MIAMI — Just in case Heat president Pat Riley needed a reminder, an email from general manager Andy Elisburg popped into his inbox.
“It said, we have used every last dollar,” Riley laughed.
After missing out on Gordon Hayward, the Heat found a way to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to long-term contracts and also fit Wayne Ellington’s $6.3 million salary for next season under the 2017-18 salary cap threshold of $99,093,000. It wasn’t easy.
How did the Heat make it all work? During his annual summer media briefing with the team’s beat reporters Monday, Riley praised Elisburg for his ability to manipulate the NBA’s salary cap to maximize Miami’s free-agent possibilities.
“We have no room and that’s a testament to Andy,” Riley said to the team’s beat reporters in his bayfront office at AmericanAirlines Arena. “His number-crunching, his mind. From the draft through free agency, he was the star of this whole thing. He’s the best in the business and I could never do this without him. You guys know Andy. That’s why he’s very respected by the NBA and when Andy calls in and checks numbers and stuff, they know exactly what he’s talking about.”
Elisburg, who started as an intern in the Heat’s public relations department, is now the Heat’s general manager and considered one of the NBA’s top cap gurus. With the Heat required to decide by 11:59 p.m. this past Friday whether to guarantee Ellington’s $6.3 million salary or waive him, Elisburg’s challenge this summer was to find a way to keep just enough room open to retain Ellington after signing Johnson, Waiters and Olynyk.
In addition to trading Josh McRoberts to the Mavericks, a move that allowed Miami to shed his $6 million salary for next season, Elisburg and the Heat were able to shave just enough money off the cap hits of Waiters and Olynyk by including bonuses in their contracts that don’t count against the team’s salary cap.
By using these bonuses, the Heat ended up with 2017-18 salaries of $14 million for Johnson, $11 million for Waiters and $10.6 million for Olynyk. With these numbers, Miami had just enough room to keep Ellington for next season.
“One of the things that I think got sort of missed in the whole process was that we fought very hard to keep Wayne as a shooter,” Riley said. “… It would have killed me to see him go. He committed himself unlike anybody else. And just like James Johnson and Dion, changed everything about how he played. I look at Wayne as a Udonis Haslem type of person, J.J. type of personality. … He’s one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league.”
After all of that work to maximize the Heat’s salary cap space, here’s the list of 13 players Miami now has under contract for the 2017-18 season: center Hassan Whiteside ($23.8 million), guard Goran Dragic ($17 million), forward James Johnson ($14 million), guard Dion Waiters ($11 million), center/forward Kelly Olynyk ($10.6 million), guard Wayne Ellington ($6.3 million), guard Tyler Johnson ($5.9 million), forward Justise Winslow ($2.7 million), guard Josh Richardson ($1.5 million), guard Rodney McGruder ($1.3 million), center A.J. Hammons ($1.3 million), forward Okaro White ($1.3 million) and center/forward Bam Adebayo ($2.5 million).
With the Heat now capped out, they will have to fill out the rest of their roster with the $4.3 million room exception and minimum contracts.
Veteran Udonis Haslem is still expected to re-sign with the Heat on the NBA veteran minimum contract worth about $2.3 million. That would bring Miami’s roster up to 14 players.
The Heat’s other free agents are center Willie Reed and Luke Babbitt. Riley basically ruled out Reed’s return with Miami’s frontline already set after signing Olynyk and drafting Adebayo, but added that the Heat are still open to Babbitt’s return with both parties “still talking.”
When it comes to the $4.3 million room exception, Riley said the Heat aren’t in a rush to use it. Miami used its room exception last summer to sign Waiters in late July, scooping up a free agent who slipped through the cracks in a market that had already dried up.
“Once we come to terms with Udonis, we’ll have 14 players on the roster and then we’re just going to sit tight,” Riley said. “We’ll probably hold on to the room mid-level. … We have 10 guys that we really like, 11 or 12 guys that we feel are going to be fighting for rotation minutes. So then I’m going to add another room mid-level guy who’s going to be fighting for 10 minutes or eight minutes? There are certain guys also that you want now to get 25 legitimate minutes a night, not 12 and then 20 and then 10 and then 28 or whatever and try to get into it consistently with some of our younger guys. But we have [the exception] in hand and I think that’s good. If something pops up that’s really good, then we’ll think about using it.”
As for the email from Elisburg reminding Riley that the Heat were capped out, there was a response.
“Winning is like taking your last breath,” Riley said he wrote back, referring to a motivational speech he once made that involved dunking his head into a bucket full of water. “I’m glad we spent the last dollar.”