In the wake of the Heat refusing to include coveted young assets in a proposed trade for Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City instead shipped him to Houston on Thursday night in exchange for point guard Chris Paul and draft picks.
ESPN reported that the Thunder will receive Houston’s first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, and the teams can swap picks in 2021 and 2025 if OKC wishes. The trade will reunite Westbrook with his former Thunder teammate, James Harden.
Though ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported Thursday that Miami was Westbrook’s preferred destination, another ESPN reporter reported after the trade that Houston was the eight-time All Star’s preference.
Regardless, the Heat and OKC had serious talks, and we reported Thursday morning that negotiations with the Heat had broken down because of Miami’s refusal to include Tyler Herro or Bam Adebayo in a deal.
OKC had requested Herro or two among Herro, Adebayo and Justise Winslow.
And now, the Heat is a possibility to acquire Paul, according to ESPN. But for Miami to consider acquiring a player due $124 million over the next three seasons, OKC would need to give the Heat heavy incentive, such as giving the Heat draft picks - potentially the unprotected 2021 Heat pick and/or the 2023 Heat pick that OKC now owns. OKC also would need to take back contracts that the Heat wouldn’t want.
But such a move would make it impossible for the Heat to sign a maximum free agent outright in 2021. The Heat could trade for a disgruntled potential 2021 free agent in the next 18 months in such a scenario.
Paul, 34, is four years older than Westbrook and not as productive or durable. Paul averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists for Houston last season while shooting just 41.9 percent from the field and 35.8 percent on three-pointers.
He’s often injured. Paul has appeared in 61, 58 and 58 games the past three seasons.
And he’s still owed a ton of money - $38.5 million next season (Westbrook’s exact salary) and $41.3 million and $44.2 million the following two seasons.
Paul can be traded immediately by OKC unless his salary is aggragated with another player on the Thunder.
If the Heat doesn’t end up with Paul, Miami will move forward with a likely lineup featuring Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters at guard, Adebayo at center, and Jimmy Butler and Kelly Olynyk at forward, with a bench of Winslow, Herro, Derrick Jones Jr., Meyers Leonard, Kendrick Nunn and James Johnson, among others.
Besides their inability to agree on players, the Heat and Thunder couldn’t agree on financial issues in the deal, with Miami unable to take back contracts exceeding Westbrook’s $38.5 million salary this season because the Heat is operating under a $38.2 million hard cap this season.
That was difficult to reconcile with OKC, which stands $2.25 million above the luxury tax threshold and wants to move below the luxury tax line. But Paul’s contract won’t accomplish that unless OKC trades him to a team sending less money back -- which the Heat is in no position to do under parameters of a hard cap.
The Heat offer would have involved players with one or two years left on their contracts. Miami was apparently willing to send a package of three players including the expiring contract of Dragic.
But unlike OKC, the Heat could not offer the Thunder any draft picks because the Thunder already owns Miami’s picks in 2021 (unprotected) and 2023 (protected), via the Clippers. And the Heat, by league rule, was not permitted to trade another first-round pick.
Another obstacle in the Heat’s talks with OKC, according to a league source, was the Thunder’s request that Miami take the expiring contract of guard Andre Roberson, an offensively-limited, defensively-gifted player who hasn’t appeared in an NBA game in nearly 18 months because of a patellar tendon injury.
Roberson is due $10.7 million next season in an expiring contract.
And there was this issue, too: Because OKC owns Miami’s unprotected pick in 2021, the Thunder had incentive for the Heat to be bad in the 2020-21 season, according to a longtime league executive. So the Thunder wanted to weaken the Heat as much as possible by insisting on acquiring young assets such as Herro and Winslow.
Though Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra wanted Westbrook, they never relented on OKC’s request for Herro - or two among Herro, Adebayo and Winslow - not only because they value those players but also because the Heat wanted to hold onto valuable assets that eventually could be flipped for cap space.
By not acquiring Westbrook, the Heat is now positioned to have less than $15 million in space in the summer of 2020, 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 Jones Jr. if Miami chooses to do so when he becomes a free agent next summer.
But even with less than $15 million 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.
More significantly, the Heat is now positioned to have more than $35 million in cap space in the summer of 2021 - enough to sign a max player that summer.
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), Winslow ($13 million team option), Adebayo ($15.3 million cap hold, though his salary could end up being less), and Herro ($4 million), 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 ESPN said Miami is now a possibility to take on the last three years and $124 million of Paul’s contract, that would leave the Heat without the cap space to sign a free agent in 2021 unless Miami traded for one of those 2021 free agents in the months or year before.