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Revamping Heat Roster Will be Great Challenge for Pat Riley

The Miami Heat saw their 2017-2018 season end at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers on April 24th following a 104-91 Game 5 loss in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and it’s hard not to call that result expected.

Miami knew this current roster wasn’t good enough to compete for a championship, but team executives were hopeful that they would at least make the semi-finals and be a tough team to fend off there. Instead, what they ended up getting was a 36-year-old Dwyane Wade being the highlight of the team’s season following his homecoming to Miami that began in February, an unpredictable return when you consider everything that went into it.

Wade was traded back to the Heat on February 8 following an organization decision by the Cleveland Cavaliers to complete re-tool their roster around LeBron James. James, who is best friends with Wade, was told by Cleveland brass that the organization had a plan to send Wade back to Miami, but that they wanted him to be content with the plan first. James conceded, saying that in the end it should be Wade’s decision, and the Cavaliers made the deal and acquired a heavily-protected 2024 second-round draft pick they will likely never covet.

James also seemed genuinely happy to see Wade headed back to Miami, as he could often tell that Wade missed being a Heat player. James publicly posted on Instagram on that February day that Wade being in Miami was how it was ‘suppose to be.’

But even the triumph  return of Wade couldn’t overshadow Miami’s major flaws. The Heat’s roster as it was constructed had to rely on internal growth, and it’s safe to say they didn’t get that.

Guard Dion Waiters, who joined the Heat on a prove-it deal in Summer 2016, ended up re-signing with the franchise next summer on a four-year deal worth $52 million that also included incentives for games played. Waiters turned down more money annually from the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks to stay in Miami, and the Heat believed that Waiters could take another leap forward in 2017-2018, even with a lingering left ankle injury.

That leap didn’t happen, and the reason why it mostly didn’t happen can be attributed to that ankle issue. Instability in the ankle caused Waiters to only appear in 30 games, with none of those games coming after Christmas. Not having Waiters to score was part of the reason Miami put an extra emphasis on re-acquiring Wade.

However, even at full health, Waiters isn’t the elite-level scorer you need to win in this league, and the 42% shooting from the field in 2016-2017 will probably be the best shooting percentage anyone across the NBA will ever get out of the Syracuse alum. But the Heat of course thought they would be able to get more consistent production.

Miami prides themselves on being able to maximize a player’s skillset and transform them into an entirely different player, and that’s just what they did for James Johnson. Johnson became a Swiss Army knife for head coach Erik Spoelstra, as a forward that could defend multiple positions and handle multiple offensive responsibilities such as scoring the ball and distributing it. It’s part of the reason why he received the richest payday out of any of the Heat’s free agents last year at $60 million over four years. And to his credit, Johnson’s performance in 2017-2018 has some similarities to his career-year in 2016-2017. But that alone doesn’t warrant the $60 million now attached to his name thanks to Heat executives Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg.

It’s important to remember that not every move the Heat made last off-season deserves criticism and skepticism.  Giving $50 million to Kelly Olynyk raised some eyebrows across the league, but Olynyk became what the Heat were hoping Josh McRoberts would be for them, a very good role playing big who is also an exceptional passer for a big man.

And while the Heat would’ve drafted Donovan Mitchell had he slipped to them at 14 in the 2017 NBA Draft, they were more than happy to land Kentucky big Bam Adebayo. Spoelstra and others within the Heat raved about Adebayo’s work ethic, and his ability to learn hands-on. Many expected that Adebayo would see time with Miami’s NBA G-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, but Adebayo’s presence and energy to the Heat often became infectious at times.

Josh Richardson also turned his best season as a pro following a four-year, $42 million extension, posting career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game. He also started and played in every game except one for the Heat, despite minor injury ailments. Sharpshooter Wayne Ellington, an impending free agent this summer, also turned in the best three-point shooting in Heat history, by breaking the franchise record for the most made threes in a single-season with 227 triples. Ellington knocked down eight threes in 12 attempts in the Heat’s final regular season game to top Damon Jones‘ 225 threes made in 2004-2005.

