With no cap space to use in free agency this summer, is planning for future Heat’s best bet?

From left, the Miami Heat’s Josh Richardson, Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade react as the Philadelphia 76ers lead in the fourth quarter in Game 4 of the first-round NBA Playoff series at the AmericaneAirlines Arena in Miami on Saturday, April 21, 2018. The Sixers won, 106-102, for a 3-1 series lead. (Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)

MIAMI — When free agency begins Sunday at 12:01 a.m., Heat president Pat Riley doesn’t expect to be out meeting with available players.

It’s not because of a lack of interest, as this free-agent class actually includes big names like LeBron James (who opted out of his contract with the Cavaliers on Friday morning), Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins. Instead, Riley and the Heat are limited by their salary-cap situation.

Miami currently has 10 players under contract for 2018-19 who are due about $119 million (assuming Rodney McGruder’s $1.5 million salary is guaranteed by Saturday’s deadline). That puts the Heat way above the projected $101 million salary cap, very close to the projected $123 million luxury tax line and not in a position to pursue free agents.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be any midnight meetings,” Riley said last week. “This might not be the year for us to do that. But we will plan. We’re already planning for the future like we did 2006 for 2010 and 2010, as soon as LeBron left, we were in it with [Kevin] Durant, we were in it for [Gordon] Hayward. I don’t think we’re going to be in it that way because we can’t. We don’t have the cap space and we’re up against the tax, so we have to do some other things in reversing that direction.”

[RELATED: Photos of the incredible style at the 2018 NBA Draft]

Planning for the future — specifically the summer of 2020 when the contracts of Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic are off the books — could be the Heat’s best bet. The Heat are committed to only about $58 million in payroll for the 2020-21 season, which would leave the Heat with a lot of cap space if they are able preserve most of it.

But that’s two summers away. What can the Heat do this offseason?

First, Miami has to deal with its own free agents. Even if the Heat just want to bring back their own impending free agents — Wayne Ellington, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem — they will have to do some salary-cap maneuvering to make that happen.

The Heat have Ellington’s early Bird rights, which allows them to exceed the cap to pay him 175 percent of his 2017-18 salary of $6.27 million. That means Miami can offer Ellington a deal starting at $10.9 million, which is the max he can make with the Heat next season.

With the Heat only about $4 million under the luxury tax line, signing Ellington to a contract with a starting salary of $10.9 million and rounding out the rest of the roster would mean a luxury tax bill of more than $10 million on top of Ellington’s salary if the rest of the team remains intact.

“There’s no doubt that we want to keep him,” Riley said of Ellington. “We’re going to try to find a way to do that. But we’re up against the tax. I think it you add up the numbers, you know what that means. But we’re going to do everything we can do to try to keep him. I know he would like to be here. I know we’d like to have him back.”

Miami is also still waiting on Wade and Haslem, who are both still deciding whether to retire or return for a 16th NBA season. Re-signing Wade could require the Heat’s exception money — likely the $5.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception — and re-signing Haslem will likely require a $2.4 million minimum-salary contract.

All of that means bringing back Ellington, Wade and Haslem could cost the Heat $18 million in combined 2018-19 salaries, which would put them about $14 million above the tax line if other salary can’t be shed.

Miami will not go that far above the threshold for a roster that’s not considered a title contender, although NBA teams have until the end of the regular season to find a way to get under the tax line before they receive the bill. So one of two things will probably have to happen if Wade and Haslem decide to return: Either the Heat will have to let Ellington sign with another team in free agency (because Wade and Haslem will be back on the roster if they choose to) or the Heat will have to shed salary to make room for all three of their impending free agents.

“We’re up against the tax. We all know what the accounting situation is with us,” Riley said. “So, when you’re a free-agent player like we have been since 2006, 2010. You go after Kevin Durant, it was a long shot and we always thought big. You go after Hayward, we’ve always thought big. As soon as it didn’t happen with Hayward, we went right to Plan B and I think that’s where we are. We look at this as maybe a two-year run. We’re a playoff team, we’re a playoff contender. How are we going to improve? It’s going to be from within or the possibility of some transaction that might happen. It’s not going to be easy.”

By transaction, Riley likely means a trade. Without cap space this summer, a trade is the most realistic way for Miami to revamp its roster or help their long-term cap situation at the price of taking a step back in the short term.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing this offseason, with some big names already mentioned in trade rumors such as San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins, Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Charlotte’s Kemba Walker.

But the reality is Miami will be a quiet participant in free agency this year unless it’s able to shed major salary.

Decisions over the past two years have helped put the Heat in this position. Signing Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Josh Richardson to four-year deals that combined to cost them $200 million last summer, and investing $98 million in Whiteside and $50 million in Tyler Johnson the previous summer has left the Heat with very little wiggle room to make major changes to their roster.

“Aggressive summers are free-agent summers, are room summers, are summers when you know you have either cap space or tax space to be able to really pursue somebody,” Riley said.

It doesn’t look like this will be one of those summers.

2018 Heat Offseason Preview

[Monday’s question: LeBron James could be on the move again, do the Heat have a chance of bringing him back?]

[Tuesday’s question: Will Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem return for a 16th NBA season or retire?]

[Wednesday’s question: Will 3-point specialist Wayne Ellington return to Heat?]

[Thursday’s question: With no cap space, can Heat turn to trades to improve roster?]

[Friday’s question: Does Hassan Whiteside’s contract make him untradeable?]

[Want more Heat news sent directly to your Facebook feed? Make sure to like our Heat Facebook page]

Reader Comments 0

0 comments