MIAMI – Every season, the anticipation for midnight July 1 builds. Every team is poised with a big board of free agents that most years tops 100 names, phone numbers are programmed into cell phones and meetings have been arranged.
Nothing – not the start of training camp, the regular season or even the Finals – has executives, coaches, players and fans more lathered than the start of free agency.
The Miami Heat hit the open market with one thought: To never experience another season like last, which ended with the team missing the playoffs because of tiebreaker. And if you think coming from 19-games below .500 to finish 41-41 was celebrated? Think again.
“I’m not all goose-bumply and fuzzy-haired. That’s not my makeup,” Riley famously said days following the end of the regular season. “I was pissed off. I was upset.”
Now, to see that does not happen again, Riley and GM Andy Elisburg have some work to do.
First up is trying to squeeze lemonade out of a free agency class that mostly is filled with lemons. Okay, it’s not that bad, but with the biggest names (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) re-upping with the Warriors, and the Clippers’ Chris Paul already being traded to the Rockets, this is not a stellar class.
Who does that leave? Utah’s sharp-shooting forward Gordon Hayward, Clippers multi-faceted forward Blake Griffin, Toronto’s ever-improving Kyle Lowry. When it comes to max free agents that should do it.
Not exactly LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade now, is it?
The next tier – Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, Denver’s Danilo Gallinari, New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday – certainly will help but are not exactly foundational pieces for a super team.
The Heat find themselves in a precarious spot. They will have at least $35 million in cap space once Bosh is released, a number that can be increased by sign-and-trades and stretching Josh McRoberts’ contract.
Miami has set up a Saturday meeting with Hayward, according to reports, and likely will kick the tires on Griffin, although their level in interest in the power forward is unknown.
But the sticky part is the timing. Miami remains interested in bringing back its top two free agents, Dion Waiters and James Johnson, but they essential play same positions as Hayward and Griffin (wing, power forward), though different styles.
Will the Heat be burned if they put Waiters and Johnson on hold while gauging the chances of signing either Hayward or Griffin or both? And do other teams swoop in and try to steal Waiters and/or Johnson Waiters early?
“We hope we’ll have some information on that first night,” Riley said last week.
This balancing act is key even though Waiters and Johnson have said all the right things. Both credit the organization for putting them in this position to cash in for the biggest payday of their careers. Johnson is 30 and looking at tripling his career earnings of about $16 million in one contract. Waiters is 25 and likely will do the same after making about $20 million in his first five years.
And while Waiters and Johnson likely are not at the top of too many teams’ shopping list, they still will be wooed early. Heat free agents Luol Deng and Joe Johnson were not close to the top of the list a year ago – some didn’t even have them among the top 30 free agents – and both agreed on the second day of free agency, Deng with the Lakers and Johnson with the Jazz.
If Waiters and Johnson are scooped up early, that could leave Miami in the case for Ibaka or Sacramento’s Rudy Gay.
One variable from a year ago, fewer teams have cap space and fewer dollars are available this summer than last. The cap rose about $15 million last summer. This year it will increase by about $5 million.
Still, the Heat have a “plan A. … a plan B” according to Riley, and those plans have worked out more often than not.
“We’ll attack it the way the Miami Heat typically does and well see what happens,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.