So while there was plenty of good with the bad, the bad often overruled the good for Miami in 2017-2018, and you know that’s what Riley will be looking at and thinking about all off-season, as he told ESPN last April that he doesn’t plan on retiring until he can win another championship.

So how will Riley do that? It’s starts by first cleaning up the team’s messy salary cap sheet.

Right now, the Heat project to be a team that would need to pay the luxury tax in 2018-2019, as they are currently looking at a $121,990,423 payroll right now. While the threshold is slated to be $123 million right now, re-signing both Wade and Udonis Haslem to deals worth the veteran’s minimum would put the team over the threshold. And while Wade and Haslem may chose to retire instead of re-upping with the Heat, re-signing Ellington would surely put the team over the threshold. Exercising Jordan Mickey‘s $1.6 million team option and re-signing Luke Babbitt would also trigger the same scenario.

Let’s just say Heat owner Micky Airson definitely won’t be paying the luxury tax for a mediocre team.  It’s critical to understand why the Heat’s payroll is increasing organically even with expiring deals. There are two major culprits for the ballooning of finances:

  1. It was previously mentioned that Richardson agreed to a four-year, $42 million extension with the Heat in the off-season. That extension will begin in 2018-2019, and Richardson will see his salary increase from $1.4 million to $9.3 million.
  2. The most notable salary increase comes with guard Tyler Johnson, who will go from making $5.8 million to $19.2 million next season. The almost $14 million salary spike can be attributed to the poison-pill provision the Brooklyn Nets put into Johnson’s contract when they signed him to an offer sheet in July 2016. Miami decided to match the offer sheet, which in total turned out to be a four-year, $50 million contract.

It can be safely assumed that Richardson won’t be traded by the Heat this off-season, even though his no-trade restriction for one-year has been officially lifted. Miami reportedly would only trade Richardson in a deal for a star player, and while there will be several star players likely available via trade this off-season, it’s unlikely to expect the Heat to be able to piece together a compelling trade offer for any level of a star player.

That means out of everyone on the Heat’s roster, (Tyler) Johnson is most likely to be traded by Miami this off-season. But it won’t be easy, because in-addition to the ballooning of his salary, there is also a 15% trade kicker. That means Johnson’s salary will increase by 15% if he is traded, which would bring his salary in 2018-2019 to over $20 million. Johnson could waive the trade kicker if requested, but that’s a whole different situation.

With all of these factors, it’s likely the Heat will have to attach some form of attractive compensation to Johnson for a rival team to trade for him. Lucky for the Heat’s sake, they are able to trade their 2019 first-round draft pick this off-season, so it’s possible they could attach that pick to Johnson in hopes that someone will trade for him.

The pick also doesn’t have to be the 2019 first-rounder. Miami will now own 6 of their next 7 draft picks after they officially send their 2018 first-round draft pick to the Phoenix Suns in June thanks to the Goran Dragic trade, with the other first-round draft pick set to be due in 2021. That means as many as three first-round draft picks will become trade eligible for the Heat, in 2019, 2023, and 2025. (h/t Albert Nahmad of Heat Hoops).

There is also a second way the Heat can clear money from their cap sheet if they so choose to, and that would be by trading center Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside’s 2017-2018 season featured the best possible start individually speaking, as the 28-year-old big man had 26 points, and 22 rebounds in an opening night loss to the Orlando Magic. Whiteside even knocked down a three-pointer in that game, but would miss the next five games due to a knee injury sustained after a collision with Magic center Nikola Vucevic.

That same knee injury also caused Whiteside to miss more time periodically throughout the season, and as Spoelstra recently put it, “changed the course of his season.”

“The narrative and the storylines that will be out there, I do think are unfair about Hassan right now,” Spoelstra said. “Because coming into the season, yes there was probably a different path from game one. The game he had against Orlando in Orlando, he was on track. He had a very good training camp, a very productive preseason. He started off on a great note and got hurt.

“What I’ll look back on as most frustrating is what could have been if he didn’t collide with Vucevic. The story line should be Vucevic right now. It was all accidental. I’m not putting it on him. But that changed the course of his season. He really battled and grinded through not feeling 100 percent, several times. It’s just one of those seasons that never felt like he was able to fully be healthy and ready to give like he was in that first game.”

