The Miami Heat are 11-15 and going nowhere fast. They could pivot into a rebuild this season, but it all comes down to what they do with Goran Dragic.
When I think about the 2018-19 Miami Heat, I think about one of the more disappointing movie theater experiences of my lifetime.
Spider Man 3 wasn’t a bad film – 63 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, if you’re into that kind of thing – but it wasn’t a good one either, which is weird because it seemed like it would be a perfect ending to the trilogy. The entire cast from the first two movies returned, plus the delightful Topher Grace, formerly Oscar-nominated Thomas Haden Church and a pre-Jurassic World-star-turn Bryce Dallas Howard. Sam Raimi was once again at the helm. As Marv would say, it had all the makings.
It’s not like the movie performed badly either…it’s still the 52nd-highest grossing movie of all time. Still, I can’t imagine someone walking out of the theater and not feeling let down. There was an emptiness to the movie, which is ironic because there was so much stuff packed into that two hours and 20 minutes. You had the black suit, Sandman, Venom, New Goblin, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, a fun little musical number…but it was like they threw a bunch of good ideas against a wall and hope it stuck in a way that was pleasing to audiences. By the end, it felt like less would have been more.
Pat Riley knows the feeling. This Miami Heat team was almost universally picked to make the playoffs in part because they were so deep with solid if unspectacular NBA players and are led by a coach who had done it before. Like SM3, the formula was there. It just hasn’t clicked.
Has it been a disaster? Not quite. Miami currently sits ninth in the East entering play on Tuesday, only a half-game behind their in-state rivals, the Orlando Magic. They’re a short winning streak away from climbing to sixth in the standings, and with their All-Star Goran Dragic nearing full health, that’s anything but inconceivable. With a top-ten defense, a nearly dead even net rating and a smart coach, maybe the worst is behind them.
Digging deeper though, it all rings a little hollow. In the league-wide standings, Miami is only ahead of six teams who are trying to lose and the Wizards…so seven teams that are trying to lose. That’s especially bad considering they’ve played the easiest schedule in the league up to this point.
It all prompted Zach Lowe to write the following in this Friday’s “10 Things” column:
Everyone pokes fun at the long-term mediocrity Charlotte, Detroit and a few other franchises might be staring at. The Heat are 9-14 with a bloated cap sheet and an unprotected 2021 first-rounder out the window. Yeah, they are the Heat, with ringz and the lure of South Beach. But how many teams have bleaker outlooks?
It begs the obvious two-part question: should the Heat blow it up, and if so, to what extent can they?
The simple answer is “it’s complicated.”
For a lot of franchises, discussing such matters is black and white. Trade off veteran pieces that are desirable to opposing franchises, watch the losses pile up, and garner the draft rewards that come with them. In Miami, not only are none of these things altogether clear, but the lack of clarity within each arena is interconnected with at least one of the others.
Let’s start with the draft. As Lowe notes, they are out a pick in 2021, so if they’re going to become bad, they have to do it as quickly as possible, for as short a period of time as they reasonably can…and then immediately try to become good again, ostensibly via free agency. That’s not exactly easy to do, for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen several times since the Coup of 2010, max players aren’t always going to be as impressed by Riley’s Bag O’ Rings as LeBron was.
Perhaps the bigger issue though, oddly enough, is the being bad part. It’s wholly unclear whether an Eric Spoelstra-coached team even has it in them to bottom out. As we saw from Saturday’s win over a Clippers team that had previously lost only once at home — a win that came without Dragic, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside — you could give Eric Spoelstra five dudes from the local Y and he’d probably find a way to win 35 games. Even if they sell off all of their desirable parts (more on this in a second), the flames from the wreckage don’t figure to fly nearly as high as some of the dumpsters around the NBA.
This isn’t a reason to do nothing though. It’s easy to see Spo, a healthy Dragic and a leveled-up Richardson (averaging 18.8 points, hitting 40 percent from deep on 6.7 attempts per game, and playing his usual All-World defense) finishing with a record around .500 and another mid-first round pick. They would probably give one of the East’s big boys a run for their money in the first round, but as we saw when they faced Philly last year, they’re simply no match over a seven-game series as currently constituted.
If they had cap room in the near future, this might be ok, but that’s where things get really tricky.
It all starts with Dragic. He is, along with Richardson, one of Miami’s two best players. He will also be 33 at season’s end and just had his right knee drained. He has a player option for next summer for $19.2 million, and it’s anybody’s guess what he does. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that the Heat would benefit if they weren’t the ones waiting around to see what he decides.
If they keep him, the Heat remain somewhere between “interesting” and “meh,” and their pick suffers. Either this summer or next summer, they’re then left deciding whether to re-sign somewhere between the 10th and 15th best point guard in the league into his mid-30’s to a deal that will clutter up a cap sheet currently slated to become a lot cleaner in a year and a half.
