Two months ago, right after his team barely missed the playoffs and before it failed to gain any luck or ground in the draft lottery, Pat Riley used the term “purgatory” to describe the position the Heat was in heading toward the summer.
“That’s where we are right now — sort of between heaven and hell,” Riley said.
It’s hard to tell where Riley feels the Heat stands now after watching the Golden State Warriors go 16-1 in the playoffs and obliterate the field on their way to a second title in three years (and potentially many more). But the way the Heat operates during Thursday night’s NBA Draft could be the first step in deciphering Riley’s plan of action moving forward.
The Heat, which owns the 14th and final pick in the lottery, believes there’s enough talent in the draft to land a player who can contribute in the rotation. But it’s doubtful that will be enough to satisfy Riley, who will have roughly $38 million in projected salary cap space to use this summer once 11-time All-Star Chris Bosh comes off the books.
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While Riley said in April he liked the team that finished the second half of last season 30-11 and would like to keep free agents Dion Waiters and James Johnson in Heat uniforms, he also said he wanted to come back from the summer and have a great team that could contend for a championship. It’s now more obvious than ever catching the Warriors will require significant upgrades to the Heat’s roster.
Although Miami plans to go hard after Jazz All-Star swingman Gordon Hayward in free agency and has interest in Clippers All-Star power forward Blake Griffin, it’s clear the Heat, without an All-Star on its roster, is more than one new addition away from becoming a serious contender. And Riley could orchestrate a draft-day trade or another move before the start of free agency on July 1 to make the Heat more attractive for Hayward or other potential free agents in 2018.
As it stands, the eight players under contract for the Heat next season are center Hassan Whiteside ($23.8 million), point guard Goran Dragic ($17M), forward Josh McRoberts ($6M), guard Tyler Johnson ($5.88M), forward Justise Winslow ($2.8M), guard Josh Richardson ($1.5M), guard Rodney McGruder ($1.3M) and forward Okaro White ($1.3M). The Heat also owns a $6.3 million team option it can wait until July 7 to pick up on veteran swingman Wayne Ellington.
Miami also has a $3.3 million bi-annual exception and a $4.3 million mid-level exception it can use to sign free agents this summer.
All of that is important to note as the Heat waits until roughly 8:45 p.m. Thursday to make the 14th pick. Although Miami (which has its 2018 first-round pick promised to Phoenix as part of the Dragic trade) doesn’t own a second-round pick on Thursday, the Heat does have $3.1 million it can spend to acquire a second-rounder from another team. Next season will be the first time NBA teams will be allowed to sign and protect at least two players down in the development league.
As for the 14th pick, the Heat likes Duke sharp-shooting guard Luke Kennard (he was the Heat’s pick in the NBA beat writers’ mock draft), Louisville combo guard Donovan Mitchell, Gonzaga 7-footer Zach Collins and UCLA stretch-four T.J. Leaf most among players who could be available. Others who worked out for Miami and who are on the rader include Wake Forest big man John Collins, North Carolina high-scoring forward Justin Jackson and athletic 7-footers Justin Patton of Creighton and Jarrett Allen of Texas.
Those eight draft hopefuls mentioned are among a group of 20 players who will be at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Thursday night for the draft. The other dozen include: guards Lonzo Ball (UCLA), De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Markelle Fultz (Washington), Malik Monk (Kentucky), Frank Ntilikina (France) and Dennis Smith (North Carolina State), and forwards Bam Adebayo (Kentucky), O.G. Anunoby (Indiana), Jonathan Isaac (Florida State), Josh Jackson (Kansas), Lauri Markkanen (Arizona) and Jayson Tatum (Duke).
“We like 12 through 20,” Riley said back in April of the players projected to go in that range of the draft.
“I do believe that between 12 and 20 … that there will be a very good player in the draft. We’ll probably take the best player, depending on free agency and who’s going to stay and not going to stay. But I do like some of the players that I saw. And possibly some of these guys from 12 to 20 could be better than the guys from seven to 12.”
2017 NBA DRAFT
When, where: 7 p.m., Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
TV, radio: ESPN; 790 The Ticket
The Miami Heat’s Draft Party: Fans are welcome to join Heat legends Alonzo Mourning and Glen Rice along with Heat broadcasters beginning at 6 p.m. at the XFinity East Plaza at AmericanAirlines Arena. for the show. The event is free for all fans and parking is free in the P2 garage while spaces last. The first 2,000 fans in attendance will receive a Heat t-shirt. Registration is required and available online only at http://rsvp.heatexperience.com/DraftParty_RSVP.