Having LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh back on the roster would be an ideal result for the Miami Heat after seeing each member of the Big Three opt out in pursuit of a new, lengthier contract.
However, it's not the most ideal situation.
In a perfect world—perfect for the Heat, not for the rest of the NBA—at least two of the superstars would take significant pay cuts rather than pursue a max contract, opening up enough cap space to go after more free agents and strengthen the rest of the squad.
Apparently, that's exactly what's going to happen. Per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst:
As they chase free agents to join with their superstars, the Miami Heat are telling free agents they expect to have as much as $12 million in salary-cap space after hopefully getting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to re-sign, sources told ESPN.com.
With James demanding a maximum contract starting around $20.7 million, this indicates that Wade and Bosh are possibly willing to take drastic pay cuts to help the Heat add talent to the roster.
$12 million free?
That's a lot of moolah for a team returning so many stars, even if the roster will still be rather threadbare after inking LeBron, Wade and Bosh to new deals. It's enough for the Heat to go down a number of avenues, pursuing anything from one more marquee player to boatloads of depth that will keep the squad as fresh as possible throughout the 2014-15 campaign.
Strange as it may be for a team coming off a NBA Finals appearance, especially with three All-Stars likely to return (and assumed to return for the rest of this article), there's no shortage of needs in South Beach.
Especially after facing utter destruction at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, point guard is certainly one.
Mario Chalmers looked overmatched and overwhelmed against Tony Parker and Patty Mills, struggling to make a defensive impact while seeing his shot completely abandon him. He's a free agent now, and there's no guarantee he'll be back.
In fact, the only person actually under contract with the Heat is Norris Cole, though he still fits in better as a defensive specialist set to provide an athletic spark off the bench. He'll be joined by Shabazz Napier once the No. 24 pick signs his rookie contract, but going to war with a rookie point guard in the starting five is a risky endeavor.
Shooting guard is set, seeing as Wade is returning in this scenario, but there are still two more positional needs, and they're mutually exclusive ones in the starting lineup.
Miami could elect to pursue one of the many small forwards in this free-agent crop, keeping LeBron at the 4 and Bosh as the biggest man on the court. On the flip side, the Heat could decide that rim protection and rebounding are priorities, signing a quality center and shifting the two aforementioned incumbents back to their natural spots in the lineup.
That's three positional needs, but there's a general one as well: depth.
Worn down by playing so many extra minutes—the result of deep playoff run after deep playoff run—the Heat looked tuckered out during the Finals. Of course, it didn't help that the aging bench failed to make many contributions, instead clanging shots off the rim and failing to exert the defensive energy required of them.
Retooling that bench is of paramount importance. Heat general manager Pat Riley might be able to use his powers to convince a number of quality veterans to sign incredibly cheap deals, but the leftover millions could also be spent on acquiring even better backups for the Big Three.
The Available Options
If this is the route du jour, the Heat have to make a significant upgrade. After all, Napier is an NBA-ready point guard with a championship pedigree and certainly has the confidence necessary to play major minutes from day one.
A minor upgrade isn't worth the trouble. Or, to be more accurate, the money.
Kyle Lowry would be the dream, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote shortly after the Heat were eliminated:
The Heat need a point guard who can run the offense and create shots when the Big 3 aren't on the floor. While all the talk of Carmelo Anthony has been the rage, a player like Kyle Lowry might honestly help them more. Meanwhile, the Heat desperately need outside shooters to replenish their stock, and athletic defenders. The Heat were dominant from 2012 to 2013 with their ability to force turnovers, get out in transition, and hit threes. Having to rely on Rashard Lewis, Allen, Battier, and Birdman Andersen made for tough going.
However, it's going to be awfully difficult to pry the unrestricted free agent from the Toronto Raptors.
Not impossible, but unlikely.
"As the Miami Heat pursue a meeting with free agent Kyle Lowry on Tuesday night, free agency's best point guard is huddling with his agent Andy Miller and mulling offers to return to Toronto or Houston, league sources told Yahoo Sports," reported Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski on Tuesday. He later revealed that nothing in free agency has suggested that Lowry will leave Canada.
If Lowry is off the table, Isaiah Thomas is the next-best option. You can rule Eric Bledsoe out, as his price tag will go above the $12 million Miami can offer. Beyond that, Jameer Nelson is the only point guard worth mentioning.
"While Nelson's play has declined in recent years, he could provide a mentorship in quick-guard school to both Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier," wrote Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "Or, possibly, he could replace Cole's $2 million salary at a quarter of that cost should he be willing to come aboard at the veteran minimum."
The options are even more appealing here.
Gordon Hayward probably won't be on the table, especially after Wojnarowski tweeted the following about the Cleveland Cavaliers' desire:
But there are still plenty of talents who would fit in rather nicely with the Miami Big Three—Chandler Parsons (also a restricted free agent, one who will be retained by the Houston Rockets if they fail in their pursuit of LeBron and/or Carmelo Anthony), Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza.
