Greg Cote

Here's how Miami Heat got stuck in NBA purgatory. Now, can Pat Riley find a way out?

Miami Heat president Pat Riley and Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra at Miami Heat training camp.
Miami Heat president Pat Riley and Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra at Miami Heat training camp. The Palm Beach Post

It isn't a mess that Pat Riley's Miami Heat finds itself in as NBA free agency nears But it is a no-man's land, a sort of stuck-in-the-middle purgatory that the Godfather must find a way to escape.

Can he? The heft of his résumé tells us yes, that the 73-year-old club president has a last hurrah in him. But will he? That's unknowable. We only know with near certainty that it won't be now, because the hamstrung Heat is a summer spectator to the NBA party.

Miami had no selections in Thursday night's draft; only Toronto also had zero. And more importantly the Heat has insufficient salary-cap maneuverability to be a serious player in free agency commencing July 1.

"We've always thought big," said Riley on draft night. "But it might not be the kind of summer that you may think that something big can happen."

In other words, lower your expectations, Heat fans. Riley loves to go summer fishing for the top-tier free agents he calls "whales," but he finds himself this time without the right tackle or a big enough boat.

Top available superstar LeBron James will make some team's dream come true. Fellow free agent Paul George will land somewhere, and San Antonio could end up trading Kawhi Leonard. But it would be a stunner if Riley is being coy with his modest expectations and had a secret plan to land any such major star.

Miami is where it is — competitive, pretty good, but with no map to get to where Golden State is — because of a combination of bad luck and questionable decisions since LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014 after helping Miami reach four consecutive Finals and win two championships.

The faultless bad luck was that LeBron didn't choose to re-up with Miami despite best efforts, and that Chris Bosh would see his career end prematurely by blood clots. (Bosh, even at 34, would still be the Heat's best player, right now).

As for the questionable decisions, post-LeBron?

I wonder, in retrospect, if Goran Dragic was worth two first-round draft picks.

I wonder more if Hassan Whiteside was worth that $98 million contract, or even what his future is with the team. I also wonder if Tyler Johnson and then Dion Waiters and James Johnson are worth the big contracts they were given. Those four deals are why Miami is well over the salary cap, close to a luxury tax penalty, and unable to go whaling this summer.

After using its $5.4 million midlevel exception to hopefully re-sign Dwyane Wade, and finding a way to keep three-point ace Wayne Ellington, Miami will be down to pocket change. That means Miami will be relying on pretty much the same roster that last season went 44-38 and got bounced decisively in the first round of the playoffs by Philadelphia. A healthy Waiters is being counted on.

The Heat has had a winning record (170-158) and made the playoffs in two of four seasons, post-LeBron, because it is in Riley's DNA to always compete, to never tank. That is admirable — but not without cost. Tanking brings (very) high draft picks; it was four consecutive seasons averaging 15.6 wins, for example, that brought Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to Philadelphia.

Golden State did a lot of losing big in 2008-12 as a step to its massive metamorphosis. The Los Angeles Lakers have been plotting and planning through years of down seasons to have the salary-cap wherewithal they now enjoy to be a major player in free agency this summer — reportedly in strong play for the grand prize LeBron.

Riley doesn't do the tank-now, draft-high-later thing, and since LeBron left he has missed trying to land whale Kevin Durant and then missed trying to win big fish Gordon Hayward.

That forced him to cobble together the best team he could. To spend big for Dragic, gamble big on Whiteside, arguably overpay for Waiters and the two Johnsons and rely on a roster replete with solid players and depth, but lacking a transformative star. (Wade is now a superstar emeritus, and if he remains Miami's best player, at 36, that is a compliment to Wade and not a good place for your roster to be).

Miami does have promising young talent in Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow, but is anybody on the roster capable of being your No. 1 player moving forward? Or is the Heat a team full of complementary players in need of a top-tier superstar to lift them? Or perhaps a superstar or two, because that is the modern-day NBA, and the distance , it seems, between the Heat and championship contention.

Riley has spent a Hall of Fame career conquering challenges, but this is a huge one.

He has to find a way for his pretty good little team to get from here to Golden State.

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