Despite missing the playoffs, the Miami Heat’s second half of 2016-17 was the most entertaining NBA plot outside of the serious contenders. The Heat had a moment last season where, after starting 11-30, they flipped it and finished on an incredible 30-11 run. This made for an overall record of 41-41. While fun at the time, it forced the Heat to make some tough decisions this off-season. The choices they made mark a bit of a change in course and run some high risk/high reward potential.
It’s finally almost reached the time where stories about the Heat don’t include lines that start with “Ever since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade left, Miami ..” Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. Here goes: Ever since LeBron James and Dwyane Wade left Miami, the team had several choices. It really was a fork-in-the-road moment. One path was to sign short-term deals and keep cap room. In reality, that path was a plan to replicate – as best they could – the formula that brought that LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach.
If they were being honest, Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and the rest of Heat management would have to admit last season was a surprise. A surprise that wasn’t exactly in their plans. Especially after Chris Bosh was forced into early retirement. Think about it: If the Heat hadn’t made a run at the playoffs, the plan is simple. Keep doing more of the same until they sign a big free agent.
To be fair, the Heat did re-sign Hassan Whiteside to a sizable contract. They also (somewhat unexpectedly) matched the poison pill offer Tyler Johnson received in restricted free agency. But at the heart of their plan was creating a situation for a max contract to come in via free agency. That plan can no longer go forth under the current circumstances.
For what it’s worth, the Miami Heat did not stay out of free agency altogether. They added Kelly Olynyk. They made a strong push for Gordon Hayward but ultimately missed out. Justise Winslow might as well count as an “addition” since he’s entering his third season with only a little more than one season’s worth of games under his belt.
Additionally, University of Michigan’s Derrick Walton, Jr. and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo made their way to South Beach via the draft. For what it’s worth, Adebayo crushed it during the Summer League.
— NBA (@NBA) July 4, 2017
Houston of the East
Miami’s free-agent-or-bust plan ran so counter to what Houston or Boston are doing with their asset-accumulation approach, it’s funny that over one offseason, the Heat are arguably executing that plan more than either Houston or Boston. (Mainly because the Rockets and Celtics are legitimate contenders, so they can’t play the long game the same way Miami can.)
On the other hand, it was really simple for Miami to adapt so quickly. Instead of clearing cap room to sign a superstar during the offseason, they now have a roster full of tradeable assets that can be moved anytime, in theory. Really, Miami hasn’t changed the goal at all – they still want to lure a superstar to South Beach (again) – it’s just that the logical way to make that happen now is through a trade, rather than free agency.
Which is to say: the Heat used to always be mentioned as a possible landing spot for Free Agent X. Now they’re the team everybody else has to talk to as a trade partner. Because they’re perfectly positioned to deal two or three really good players into one great player.
Turning Lemons into Lemonade
For as much credit as the San Antonio Spurs get for finding hidden gems, whether through the draft or turning other teams’ expendable players into role players, one could argue the Miami Heat have done that better than anyone the past few seasons.
The Heat not only hit on a few late draft picks, they get credit for Whiteside realizing his potential, and turning Dion Waiters into the player few thought he was capable of at this point in this career. At least up until he got hurt late in the season.
— NBA (@NBA) January 24, 2017
In having to re-sign Waiters, Whiteside, and James Johnson, the Heat’s feel-good role players of yesteryear are now eating up a sizable portion of the salary cap. Those players must keep progressing for Miami to have a positive return on investment. That poison pill contract of Tyler Johnson’s previously mentioned? He’s set to make $5,821,260. His salary then explodes to $19,245,370 in 2018-19. It also includes a player option for 2019-20 at $19,245,370.
During their Big Three days, Miami would fill the back half of their roster with over the hill, minimum-salaried players looking for a ring in the twilight of their career. Now the back half of the roster is young up-and-comers. Where one injury used to be catastrophic for Miami, they now find success by welcoming the next-man-up approach that undoubtedly gets tested over the course of a season.
That’s not to suggest the Miami Heat will find the same level of success. They most likely won’t. But most NBA fans should find the strategies put into place by different NBA franchises pretty fascinating. If nothing else, it gives the fans a glimpse into how an organization appraises itself. For the Miami Heat, a change in the plan doesn’t mean a change in goals.