On the afternoon of July 16 at American Airlines Arena the local South Florida media gathered for Miami Heat president Pat Riley’s customary press conference after the summer free agency period.
Ideally Riley would have liked to talk about a successful summer campaign. Ideally he would be joined by new Heat signee Kevin Durant. Ideally he would paint a picture of a Miami team ready for another NBA title chase with a core of Durant, forward Chris Bosh, guard Goran Dragic, and franchise player Dwyane Wade.
Instead As Riley himself put it, “Obviously we’ve had a tough summer. Period.”
The Heat this July saw the team miss out on Durant along with key players from last season like forwards Luol Deng and Joe Johnson depart to lucrative contracts. The biggest blow however came on July 6 when Wade chose to leave Miami for a two-year deal with the Chicago Bulls is what became a bitter divorce where both sides have already expressed regret. Wade’s departure left the Heat with almost $20 million in open cap space to use and Riley, who is no stranger to sudden roster rebuilds, went to work with the following moves:
Signing guard Wayne Ellington to a two-year $12 million contract.
Signing forward Derrick Williams to a one-year $5 million contract.
Signing forward James Johnson to a one-year $4 million contract.
Re-signing forward Udonis Haslem to a one-year $4 million contract
Acquiring forward Luke Babbitt from the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a 2018 second round draft pick that originally belonged to the Pelicans.
Signing center Willie Reed to a two-year contract at the veteran minimum.
Match the four-year $50 million offer sheet guard Tyler Johnson signed with the Brooklyn Nets.
On the business side with the exception of the contracts of Ellington, Johnson, and center Hassan Whiteside, who agreed to a four-year $98 million deal before Wade’s departure, these deals are set up to give the Heat cap flexibility for next summer when the salary is set to skyrocket again to the $102-107 million range even with the impending threat of a lockout. Johnson’s deal was tricky since the Nets structured their offer sheet in a ‘poison pill’ manner where nearly all the money was back loaded to discourage Miami from matching. Brooklyn also hoped that the Heat and Wade would work things out as that would have eliminated nearly all the cap space needed to match Johnson even as Miami was allowed to go over the cap to match.
On the basketball court the new signees signal a change of direction in both style and age. With Wade at age 34, Deng at age 31, and Joe Johnson at age 35 out of the mix the Heat starting lineup will go from one of the oldest in the NBA to among the youngest. Second year forward Justise Winslow will slide to Johnson’s old spot at the three and the two spot that was Wade’s will be filled by either Ellington, Tyler Johnson, or second year guard Josh Richardson. Take into account that Whiteside is 27 years old and Miami’s oldest starter will be Bosh, who is 32. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will likely hand the keys of the offense to Dragic as both the starting and second units are geared to play the up tempo style he is best at. Williams provides athleticism that can become instant offense off the bench. Ellington and Babbitt are known perimeter threats, something Miami didn’t have much last season until Richardson showed promise late in the year. Reed, who impressed enough while playing in the Heat’s 2015 Summer League team to get a guaranteed deal from the Nets, gives the team a legitimate backup to Whiteside and allows Haslem to focus more on mentoring a roster that only has three players that are 30 or older.
Despite all this two negative factors still hang over the Heat. One is that no one new addition will be able to replace the on court production of Wade, especially at the emotional level with fans, alone. Rather this will have to be done by a committee of Ellington, Johnson, Richardson, and second year guard Briante Weber.
The second negative is the status of Bosh, who missed the second half of the last two seasons due to blood clots. When pressed about the issue on Saturday Riley was at best vague about the situation and that was for a reason. If the Heat choose to make a cold business decision the team could simply not clear Bosh to play and have his salary fall off the books of February 9, 2017 meaning more than $25 million in added cap space to use on the 2017 free agent class. The problem with doing that is that on paper Bosh is now Miami’s best player and taking him out would slide forward Josh McRoberts, a player Riley has been trying to trade away this entire summer, in as the starting power forward.
Bosh has also been pushing to get back on the court as he sought various medical opinions that would give him permission to play. The situation was up in the air since the Heat didn’t officially shut him down. That came to a head during the second round of last season’s playoffs against the Toronto Raptors. Bosh along with his wife Adrienne went as far as to start the #BringBackBosh hashtag on social media to put pressure on the team. Bosh and Miami wound issuing a joint statement shutting the process down but it left the situation as a stalemate.
Riley knows he has to tread carefully on this especially with how the situation with Wade ended. He has shaped the Heat reputation as one of family and loyalty in his 20+ year tenure. That reputation took a big hit this summer and could be further damaged if the team doesn’t navigate the minefield right.
The Bosh issue is what ultimately determines how this rebuild by Riley will be seen. Having him back in the fold can have the Heat be seen as a team that has a starting five with a good mix of experience and youth. Having Bosh shelved and these signings will start to look like the reaction Riley had after breaking up his first Heat core group in 2001 and started a two-year stretch where the team ranked among the worst in the league.
Riley was able to afford having the Heat go through the doldrums in the early 2000s, but with his retirement looming large these pieces he gathered after this shakeup have to hold. It would be a disservice to leave both Micky and Nick Arison, among the best owners in the NBA, with a franchise not ready to move on.
This has to work for Riley, because few things this summer has.