Except that doesn't have to be the case. There's one fundamental assumption pervading the pursuit of the small forward who played for both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls during the 2013-14 season, and it's not necessarily correct.
Deng seems to be a hot target for the Heat simply because he's a player who could fit in nicely with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. By having James remain at the 4 and Chris Bosh keep playing center, Deng could play his natural position, providing defense, three-point shooting and distributing skills for the Eastern Conference champions.
Basically, he'd be an upgrade for the supporting cast around the Big Three, possibly qualifying as the fourth member of a star-filled quartet.
However, what if the course of action no longer revolves around pairing him with those aforementioned All-Stars? What if he's just a backup plan for Pat Riley and the rest of the Heat's front office, which has to be becoming increasingly aware that LeBron bolting for another destination is actually possible?
According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Heat's recent meeting with the free-agent small forward was still geared toward playing alongside the Big Three:
Riley and Spoelstra met with Deng on Saturday afternoon in Chicago, and pitched him on a free-agent deal with the Heat, sources said. Riley sold Deng on the Heat's ability to cultivate a player's personal brand through the winning of championships and how so many players stay connected to the organization for a lifetime, sources said. Spoelstra laid out a plan to use Deng's versatility to complement the Heat's Big Three, explaining how he'd use Deng in multiple offensive scenarios to make him the most efficient of his career.
However, that can no longer be the only part of the pitch. As the clock ticks on and other destinations become more appealing for LeBron (cough, Phoenix, cough), Riley has to start considering what he's going to do in the event that the four-time MVP actually leaves. After all, Bosh would likely either follow him or go seek a max deal of his own.
And if that's the case...yikes.
Let's operate under the assumption that Bosh and LeBron go elsewhere. That's also going to rule Carmelo Anthony out for the Heat, as the slim hope he comes to South Beach is only there because he'd be joining LeBron.
Beyond that, where's the talent?
The Heat have two players under their control—Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier. That's it, though you can add Wade to the roster in this scenario, since there's been no indication he'd ever go anywhere else.
Should Wade re-sign for a max deal, the Heat would still have more than $30 million to spend, but their options would be rather limited. How many players left on the market are actually worth starting on a competitive team?
Miami could offer a max contract to Eric Bledsoe, but the Phoenix Suns would likely match that deal and bring the restricted free agent back to the desert. The same is true for Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward, as all indications point toward the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz matching offers, respectively. Past them, the best available free agent on D.J. Foster's top-50 big board for Bleacher Report is Chandler Parsons, checking in at No. 10.
Even he may see any deal matched.
Deng is next at No. 11.
Realistically, the best team the Heat could put together without Bosh and LeBron involves starting Napier and Wade in the backcourt and then signing Deng. Beyond that, Miami would be left bringing back last year's backups to provide some semblance of depth and spending the remaining money on players like Pau Gasol and Shawn Marion.
This is not a particularly strong crop of free agents, and it's a market that has already been affected by overpays. With Jodie Meeks, Chris Kaman and others all accepting deals that paid them more than the perceived market value, Miami can't expect to land any bargains if the appeal of competing for a title has been snatched away.
Landing the best players available is vital, and that all starts with Deng. He's the top realistic target, would fit well next to Wade and would give the Heat some sort of appeal they could use when pursuing other available players this summer.
At this point, Miami has to consider this, as there's no guarantee LeBron returns to South Beach. Failing to have any sort of contingency plan is a disastrous strategy, something that Riley should be well-aware of, given his vast experience in the Association.
Though nothing has been explicitly stated, the continued meetings despite widespread reports that Deng isn't going to be had for a cheap deal seem to indicate that the Heat are considering this option.
Multiple times this summer, reports have emerged that Deng will not be willing to take less money than what he could make elsewhere.
ESPN.com's Chris Broussard had the story first, reporting on the first day of July:
Hearing that Luol Deng will not take significantly less than his market value to join Heat— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) July 1, 2014
His colleague Marc Stein reiterated that report while also indicating that Miami had targeted another player:
Kyle Lowry and Luol Deng believed to be Miami's top two free-agent targets. Neither, though, seems especially attainable for Riles and Co.— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 1, 2014
Well, Kyle Lowry has since re-signed with the Toronto Raptors, and Deng has offered no indication that he's willing to back off that stance. In fact, USA Today's Sam Amick recently broke down exactly what he wants:
Here's tricky part about Deng-to-Miami: unless his stance changes, he has indicated he wants no less than $10 mil/year, more like $12 mil— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) July 5, 2014
The Houston Rockets could give him what he wants. So too could the Los Angeles Clippers, though it would require a sign-and-trade deal with the Cavaliers. The Atlanta Hawks are a perfect fit for his talents, and they can afford the price range that Deng is looking at as well.
The Heat cannot.
With LeBron reportedly demanding a max salary, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, and CBS Sports' Ken Berger reporting that Bosh is becoming more interested in a max deal elsewhere than a discounted one with Miami, there just isn't enough money to go around. In order to have $12 million available for Deng, the Big Three would have to re-sign for a combined $43 million.
LeBron's $20.7 million seems non-negotiable at this point, while Bosh has been the subject of conflicting reports and changing demands throughout the still-young summer. So even if we only lock in LeBron at the max, Miami still has to figure out how it can sign both Bosh and Wade for a combined $22.3 million.
Good luck with that.
Nonetheless, the meetings with Deng keep on progressing.
Erik Spoelstra joined Pat Riley in his meeting with free agent Luol Deng in Chicago today, source tells Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 5, 2014
Rather than entering into a Sisyphean cycle with the small forward—one in which offers keep getting rebuffed by a player who is asking for more money than is available—it's time for the Heat to view Deng as a backup plan—an insurance policy in case the Big Three eventually choose to depart. And that's assuming they aren't doing that already and hiding the news from the league to maintain a confident front in the LeBron pursuit.