Greg Cote

Being out of the playoffs is bad enough for Heat — being out of the mix might be worse | Opinion

We were the parade, once. Now we’re on the curb, watching. The NBA is somebody else’s party now. Miami has gone from epicenter to spectator.

Basketball summers in South Florida were nearly as exciting as the seasons because Pat Riley and the Heat could be expected to be “in the room” with top free agents. Now here we are, water all around us and not a whale in sight.

Being out of the playoffs is bad enough.

Being out of the mix might be worse.

Miami has stopped being a destination franchise, at a time when top superstars increasingly are finding a way to flex their power and pick their city — something that burst into vogue when LeBron James famously and dramatically chose Miami in ever-distant 2010.

Nearly a decade later, Heat fans still getting used to the downturn from LeBron leaving and the Big 3 era ending after four seasons now face life after Dwyane Wade era., the first season without him since 2002-03.

The end of the Wade era leaves Miami starless and seeming closer to hopeless — at least for now — than to anything approaching contention for a fourth championship.

Miami will pick 13th overall in Thursday night’s NBA Draft (if it doesn’t work a trade), and hopes to get someone with immediate impact as at least a rotation guy. Of course in this league there is always a huge drop-off after the first handful of picks, so the draft figures to inch the Heat forward rather than amount to a quantum leap.

Free agency starts June 30, but with no money to offer a maximum contract Miami is stuck, sitting this out, watching other teams at the high-stakes table. Maybe the summer of 2020, or perhaps ‘21, will find The Old Man and the Sea, Riley, with enough salary-cap room to boat one last whale before he retires.

For now the Heat is stuck, hamstrung because Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic both opted into their contracts to stay, as expected, gobbling up a combined $46.3 million in payroll next season.

Miami so wanted Whiteside to opt out and become a free agent, a club source told us. Benching him for the last quarter of last season was meant to accelerate the growth of Bam Adebayo but also to send a message to Whiteside that the team was moving past him.

Whiteside reportedly will ask the Heat to trade him. But the market will be weak for a 30-year-old player due $27.1 million and coming with a rep for moodiness and inconsistency. Even if there are takers, Miami’s return might not be bountiful. And Al Horford, a more highly regarded center, opting out of his contract with Boston, further hurts Miami’s chances of trading Whiteside.

Adebayo, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson all continuing to develop gives Miami a nice young little nucleus — more importantly, a selling point to prospective free agents in a year or two. Guys don’t move just for money now; they move to join other players, to get closer to a championship.

Anthony Davis wanted a trade to the Lakers for LeBron, not for the money or the glitz of L.A.

Miami needs to add a superstar (or two) of that heft to compete for titles again.

Second-tier free agents who would interest Miami — thinking Julius Randle, thinking Jimmy Butler — would improve the Heat, but not to a contending level. But Miami doesn’t have the cap space to sign a Butler or even Randle, and a sign-and-trade with their teams likely would mean Miami breaking up their core three of Adebayo, Winslow and Richardson.

So, realistically, other than Thursday’s draft and a minor free agency move or two, Miami figures to sit out the summer And watch other teams improve.

The NBA wins the offseason again, the league quaking with a seismic shift as talent changes uniforms.

Davis’ trade to the LeBrongeles Lakers began it. Will Toronto be able to hold onto premier free agent Kawhi Leonard? What teams will be showing the most faith in available Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Klay Thompson (knee) despite their recent serious injuries? Where will Kyrie Irving land? And will Zion Williamson, expected to be the No. 1 overall pick by New Orleans on Thursday night, boom into the league as the biggest arrival since LeBron?

Refreshingly there is no consensus anymore on who The Best Player is. Start with the seven guys mentioned in the paragraph above. Of course include Steph Curry, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe even Paul George, Joel Embiid or Russell Westbrook?

They all have one thing in common.

None of them plays for the Miami Heat.

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