MIAMI — There were plenty of surprises in store for the Miami Heat during the breakneck, lockout-shortened NBA season, a season that would end with the franchise's second championship and LeBron James' first. But nothing—not James' ferocious Game 6 in Boston nor Mike Miller's NBA Finals obliteration of Oklahoma City—quite compared to the owner's stunning disclosure before that season even started.
Dressed in loose-fitting jeans and a Carnival polo, Micky Arison casually revealed that he had voted against the collective bargaining agreement that had cleared the way for his star-studded squad to return to the court.
"That was kind of a protest vote," he said, noting that the agreement had passed by the time of his turn.
Still, it had been widely assumed, especially after his Twitter commentary—which cost him a $500,000 fine from then-commissioner David Stern—that Arison was one of the primary proponents of resolving the standoff. And he was. But Arison did not find this particular deal favorable in a number of ways, specifically the defining of Miami as a "big-market" city for revenue sharing purposes (calling the need to share with actual bigger cities "disturbing"), and the extraordinarily punitive nature of the new luxury tax, which seemed designed by resentful organizations to target the Heat's recently-constructed talent base.
So, no, the new landscape wasn't to his liking.
Yet he promised:
"We have to figure out a way to play in it," Arison said.
Three years, three Finals appearances and two championships later, it can be declared that they have played in it extraordinarily well. Sure, they sacrificed Miller along the way, to avoid $17 million in 2013-14 luxury taxes and create flexibility down the line. And sure, their roster showed significant wear as the 2014 postseason winded down. But if you had told Arison—and most Heat fans—that they'd have two more parades down Biscayne Boulevard, they would have taken that without hesitation.
The lockout, of course, wasn't merely designed to hurt the Heat. It was intended to take a larger share of the basketball-related revenue from the players. And it was intended, as all owner-initiated work stoppages are, to protect the owners from their own impulses, by adding a series of mechanisms that would restrict their own spending. Of course, the latter never really works in any sport, and especially one that stops just short of a hard salary cap, since owners all feel the need to show their customers—the fans—what big shots they are. When players, even marginal players, are free, they can't help but pounce.
That's what has happened early in the 2014 free agency period.
That's the landscape.
And, once again, the Heat need to figure out a way to play in it.
Let's start here: all is going well enough for Miami so far, if only because there are still no clear signs that any of the Big Three are headed elsewhere, and LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade still happen to be three of the four most accomplished players on the market. And all are still likely to sign with Miami, even if James would like something near if not at the maximum and even if Bosh's initial proposal to the Heat was in the five years for $90 million neighborhood, starting at roughly $15 million.
While there's a different report every few hours, about whether they are or aren't entirely on the same page, nothing should be taken all that seriously until one of them actually takes a meeting with another team. That hasn't occurred. James and Bosh haven't even been in the country, both vacationing with their families this week (James is returning Thursday night), and Wade has been traveling domestically for non-basketball matters.
Wednesday night, James posted an Instagram video of his son, LeBron, Jr., catching a fish during their island getaway, and it seemed like an appropriate metaphor for all the fishing that's been going on back in the States, not only in free agency, but with the endless flood of false reports about it.
That, according to my reporting, has been one of the Heat's frustrations so far, since they believe that agents are including them as active suitors—even if Miami's representatives have expressed only preliminary or tepid interest—as a means of driving up their client's value.
But the greatest frustration?
The actual, exorbitant prices that other teams are paying.
Because, while the Heat were granted some flexibility with James, Wade, Bosh and Udonis Haslem opting out—even if they all don't take massive salary cuts—and while they can create more by trading Norris Cole, and while they have more than one path open to them (as an under-cap or a capped-out team), they can't account for the cost of labor. And, with the way that cap holds, Bird Rights and other CBA mechanisms work, they can't just pile player on top of player, sign the Big Three back, and pay the luxury tax.
No, they need some guys to take discounts to play for a championship, and all the perks that would come with that, perks that Shane Battier eloquently described, such as in-career exposure and post-career earning power. The problem is that most of the guys who understand that trade-off are in their 30s, with a mature set of priorities; not in their physical primes, still looking for a payday.
And so, yes, the Heat would love to get younger. And yes, they would love, above all, to give James some assistance on the wings, as protection if Wade misses a chunk of the season again, and as additional defenders and shooters even if he doesn't.
So, like they did last offseason—when they couldn't find a taker for their mid-level exception—they have targeted twenty-something perimeter players. That, not the pursuit of Toronto's Kyle Lowry or Washington's Marcin Gortat, has been their priority, according to two sources close to the process, which is why Lowry and Gortat re-signing with their current teams didn't sting as much as the public may be assuming.
But when it's come to those wings, they've watched other teams dip their arrows in dollars, and shoot them down.
The Heat were interested in both Jodie Meeks and Avery Bradley, but not at the $6.3 million and $8 million annual rates that they received, from Detroit and Boston, respectively. They remain extremely interested in Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng, but sources say that both players need to be convinced to come close to their range; Deng made $14.3 million last season, and Ariza's camp has made it clear he's looking for something well north of $8 million annually. And now that Meeks and Bradley, less accomplished players, got what they got, why would Deng bend enough to take less than they did to play in Miami?
And, as ESPN's Dan LeBatard reported Wednesday on his radio show on The Ticket in Miami—and Bleacher Report later confirmed—the Heat even inquired about Indiana's Lance Stephenson, but they weren't offering nearly as much as the five years and $44 million that Stephenson turned down from the Pacers.
So, if they don't land Ariza or Deng, as they are unlikely to do, where would they go next?
It's not much of a list, at least not among the younger set. The Pacers locked up C.J. Miles. Rodney Stuckey, more of a combo guard than a wing, is visiting Indiana also. Nick Young doesn't really fit. Evan Turner didn't appeal to them at the trade deadline. Al-Farouq Aminu can't space the floor.
So, Marvin Williams? Thabo Sefolosha? P.J. Tucker?
Or will Riley be forced to reach back to the past, and pick the best available past-prime veteran, from Vince Carter (who shot better from three-point range last season than anyone in the Heat's rotation) to Caron Butler to Shawn Marion?
Will that be enough to keep James' eyes from rolling, and wandering?
And will it leave enough money for the Heat to address their other needs (interior scorer, and another perimeter playmaker, perhaps at point guard).
We'll have to see.
This is for sure: The Heat have an arena to fill next season.
They need James, Bosh and Wade—and at least a couple others of note—to play in it.