All of them would be fantastic additions to the South Beach squad, as they can lock down on the defensive end and thrive as off-ball shooters when spotting up on the wings. Parsons and Ariza have maintained their shooting prowess over the last few seasons, but let's not let recent changes affect perception of Deng.
Yes, Deng shot only 30.2 percent from downtown during the 2013-14 campaign. But he's also been run to death in recent years, something that wouldn't be as true on the minutes-conscious Miami roster. Plus, he'd finally go back to being a tertiary offensive option (at best), which would allow him to stop drawing as much defensive attention and forcing up shots.
The last time Deng filled that role was during the 2011-12 season, when he hit 36.7 percent of his four deep attempts per game.
Still, for cap reasons and thinking about fit, Ariza is the best option at small forward. Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster had nothing but kind things to say about the potential mesh of talent and opportunity between these two parties:
Ariza does his best work by far from the corners, which would seem to fit well given the success guys like Shane Battier have had there over the years with the Heat.
Defensively, Ariza could help spark Miami's transition game in a big way, as he loves to play passing lanes and gamble on the weak side. With James and Ariza both using their athleticism and size on the wing to jump lazy passes, it's not hard to see Miami's defense taking a big jump forward.
But small forward isn't the only frontcourt spot that can be addressed.
With the market quickly drying up, Miami is left looking to less appealing or unrealistic options. Pau Gasol fits into the former category, solely because of his age, though he'd be an incredible immediate upgrade should he take a significant pay cut and take his talents to South Beach. Greg Monroe is the No. 1 representative of the latter group, as it will take a max deal to lure him away from the Detroit Pistons.
Even that may not be enough.
If they're gone, the Heat are left looking to bigs like Channing Frye (not a true center) and Spencer Hawes.
Unfortunately, neither fill the two holes the Heat need to shore up at the 5—rim protection and rebounding. That's what makes losing out on an opportunity to pursue Gortat so tough.
According to NBA.com, San Antonio made 68.5 percent of their shots in the restricted area during the Finals while getting nearly a third of their offense from that space of the half-court set. Those are insanely high numbers.
Synergy Sports' data paints an even bleaker picture.
Not only did the Heat spend the regular season recording more blocks than only six teams in the Association, but they finished No. 27 in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim. Opponents managed to convert 53.3 percent of their attempts there, though Miami admittedly did a good job deterring them from entering the paint in the first place with that occasionally suffocating perimeter defense.
As for rebounding, Basketball-Reference.com shows that the Heat finished dead last in total rebounds, 29th in offensive rebounding percentage and 24th in defensive rebounding percentage.
Though Bosh's deficiencies on the glass are largely overblown, it would still be beneficial to add a true 5. If one is actually available, of course.
What to Do?
You can make a convincing argument for each of these needs.
An experienced point guard will take ball-handling pressure away from LeBron, allowing him to conserve energy on the offensive end. Adding a small forward is more of a luxury, but it's the strongest position in this free-agent pool, and a number of players would do wonders for Miami's efforts. Center is the most glaring need, but it's also a position devoid of accessible free agents who would actually help.
The best option is addressing the need that wasn't covered in the last section of this article.
With the reported $12 million, Miami could very well add one big-name player like Lowry or Ariza. Getting players of that caliber at a discount would also force the Heat down that route. But if they all require big paydays—which it seems they might after the early overpays for guys like Jodie Meeks, Avery Bradley and Ben Gordon—shoring up the bench has to be the No. 1 priority.
"I’ve been a leader and a decision-maker, and that’s my level of expertise, and I’ll do everything I can to retool the team," general manager Pat Riley told reporters before the start of free agency. "But everybody just get a grip. It has been a great run."
Riley knows what he's doing. He's been able to lure veteran after veteran to the Miami bench, and this offseason should be no different.
It's not worth speculating who the exact players will be this year, though. The options are nearly limitless, and so much depends on who's willing to take what type of discount. The only resounding bit of clarity is the fact that the caliber of player is higher than in years past, because not only minimum contracts and cap exceptions are at work.
ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) has a fantastic breakdown of one manner in which Miami can reload. It results in the Heat rostering the Big Three, Cole and Napier, bringing back Chris Andersen, Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem and James Jones and then signing Frye, Nelson, C.J. Miles, Anthony Tolliver, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ekpe Udoh.
That's a deep team, and the additions fill in all the holes. Good luck complaining about any aspects of that squad.
Is it likely that Miami ends up with that exact roster? Absolutely not, but it should at least give you an idea of the type of players they can land with the available money and cap exceptions.
So does Miami have any bad options?
Inundated with appeal (again, we're assuming the Big Three are back and the reported cap space is available and accurate), they're going to attract free agents at discounts. Riley is by no means an irresponsible spender and is sure to make decisions that aid his team's chances of advancing to a fifth Finals appearance in five years.
If that comes by upgrading at point guard, fine. If it's done by signing a high-quality 3, fine. If he lures in a center, fine. If it's the bench that gets boosted in a big way, even finer.
Miami, much to the chagrin of most of the NBA and so many basketball fans out there who are tired of the team's dominance of the Eastern Conference, isn't going anywhere.