Even if Pat Riley is able to coax him to take something in the neighborhood of three years, $45 million, is that a good thing? Would there be a market for Dragic at that price, should they need to move him in a pinch in order to accommodate a better player? It’s possible, but their recent track record of signing decent rotation pieces to deals featuring annual money in the low to mid teens is spotty at best.
Kelly Olynyk, at $13 million per year, is fine. It’s even possible to see him exercising his player option for 2021 and getting back into free agency before his 30th birthday. James Johnson at $15 million is…less fine. Dion Waiters at over $13 million is the opposite of fine, especially given a bum ankle that’s limited him to only 30 of a possible 113 games since signing his contract.
No one is taking on the remaining year-plus of either Hassan Whiteside or Tyler Johnson, at least not without a sweeter. That would make little sense as Miami has no incentive to clear space for this summer, what with them being so far over the cap. That leaves Dragic and Olynyk as obvious trade pieces.
Richardson, who could wind up on his first All-Star team this year, doesn’t seem like someone they’d want to move, and they probably dodged a bullet when the Jimmy Butler trade fell through. Barring someone offering a sure-thing young player and a decent pick, the Heat would be wise to hang on to Richardson. At two years and only $21 million total remaining on his contract after this season, he’s among the best values in the league.
Even if their floor is the sixth or seventh worst team in basketball sans Dragic and Olynyk, it pays to see what they could get for either guy. It’s tough to imagine Olynyk by himself netting an asset in return, but it’s possible if they swap him out for the equivalent salary of a worse player. Who knows what’s going on with the Rockets or what they’re going to get from Brandon Knight, but that could make some sense, as could a swap for Jon Leuer in Detroit.
Thinking up trade scenarios for Dragic is trickier. The teams with a clear need at point guard don’t want someone in his age bracket. Theoretically, his talent should warrant a first round pick in any trade, but what contender – or pretender – is giving one up?
Many teams aren’t going to take the chance Dragic opts in and jeopardizes their potential cap space. Of the remaining teams, none are a perfect fit. Another ball handler doesn’t seem to be the solution to Houston’s issues. Ditto for Portland, who already has two dudes that need the ball.
Dragic would be step up over Reggie Jackson, but what would Detroit realistically pay for an upgrade that isn’t likely to make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Similarly, the Pacers aren’t going to give up a first for the right to swap out Darren Collison and Cory Joseph for Dragic, and T.J. Leaf isn’t enough of a sweetener, especially with those expiring deals having less value to Miami than they would to other teams.
Dallas has Wesley Matthews’ expiring contract just sitting there, but they’re already out a first and bringing in Dragic would further complicate the fit between Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr., who are starting to jive a little. DSJ himself would be a price far too high for Dragic.
San Antonio is set to pay Pau Gasol through next season and has an obvious hole at point guard. The Kawhi trade showed us just how much Greg Popovich values winning now, but it would be bad optics for them to toss away the first rounder they just got from Toronto for Leonard, even if it’ll probably wind up as the 30th pick in the draft. This one isn’t nuts though.
The Grizzlies turn into a scared cub when Mike Conley leaves the court, currently getting outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions during those 15 or so minutes per game. While Dragic and Conley are both having down years shooting from deep, each should theoretically make sense playing alongside the other, as neither is the type of ball-dominant guard who can’t function without it.
The Heat are one of the few teams in a position to take on the remaining money owed to Chandler Parsons, who has not played since October. A swap of Parsons and a first for Dragic and Wayne Ellington (who must approve any trade) works financially, although the pick wouldn’t convey until 2021 at the earliest (the top-eight protected first that Memphis owes to Boston will almost certainly convey this year). This one also makes some sense.
Of every team in the league, no one would seem more desperate to make some kind of a splash in the playoffs than New Orleans. Even though Elfrid Payton has been good for them in the limited games he’s played, injecting Dragic alongside Holiday might mean the difference in a playoff series or two. Solomon Hill and Wesley Johnson work together as salaries, and the Pelicans’ first-rounder feels like an appropriate price.
Then, of course, there’s a possible John Wall trade to be made with Washington, but aside from going against all the logic employed here, it would be very difficult to pull off this season due to the complexities surrounding John Wall’s trade kicker. Still, this would be the most Pat Riley-esqe move on the board.
If the Heat avoid that temptation and unload their solid pieces, they’d probably be looking at top-ten picks in each of the next two years along with a boatload of cap space in 2020, when $46 million worth of Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson come off the books. If they used one of those picks to unload Dion Waiters then-expiring contract, they could be in position to pull in a LeBron-Wade-Bosh level haul exactly ten years after the first one. By that point, a Richardson – Adebayo – Winslow core, supplemented by two high-lottery talents, could prove somewhat attractive when paired with the ever-present allure of South Beach.
It all starts with making the right moves this season. Knowing Riles, they’ll stand pat and fight the good fight.
Just don’t expect the results to be any different.