As LeBron James’ private plane was tracking from Anguilla to Van Nuys Saturday, backroom deals were being struck all over the NBA landscape.
The frenzy started minutes before the ball dropped on the NBA New Year at midnight and continued well into the morning. Within hours about 20 players reportedly agreed to deals, with most not allowed to sign before noon on Friday.
One team sitting out the madness: the Miami Heat. The Heat’s lack of flexibility makes it very difficult for Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg to become a major player this summer, other than through the trade market.
The biggest names – Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City’s Paul George, Houston’s Chris Paul, Denver’s Nikola Jokic – are returning to their old teams. The four will re-sign on deals ranging from two to four years and totaling more than $500 million. (And this is a summer in which the theme is fiscal responsibility.)
The most intriguing names on the move so far are DeAndre Jordan from the Clippers to Dallas, Trevor Ariza from Houston to Phoenix and two players who obviously do not Trust the Process in Philadelphia, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, who will sign with Milwaukee and San Antonio, respectively.
Other than that, few names will tilt the needle as we enter the week, with, of course, one exception.
James spent most of last week holed up in the Caribbean, weighing his options. Saturday morning, he and his financial team boarded his jet for Southern California, where, let’s face it, all signs point to him ultimately staying put as a member of the Lakers. But on Sunday, James’ agent, Rich Paul, reportedly was set to meet with a high-level Sixers contingent in Los Angeles.
Before meeting with Philadelphia, the only reported contact James had with any team after midnight was a phone call with Cleveland general manger Koby Altman. James owes the Cavaliers nothing after delivering on his promise to bring Cleveland a title after returning four years ago but perhaps he learned from the embarrassing way he left his hometown team the first time with a poorly-planned, hour-long infomercial in which he declared he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”
James is not holding this free agent season hostage as he did eight and four years ago, when he bolted Miami and returned to Cleveland. A sign that many believe James’ decision has been made is so many deals being reported in the early hours of free agency. If James had a long list of teams he was considering, everything would have been on hold, much like it was two years ago for Durant and last year for Gordon Hayward.
But James has been trending toward the Lakers for weeks and that narrative become stronger Friday when James informed Cleveland he would opt out of the final year of contract, which realistically narrowed his choices to the Lakers, Cavs and Sixers. The biggest question now is who rides James’ coattails to L.A. With George staying put in OKC, the Lakers (and likely James) have targeted New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins.
Despite the early rush, this will be a tight market for free agents. Just eight teams have cap space of any significance and already two of them, Dallas and Phoenix, have made their big moves. Of those remaining teams, just the Lakers, Philadelphia and Indiana appear willing to hand out substantial contracts. The others – Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento – could sign mid-tier players and/or use their space for trades.
Many teams are looking back at the summer of 2016 when spending got out of control and some of the worst contracts in league history were handed out, and ahead to next summer when the cap will rise to a projected $109 million and the market will be deeper with Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Love among those all likely to be available.
As for the Heat, the first bit of news likely will involve free agent guard Wayne Ellington. Miami would like to retain the franchise’s record holder for the most 3 pointers in a season, but at what price? The Heat have Ellington’s early Bird rights and can pay him as much as $10.9 million next season but that could put them above the new luxury tax line, which was revealed last night as $123.733 million, unless other salary is shed through a trade.
Ilyasova, Belinelli and Doug McDermott (Indiana) are long-range shooters like Ellington and their contracts were in the $6-$7.3 million per year range. Ellington will receive interest as the market settles but expect him and the Heat to have several conversations.
Bigger and better things that almost certainly do not include the Miami Heat.
James informed the Cavaliers of his decision earlier today, according to several reports, and will hit the open market at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, which surely will add another layer of crazy to what every year is a fascinating NBA free agency period.
The decision (as opposed to The Decision III, which is coming soon) is not what Heat Nation wanted to hear. LeBron has essentially eliminated any teams over the cap as his future employer, which realistically reduces his options to the Lakers, Cavaliers and an outside chance Philadelphia jumps into the mix. The Cavaliers can offer James a five-year deal worth more a little more than $200. Any other team with space can sign him for four years and about $150 million.
LeBron taking his talents to South Beach for a second time in eight years had a much better chance of happening if he picked up that final year of his deal. That would have expanded the pool of teams to those over the cap, which would have put the Rockets and Heat at the top of the list, although Miami probably still would have been a distant second.
Miami is $18 million over the projected $101 million salary cap for the 2018-19 season and that’s with 10 players and before any decisions are made on Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Wayne Ellington. Just by rounding out their roster with minimum deals that would put the Heat close to $125 million.
James’ next max contract will come with a starting salary of $35.4 million. So, to add LeBron as a straight up free agent, and not in a sign-and-trade, the Heat would have to shed at least $53 million in salary.
As for a sign-and-trade, that, too, is very difficult because it triggers the hard cap, which is projected at $129 million. Teams receiving the free agent in the sign-and-trade deal — in this case the Heat — can’t surpass the $129 million apron at the end of the trade. Because of this, Miami would have to send out at least $31 million to take James’ $35 million salary back in a sign-and-trade.
Even if the Cavaliers wanted the Heat’s three youngest assets with the most potential – Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow – their 2018-19 salaries come to $16.7 million. The Cavs are not taking back another $14 million in long term salaries, especially if it is to help out the Heat. If Cleveland is going to lose LeBron, it certainly would rather see him go West.
If LeBron opted in it would have been a signal that a trade was lined up, probably meaning he was headed to either Houston or Miami. But even then, Houston is a much more attractive option with their backcourt of MVP James Harden and free agent Chris Paul, who, along with Wade, is part of LeBron’s inner circle when it comes to his peers. LeBron then would have formed a Big Three that could have challenged Golden State’s stranglehold on the league.
Some, though, might still believe the Heat have a chance and LeBron still could request a sit down with Pat Riley. And because we are talking LeBron and Riley and general manager Andy Elisburg’s magic calculator, perhaps it is foolish to completely count out the Heat until LeBron’s signature is on a contract with another team’s logo in the header.
Any news surrounding LeBron goes viral. But any LeBron news leading up to his free agency tends to break the Internet.
LeBron was in Miami last weekend, attending his son’s basketball game and the Internet was wild with speculation. He also was spotted in Brickell. The craziest speculation was an unconfirmed report that LeBron was involved in some clandestine meeting with Riley and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra during the week.
But this is not 2010. The Heat are not flush with money and Miami does not have bargaining chips like a Wade in his prime or Chris Bosh to entice the best player on the planet.
Unless Riley can pull off a miracle that would make any other of the splashy moves he has made in his 23 years in Miami look ho-hum, it’s time to move on Heat Nation.