While Spoelstra spoke positively about Whiteside in the media last week, it’s Spoelstra’s personal preference that the organization decides to deal Whiteside. And with Spoelstra’s ever growing power within the Heat, it’s very possible that he’ll get his wish. The Miami Herald reports that Heat are expected to explore a Whiteside trade, but it is unclear how much motivation there is in the front office to deal Whiteside at this time.

Whiteside was openly disgruntled about his role within the Heat’s offense and his minutes, especially later in the season. The Heat ended up fining Whiteside an undisclosed amount of money for conduct detrimental to the team after he ripped his playing time in a post-game rant, and the perception now around the league is that the Heat are confident that Adebayo and Olynyk can handle the center role going forward.

Whatever trades are made by the Heat this off-season, even if they don’t involve Johnson or Whiteside, will have to improve the team in some fashion. You don’t want to go into next season worse. Here’s a look at the areas the Heat should look at upgrading in the trade market:

Shooting

Give the Heat a lot of credit for putting together one of their best shooting seasons as a team since LeBron James left in 2014. But a lot of that shooting success can be attributed to Ellington’s historic and elite-level shooting. Ellington is also the only elite sharpshooter on Miami’s roster, and while the plan is to bring him back, they need to add some more consistent shooting personnel around him if they want the North Carolina alum to get anywhere close to 2017-2018 success in 2018-2019.

No one in the NBA last season had to shoot at a tougher magnitude than Ellington, and it’s all in the statistics:

Closet DefenderFrequency %
0-2 Feet (Very Tight)8.6%
2-4 Feet (Tight)22.9%
4-6 Feet (Open)31.4%
6+ Feet (Wide Open)28.6%

Let’s also take a look at some of the duress Ellington often had to shoot under, through video:

Here’s another video:

And finally, one more video:

Alright, you should get the picture now. While Ellington is certainly prepared for these type of shots through his impressive training regime and he encourages this type of defense to be played at all times against him, it would really help make his life easier as an elite shooter if the Heat surrounded him with other elite-level shooters.

Scoring

This is the area where a star player would really help the Heat, but this area is also of course the most unlikely area of need to be addressed this off-season.

Miami ranked in the bottom portion of the league in scoring at 23 out of 30 NBA teams averaging 103.4 points per game. For comparison, Orlando, Atlanta, and Chicago also averaged 103.4 points per game, and they all finished in the lottery.

Every team goes through stretches where they can’t seem to put the ball in the hoop, but Miami’s stretches often seemed much longer and magnified. Their elite defense often carried them to victory most nights, and that’s a testament to Spoelstra and his coaching staff values. But even Spoelstra would tell you that the scoring attack needs to improve, as Wade was often the only guy at times that could bail Miami out with a bucket.

Young Assets   

Right now on the Heat’s roster, they have three promising young players in Adebayo, Richardson, and Justise Winslow. As mentioned, Richardson had the best season of his career this season, and Adebayo had a promising rookie season. In Winslow’s case, he became a much better outside shooter, but his offensive game still needs some work. We saw a glimpse of what Winslow could look like full-time one day in the Heat’s Game 3 loss to Philadelphia where he had 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. Winslow also played exceptional defense on 76ers phenom Ben Simmons throughout the entire series.

This table showcases Winslow’s drastic improvement from three this season:

SeasonThree- Pointers MadeThree-Pointers Attempted Three-Point %
2015-20163211627%
2016-201773520%
2017-20184912938%

*Note: Winslow missed most of the 2016-2017 season due to shoulder surgery

Here’s a look at Winslow’s improved jumper through video:

Here’s another video:

And finally, one more video:

Whatever happens in Miami this off-season, it should be interesting to follow, as Heat summers usually somehow always end up being fun to keep track of.

*All videos are exclusive property of the NBA, and no copyright infringement is entitled in anyway. Statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, ESPN, NBA.com. Salary information is from Spotrac, and Hoops Hype.*

Photo: Pedro Portal /Miami Herald
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