Mario Chalmers has one of many expiring contracts for the Miami Heat this offseason. The big three, each of whom can opt out of their current deals, are still likely to re-sign (possibly with a pay bump). Chalmers, on the other hand, just might price himself out of Miami's plans.
So where should Chalmers rank on Pat Riley's list of priorities?
Chalmers signed a three-year, $12 million contract in 2011. That deal expires at the end of this season, in which the 27-year-old is making $4 million—a bargain for a starting point guard. Like his teammates, Chalmers will likely be looking for a raise this summer. The Heat will have the cap room to give it to him, but have young Norris Cole playing the best basketball of his career backing him up.
If Chalmers is a bargain, Cole is a steal. Still on his rookie deal, Cole is earning just over a cool million bucks this season. In October, the Heat picked up his option for $2 million next season. Cole also has a team option for the 2015-16 season worth $3 million. Miami declared Cole as a part of its future when it picked up the first option.
The question is, do they want Cole—a player who has shown marked, steady improvement year over year—to replace Chalmers or complement him?
Chalmers was the better three-point shooter during Cole’s first two seasons. That has since swung in favor of Cole, who is shooting 42 percent from three this season while Chalmers is shooting 39 percent (a clip still above his career average).
Working mostly against second units, Cole’s defensive efficiency numbers are only slightly better. Cole may not be as consistent a defender as Chalmers, but there is no reason not to believe that the 25-year-old won’t develop to be at least as good.
Chalmers, however, has the perfect attitude to be Miami’s starting point guard. He isn’t intimidated by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh—something that allows him to take the brunt of those three strong personalities while continuing to play freely. He has a knack for hitting big shots and emerging as the team’s second scorer in spurts (remember Game 2 of the NBA Finals?).
Riley’s priority will be LeBron James first, then Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Then it’s a mixed bag of role players, some of whom may retire. That means Chalmers will likely have an opportunity to test the market. Chalmers might be able to fetch something similar to the four-year, $30 million deal ($7.5 million per year) Goran Dragic signed in 2012. If precedent persists, Miami will get a hometown discount.
As for Cole, he’ll be on the books for $2 million and, when the Heat likely pick up his last year, will be making $5 million in his last two years combined, a figure less than what Chalmers projects to negotiate on a per-year basis.
The Heat front office will have to decide if it wants to pay Chalmers like a starting point guard or as a backup one. If they offer him a backup salary (something around his current deal), Chalmers will likely find more in free agency.
(Side note: The recent acquisition of Toney Douglas doesn’t mean Chalmers is gone. In fact, I don’t see it playing much of a factor. If the Heat want to keep Douglas around, that means Roger Mason Jr. could be booted from Star Island. Many NBA teams, like the Heat going into the season, carry three point guards. Douglas’ deal is up at the end of the season. Trading Joel Anthony was a move to secure backcourt depth this season and open up a roster spot for this summer.)
Miami should re-sign Chalmers and keep the Cole and Chalmers tandem together. They’re both good three-point shooters who can stretch and coexist on the floor. Any new point guard—and the Heat would have to replace Chalmers—would require time to get acclimated to Miami’s schemes (which could take an entire season in some cases, see: Rashard Lewis).
Miami could let Chalmers walk and elevate Mason Jr. or Douglas into the regular rotation, but that would lead to a major drop-off in production.
The Heat won’t be able to make a major upgrade from Chalmers, either. The market offers only comparable players, such as Kyle Lowry, Ramon Sessions, Kirk Hinrich and Rodney Stuckey. Again, bringing in someone new requires a learning curve, and title contenders tend to be relatively impatient. Even someone moderately better, such as Lowry, wouldn’t be worth the coaching needed.
Fit is important to the Heat. Unlike many teams, the point guard isn’t guaranteed to be on the floor at the end of games or even orchestrate the offense on many possessions, as Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel wrote:
Now, if you get a Lowry or a player looking to reestablish himself, he might not be as willing to sacrifice playing time, shots or even playmaking opportunities. To a degree, Chalmers is a fit for this team because he can appreciate his place.
If Chalmers is willing to take a hometown discount to stay in Miami, the Heat should make it a priority to re-sign him. Regardless of the development of Cole, Chalmers is an important part of the team, and the Heat know what they have with him. Letting him walk would create a hole on the roster that the team doesn’t have the time or means to fill.
Stats accurate as of Jan. 15, 2014. Stats from NBA.com unless otherwise noted.