The Miami HEAT are still supposed to be doomed.
With his team coming off a furious 30-11 finish that still left it a tiebreak short of the playoffs, Pat Riley made the inexplicable decision to double down. After missing out on Gordon Hayward in free agency, the HEAT immediately moved to bring back the core of a team that was the league’s best story over the second half of 2016-17.
Narrative and nostalgia, of course, have never been enough for Riley. But his notorious competitiveness won out regardless when Miami’s road forward forked into a full-scale rebuild, or bringing a .500 team with scant room to grow back together.
Even two years later, after the cap spiked $10 million, the length and amount on these contracts remain jarring.
Four years and $60 million with a player option for James Johnson. A fully-guaranteed $47 million over four years for Dion Waiters. $45 million over the same timeframe for Kelly Olynyk, including a final-year option. Josh Richardson’s four-year, $42 million extension was a steal at the time and has aged even better, but still contributed to Miami punting on cap space for the foreseeable future.
Two full seasons and a franchise-changing trade later, the HEAT are still reeling from their 2017 summer splurge. Johnson, Waiters and Olynyk account for nearly $40 million – more than a third of the cap – of their committed salary for 2020-21. As it stands now, Miami will enter free agency next year with approximately $13 million of wiggle room. If Riley and Andy Elisburg could go back in time to re-sign only two of those incumbents, their team would be within easy shouting distance of a max-level salary slot.
The good news is that the HEAT probably don’t even want one. Next summer’s free agent class is thoroughly underwhelming at the top. The following year will be stacked with available stars, and that’s when Miami has always been planning to pounce.
At the time, critics of the trade for Jimmy Butler harped on the likelihood that his presence wouldn’t be enough to entice top-tier free agents in 2021. That still might be true.
Butler has been an absolute force of effort, intellect and intensity on both ends for the HEAT. It’s no coincidence his plus-13.6 net on-off rating, per NBA.com, leads the team by a wide margin. But his lack of reliable three-point range looms largest in the playoffs, and he’s struggled to finish at times this season, shooting an ugly 40 percent on drives. Butler is already 30, and his star-level impact offensively relies a lot on athleticism.
This team isn’t making an implicit case to future free agents with Butler and a mishmash of overpaid veterans, either. Johnson was kicked out of training camp for failing to pass his conditioning test and has appeared in only six games. Almost a month to the day after a fiasco with an edible on the team place, Waiters was just suspended again. Olynyk’s place toward the back of the rotation won’t be safe come playoff time.
It’s their replacements who have drastically altered the HEAT’s short and long-term fortunes. Thank God, too. Watching Butler try and drag an aging, topped-out team to the playoffs would have been debilitating. Instead, he’s the cog of arguably of the most exciting, dogged young team in basketball.
It was impossible to see that reality coming even before this season tipped off. Miami believers were counting on the continued growth of Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow to justify their optimism, and both players – though to differing extents – have lived up to that bargain. Adebayo should get votes for both Most Improved Player and All-Defense at the season’s end. Winslow’s imminent switchability and offensive versatility have been instrumental to the HEAT’s success, even if he’s regressed as a jump-shooter.
But it’s Miami’s remaining young players who have helped push its ceiling from potential playoff team to hopeful Eastern Conference contender – one of the most shocking team-wide developments of the season.
Kendrick Nunn spent last season in the G-League, and despite cooling off after a red-hot start, seems destined to for All-Rookie honors. Fellow first-year pro Tyler Herro has already scored at least 20 points six times this season, and his shooting versatility and developing floor game make him a perfect complementary offensive piece in Erik Spoelstra’s system. Of the 38 players launching at least four catch-and-shoot triples per game, Duncan Robinson’s scorching 45.7 percent shooting ranks fourth. After missing most of November with injury, Derrick Jones Jr. hounded Trae Young into one of his worst games of the season, staking a forceful claim as the HEAT’s designated stopper.
It’s tempting to wonder just how much better Miami would be if the front office wasn’t still throwing cash at Johnson, Waiters and Olynyk. Their salary slots are big, and almost every free agent gives at least a passing glance at the HEAT. It goes without saying that Riley and Elisburg would have made major moves over the last two summers if not for those contracts eating away at their books.
But it’s also self-evident that Miami wouldn’t have unearthed gems like Nunn, Robinson and Jones unless its hand was forced into digging. Maybe the HEAT are better off entering 2021 having proven to Giannis Antetokounmpo and other superstars that they can find those diamonds in the rough when necessary. LeBron James was probably always going to leave South Beach in 2014, but the front office’s inability to find cheap, young talent to put around him undoubtedly made his decision easier.
Worrying about the future in the present, though, is no longer a necessity for Miami. Against all odds, the HEAT have rebuilt a roster that last season was already proven as destined to fail.
Where they go from here is unknown, but the possibilities now are far greater than they were even two months ago – and Riley has guys like Nunn, Robinson and Jones to thank for it more than anyone else.
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