kyle Lowry with the next tier including Danilo Gallinari, Fred Van Vleet, Derrick Favors, Serge Ibaka, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol.
The Heat also could pursue a trade for a 2021 free agent next summer if Westbrook is under contract, but there would be less financial flexibility to do that if Westbrook is on the team.
▪ Summer of 2021 if Miami does not get Westbrook: Though the NBA doesn’t estimate the cap that far ahead, Spotrac.com projects a $121 million cap for 2021-22, and it could rise higher than that if the NBA’s revenues continue to increase.
At the moment, the Heat has $75.4 million in cap commitments for 2021-22 for six players, but only $37.9 million of that is guaranteed: Butler ($36.1 million guaranteed), KZ Okpala ($1.8 million guaranteed), Justise Winslow ($13 million team option), Bam Adebayo ($15.3 million cap hold, though his salary could end up being less), and Tyler Herro ($4 million; he is currently unsigned, but if he is on the team in 2021 this $4 million will be guaranteed), plus a $5.2 million cap hit for Ryan Anderson, whose cap hits were stretched over three seasons after his release on Saturday.
Keep in mind that Winslow’s $13 million for 2021-22 is a team option, but one that very likely will be exercised unless he regresses or the Heat needs his space to add a max player in 2021.
For projection purposes, another $4 million or so must be added to 2021-22 payroll projections to account for Miami’s 2020 first-round draft pick (the 2021 pick has been traded and is now owned by OKC) and another $6 million must be added for modest mandatory cap holds for empty roster spots.
But even with that extra $10 million — and even if Adebayo ends up signing for something in that $15 million per-year range — the Heat would still be in the range of $85 million in commitments, which is about $36 million below Spotrac’s projected cap. That would be close enough for Miami to be able to execute a max deal for, hypothetically, Bradley Beal, who can make $36.9 million in the first year of a max deal.
And remember, the Heat could carve out more space by trading Adebayo or signing him for less, in the first year of a deal, than his $15.3 million cap hold or by moving on from Winslow, though that’s not the preference.
The potential 2021 unrestricted free agent group that summer could include Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Beal, Gordon Hayward, C.J. McCollum, Victor Oladipo, Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Rudy Gobert.
What’s more, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Paul George, Jrue Holliday, and Spencer Dinwiddie have player options to become free agents that summer of 2021.
There also could be a group of high-end restricted free agents in that summer of 2021, including Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox, Lauri Markkanen, and Jayson Tatum.
The Heat loves Beal — a UF grad and longtime admirer of Dwyane Wade — and is expected to be a serious contender for him in 2021 if he doesn’t sign an extension with Washington. Though McCollum has never given any indication he wants to leave Portland and easily could finish his career there, an associate insists he also holds the Heat and South Florida in high regard. Oladipo would be another likely target.
▪ Summer of 2021 if Miami gets Westbrook: Miami still could potentially carve out $25 million or so in 2021 cap space even with Butler and Westbrook on the roster, but only if there’s nobody else on the roster besides Okpala at $1.8 million and Ryan Anderson’s $5.2 million cap hit. That $25 million would mostly or entirely disappear if the Heat keeps Winslow at $13 million and retains Adebayo.
So if the Heat wants a third max-money star to add to Westbrook (who will be earning $44.2 million in 2021-22) and Butler (earning $36.1 million that season), it would need to come via a trade with whatever assets Miami still has.