With free agency set to start at 12 a.m. Saturday., we’ll take a look at the biggest free-agent questions surrounding the Heat. Today we ask, can the Heat find a way to keep Dion Waiters? We’ll shift to a different question each day leading up to the start of free agency.
[Tuesday’s question: What will it take for the Heat to re-sign James Johnson?]
Dion Waiters has made it clear he wants to return to the Heat, and Miami has not ruled out the possibility of re-signing Waiters.
“I want to be there,” Waiters said in May when asked if he wants to be back with the Heat during an appearance on The Hochman and Crowder Show on WQAM. “When that time comes and we sit down, we just got to make it happen. Let’s get it over with as quick as possible.”
Getting a deal done sounds like it would be easy, but the money and timing of things will almost certainly determine Waiters’ future. The 25-year-old is expected to sign the first big contract of his professional career this offseason, as he’s made $19.7 million over his five seasons in the NBA.
Waiters averaged 15.8 points and 4.3 assists in a career-best year as the Heat’s starting shooting guard. And he played a big role during Miami’s 30-11 finish to the regular season, averaging 18.4 points on 46.7 percent shooting to go with 3.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists over the final 41 games.
Among guards who played at least 45 games last season, Waiters ranked fourth in the NBA with an overall opponent field-goal percentage of 40.4 percent.
What will all of those numbers get Waiters on the free agent market? That’s still unknown, but it’s pretty safe to say he will get a big pay raise this summer.
“It depends,” Waiters said in June when asked if he would give the Heat a hometown discount during an appearance on WSVN’s 7 Sports Xtra . “Yeah, I would, though. But, like I said, it depends, just being the right thing, at the right time. It’s just got to be right. It’s got to be equal.”
As expected, Waiters has already informed the Heat he intends to opt out of next season’s $3 million player option to become an unrestricted free agent after making $2.9 million with Miami last season. Waiters is expected to get contract offers that will at least triple his 2016-17 salary and could reach the $15 million per season range this summer.
But the fact that injuries limited Waiters to 46 games last season could scare some teams away from offering him big money.
Miami must decide how much it is willing to pay Waiters to retain him. The Heat’s expected pursuit of big-name free agents like Gordon Hayward and Blake Griffin will also play a part in the Waiters sweepstakes.
Miami is expected to have about $35 million in cap space this offseason under the new salary cap projection of $99 million. Signing either Hayward or Griffin to a maximum contract would eat up $29.7 million of the Heat’s cap space, leaving them with about $5 million remaining to spend.
That’s not enough to re-sign Waiters or impending free agent James Johnson. But there are some ways Miami can manipulate the salary cap to sign a max player and still bring back Johnson or Waiters.
The Heat could decide to release and use the stretch provision on Josh McRoberts’ contract to free up an additional $4 million in cap space. Instead of McRoberts’ $6 million cap hit next season, the “stretch provision” would split up that burden to a $2 million annual cap hit over the next three seasons and would give the Heat an extra $4 million in cap space this summer.
Even if the Heat don’t land a max player this summer, it could be a challenge to keep Waiters in Miami. Why? The Heat are expected to go after the big-name free agents before addressing Waiters’ situation.
How long will Waiters wait for the Heat? If he gets a big contract offer elsewhere while the Heat are pursuing other players, it could be tempting enough for him to jump at it and leave Miami.
This is going to be a complicated situation.