Mailbag: What’s the most realistic way for Heat to acquire a star — trade or free agency?

Heat president Pat Riley talks to the media during a season ending press conference in Miami on Wednesday.(David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald via AP)

MIAMI — Even with 16 players now under contract for next season, the Heat are always looking for ways to improve.

What’s the most realistic way for the Heat to acquire a player who is going to help them take that next step — through trade or free agency? We answer that question and more in the latest installment of the Heat mailbag.

If you weren’t able to ask a question this time, send your questions for future mailbags via Twitter (@Anthony_Chiang and @tomdangelo44).

@PurpleBuckets: How would you turn the Heat into contenders if you were Pat Riley? Trade or free agency?

Anthony Chiang: The answer to this question changed this offseason when the Heat signed Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk to four-year deals. All of that, plus Tyler Johnson’s cap hit going up to $19 million in the final two years of his deal starting in 2018-19 already has Miami capped out next summer. Sure, the Heat can trade away players to make some room next year for potential big-name free agents like LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Paul George or Russell Westbrook. But that’s not going to be easy, considering those players are going to want max contracts. So with the Heat’s current financial situation, a trade is the most realistic way these days for Pat Riley to land a superstar who can turn Miami into a title contender. Just look at the Kyrie Irving-Cleveland situation. There are usually a few disgruntled stars each year looking to be traded or using their impending free-agent status to force a move. And you know what, the Heat are usually going to be in that conversation.

@anilsbtb: If the NBA abolished conferences, would the Heat make the playoffs this season?

Anthony Chiang: Well, in the Eastern Conference power rankings I put together last week, I have the Heat as the fifth-best team behind Cleveland, Boston, Washington and Toronto. But let’s look to see where Miami would stand if Western Conference teams were included in that pool. Golden State, Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City jump ahead of the Heat in this scenario. And I’m even going to stick Denver with Paul Millsap ahead of Miami. With four East teams and five West teams ahead of the Heat, that leaves Miami at No. 10. 16 teams advance to the playoffs, so that means the Heat would be one of them.

[Richard Jefferson: Kyrie Irving in search of ‘some sort of stability’]

[Heat now have 16 on roster for next season after signing guards Matt Williams, Derrick Walton Jr.]

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