That needs to change now. Versatile center Pau Gasol belongs in the top spot, and that should not change until the Spaniard has put pen to paper on his next contract.
The Heat seem to view the situation in the same light. Team president Pat Riley spoke with Gasol Tuesday, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, and the Heat have since secured a face-to-face meeting with the coveted free agent, a source told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne:
Pau Gasol will indeed meet with the Heat, according to a source.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) July 4, 2014
There's a reason Miami has placed such a premium on getting Gasol to join the fold. There are several, actually.
He's a stylistic fit, a proven commodity with a championship background and, most importantly, potentially within the Heat's price range. As the franchise looks to fashion a contender for cheap to keep LeBron James from seeking out greener pastures, the importance of that last reason is impossible to overstate:
Riley has a better chance of landing Gasol than Ariza or Deng. So this is the one he needs to lock down.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 4, 2014
James, who's helped lead the Heat to the past four NBA Finals, needs more help. He's said as much himself.
That need to improve has pulled the franchise in a number of different directions. There are plenty of holes that need filling.
Yet, Miami has already seen several doors to potential upgrades closed and sealed shut. Once Oprah took over the NBA offseason—You get paid, you get paid, everybody gets paid!—the Heat saw themselves priced out of markets that had barely opened.
Kyle Lowry got $48 million to return to the Toronto Raptors. The Washington Wizards gave Marcin Gortat $60 million to stick around. Specialist shooter Jodie Meeks, a 26-year-old with a career 9.7 points-per-game scoring average and 42.4 field-goal percentage, agreed to a three-year, $19.5 million deal with the Detroit Pistons.
Regardless whether those players were on Miami's radar—both Lowry and Gortat were linked to the Heat—those signings were felt in South Beach. They didn't simply take players off the board, they inflated the market for the ones left on it:
The irony -- am I using that correctly? -- is that Stan Van Gundy blew up the market on the Heat, with the Meeks move.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 3, 2014
That's what makes Gasol such an intriguing target. He's made his money (over $156 million, according to Basketball-Reference.com) and could value the potential to contend more than a jackpot paycheck at this point of his career.
The Heat are hoping he approaches free agency that way, at least. They cannot afford to break the bank on the big man.
Would Gasol actually accept a lower salary than his former teammate Meeks? Probably not, but he could sign on at a rate low enough for the Heat to afford him.
Wojnarowski reported Tuesday that league sources said Gasol was "pushing for a $10 million-$12 million annual salary." That's obviously not what the Heat want to hear. Not when optimistic projections have the Heat freeing up about $12 million in cap space.
However, that price tag could be dropping dramatically.
Gasol, who's said to be on the radar of numerous teams, is reportedly "opening up to the possibility" of signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a source told Shelburne and Marc Stein. As the ESPN reporters note, "Oklahoma City is limited to roughly $5 million in spending cash under the luxury-tax line at present."
If Gasol is willing to come that far down from his original number, or even split the difference somewhere in between, then the Heat should be in this race. That is major for Miami. With James eyeing a max contract, the Heat have to maximize the value of their free-agent funds.
In this market, that will not be easy.
If the Heat can have the means to land Gasol, it's imperative they get his signature on the dotted line.
"If he can put up anything close to what he did last season, Gasol would be the best player Riley has put next to the Big Three over the past four years," Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post wrote. "He is a 7-foot, 250-pound center who can play inside and outside."
The 33-year-old might not be the flashiest name on the market, but Miami is focused on finding substance—not style. He brings exactly that to the hardwood in the form of a well-rounded game that addresses one of the Heat's most pressing issues: interior production.
Even at his advanced age, in an offense that could not have been a worse fit for his skills, the four-time All-Star provided the Los Angeles Lakers significant statistics this past season: 17.4 points on 48 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 blocks a night.
Any team would do a double-take at those numbers, but the Heat might give them third and fourth looks. They need a lot of what Gasol has to offer.
Miami finished the 2013-14 campaign ranked 27th in rebounding percentage (47.8), via NBA.com. Gasol's 9.7 boards a night were tied for 12th-most in the league, despite him logging a career-low 31.4 minutes per game.
Father Time has stripped some of Gasol's physical tools as a defender, but he still understands how to use his frame to make life difficult under the basket.
He also tied for 11th in blocks (1.5) and held opposing players to 41 percent shooting on post-up plays, via Synergy Sports (subscription required). The Heat were routinely torched by post-up players to the tune of 0.93 points per possession (fourth-most in the league) on 49.1 percent shooting. They finished tied for 18th in blocks (4.5), with nearly a third of their rejections coming from offensively limited reserve Chris Andersen (1.3).
Gasol, meanwhile, is one of the most offensively gifted bigs in the game today. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who admittedly is one of the executives recruiting Gasol, threw even loftier praise at the center.
"Pau is probably the most skilled big man that this game has ever seen," Kupchack said during an appearance on ESPNLA 710's ESPNLA Now, via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Comfortable operating from inside and out, Gasol could be a safety valve for Miami's offense.
With fancy footwork and a soft shooting touch, he's a load on the low block. He's also a comfortable, capable mid-range shooter. He has converted better than 41 percent of his career looks from 10 feet away from the basket out to the three-point line, a zone that accounts for nearly 29 percent of his field-goal attempts, via Basketball-Reference.
The Heat wouldn't always need him to score, of course, but he's also skillful enough to quarterback an offense. He has tossed out 3.6 assists per game over his last eight seasons, relying on a balance of intelligence and creativity to hit his targets.
He also understands what it takes to make a championship run, having helped the Lakers earn two world titles during his tenure (2009, 2010). Assuming the Heat keep the Big Three around, they already have a clear pecking order established. No one would need to tell Gasol where to find his place; he's been around long enough to know where he fits in.
The narrative of Miami's offseason is changing. A summer that once offered the potential for premier additions now threatens to withhold most avenues of improvement, casting a cloud of uncertainty over the Heat they never expected to see.
It's hard to say how this story will end. Everything feels like a possibility at this point and will continue to do so until James has settled on his future.
The Heat wanted to aim high to help the King, but a money-burning market seemed to close that door. However, opportunity hasn't left—it just isn't knocking as loudly as it used to.
Miami must seize this moment. It has to get Gasol. He's one of the few optimistic targets still on the board, and he's starting to look like the only realistic one.