Can Pat Riley Pull off 'Unprecedented' Free-Agency Tightrope Walk?

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Can Pat Riley Pull off 'Unprecedented' Free-Agency Tightrope Walk?
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Miami Heat President of Basketball Operations Pat Riley has long been considered one of the smartest men in the NBA. The slick-haired front-office executive was the mastermind behind bringing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to South Beach, but now he's tasked with doing something even harder. 

Keeping them there. 

Well, not just convincing each member of the Big Three to remain with the Heat, but also adding pieces to a roster that was exposed by the San Antonio Spurs. Not just building the roster, but doing so without any concrete information about James, Wade and Bosh, none of whom have to take discounted salaries yet again. 

As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted out Saturday morning, Riley is attempting to pull off something that's never been done before:

"If anyone can pull it off, it's Pat Riley." 

But what if no one can? This may well be a summer revolving around an impossible task. 

 

What Do the Big Three Want? 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Heat may have an NBA-record $55 million in cap space, but that's fairly irrelevant when each member of the Big Three wants quite a bit of money. 

If LeBron, Wade and Bosh were each willing to settle for something around $14 or $15 million, Miami could still have a relative abundance of financial flexibility. After all, it'd be rostering each component of the All-Star troika, while still having around $10 million left to pursue depth and complementary pieces. 

Sadly for Riley, that's not at all what's happening. 

LeBron, as has become common knowledge at this stage of the free-agency proceedings, won't accept anything less than the most money he can make. 

"Teams that contact James will be informed that he wants no less than the maximum salary number for next season, sources said," reports ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "The max number for James is projected to be about $20.7 million."

And in one fell swoop, the cap space dwindles from $55 million to $34.3 million.  

That's still fine—not good, but fine—if Bosh and Wade are willing to accept discounts. After all, they could each take that $14 million and leave Riley with another $6.3 million to play with. 

Sadly for Riley, that isn't happening either. This time, it's CBS Sports' Ken Berger breaking the news:

Multiple league sources say there will be a close-to-max market for Bosh if Anthony and James stay with their respective teams. One of those people, an executive with a rival team, said the growing belief around the league is that Bosh would prefer a four-year max deal with another team to a discounted longer deal with Miami.

So if the Heat have to pay Bosh $20.7 million as well, the cap space dwindles down to $13.6 million. That's already less than what Wade alone wants, and there's no one new added to the roster. 

Before Berger and Wojnarowski had the scoop on Bosh's leaning, there was still an assumption that Miami didn't have as much flexibility as some had speculated earlier this offseason. 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"Bosh is looking to sign a five-year deal worth between $80 million and $90 million, while Wade is thinking along the lines of $55 million to $60 million over four years, sources said," wrote ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard on July 3. Even those, along with LeBron's non-negotiable max, would push the Heat close to the cap and prevent them from truly making roster upgrades. 

And, let's not forget, LeBron wants upgrades. Here's Wojnarowski:

While Bosh, Wade and Haslem could ultimately take less money with the early termination outs in their deals, James, the NBA's four-time MVP, is seeking a full maximum contract extension—or something close to it—to stay with Miami, sources told Yahoo Sports.

James is eligible to sign a five-year, $130 million extension with the Heat.

James' priority remains to find a way to make a future work with Miami, but a failure by the organization toward improving the Heat's roster to his satisfaction could send him aggressively into free agency, sources said.

The Big Three's salary desires are making it awfully hard for the Heat to fulfill all of James' wishes. So far, the biggest upgrade comes from Shabazz Napier, who Miami acquired with the No. 24 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

No one else has come close to signing with the Eastern Conference champions.  

 

Failure to Land Other Options

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Let's assume that all the reports of the Miami superstars not being on the same page are simply falling into the category of smokescreens. Those are pretty common this year, and it could just be an attempt by Miami to gauge interest from around the league, both in its free agents and those who could potentially come to South Beach for the first time. 

Maybe the Heat really still could diminish their salaries to the point that they have space left to land another prominent player. But that only matters if they can, well, land one. 

As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick reports, two of the primary targets are Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza: 

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?

Ariza hasn't met with the Heat or gotten anywhere near entering contract negotiations—barring work that has remained behind the scenes—and Deng seems even more unlikely. Yes, even though the two sides have already met: 

How exactly are the Heat planning on overcoming the fact that Deng is out of their price range? 

Chances are, Miami is starting to view Deng as a backup plan, a secondary option in case LeBron and Bosh bolt. Getting stuck with only Wade would be a disaster, hence the continuing interest in a small forward who's not going to sign a contract with a major discount. 

USA Today's Sam Amick is not the first to report that Deng won't take a discount. 

Another option might be Pau Gasol

The Heat have actually had a face-to-face meeting with the former Laker, according to Wojnarowski, and he might very well be willing to take a ring-chasing pay cut.

Across the country in Los Angeles on Thursday, Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra came to meet with free agents about joining the Heat, sources told Yahoo Sports. They met with Los Angeles Lakers free-agent forward Pau Gasol on Thursday, sources said.

But is Gasol alone going to be enough to convince LeBron that he should stay in South Beach? I vote no, even if he'd make the roster a more dangerous one. He just doesn't fill any of the true needs for the Heat—point-guard play, rim protection and elite rebounding.  

And who are the targets beyond that?

Let's not make the mistake of thinking this free-agency class is particularly deep, and the early signings are pushing prices up, not down toward the range Miami can afford. If guys like Ben Gordon, Jodie Meeks and Chris Kaman are making more than expected, why would others take such significant discounts to join a Miami team in flux?

"It's not much of a list, at least not among the younger set," writes Skolnick about the Heat targets, and he goes on to mention a few more names:

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? 

Nope, probably not. Since that was published, Sefolosha has come off the market, signing a three-year, $12 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks, and the free-agency prices have only gone up with Kaman taking the full midlevel exception from the Portland Trail Blazers

Unless the Heat stars universally take discounts, making roster improvements is going to be awfully difficult. Something's gotta give. 

Well, not for LeBron. And not for Bosh either. 

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns are still out there, looming as a team that can offer both players max contracts, while also bringing back Eric Bledsoe. And they wouldn't have to give up Goran Dragic or Miles Plumlee either.

As broken down here, the Suns—even if they're still perceived as dark horses in the LeBron hunt—can offer the best immediate shot at a title and the most room for growth, all while giving two stars (and Bledsoe) max deals. 

And don't think the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets are doing anything but waiting for an opportunity to strike.

With every free agent who signs elsewhere, the chances of the Big Three breaking up grow higher—that tightrope walk that Riley is attempting to pull off becomes harder to achieve. 

Will LeBron, Wade and Bosh all return to the Miami Heat?

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If the Miami president hopes to make it all the way to the other side—in this case, the 2014-15 season—without any falls, something has to change. Whether that's a prominent free agent agreeing to a small salary and providing momentum to Miami or the Big Three revealing their unwillingness to take discounts was nothing more than a smokescreen, a new direction is needed. 

Given what we know right now, the unprecedented attempt won't be a fruitful one. 

 

What do you think will happen to the Big Three? Discuss it with me on Twitter and Facebook.

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