Pat Riley is the man with the plan.
Hopefully he's the man with many plans, because at this rate, the Miami Heat need more than one.
Everything about the Heat's offseason was considered a formality at first. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade would all reach free agency, leave good ol' Riles with maximum flexibility to retool the roster and inevitably re-sign, preserving a dynastic troika that has made four straight NBA Finals appearances.
Then the offseason actually happened. The free-agent market began to unfold, and the Heat's financial limitations seemed more harrowing than ever.
It's been one conflicting and confusing rumor after another after another after another. And it's left the Heat, in lurch, wondering what's next.
Bosh may prefer a max contract with another team to a discounted one in Miami, according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reports that James is getting antsy:
Unless Pat Riley lines up talent appealing to James within cap structure soon, one LBJ suitor says: "LeBron seems ready to explore market."— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 4, 2014
Wojnarowski also says there is a "disconnect" between James and his two star comrades, while ESPN.com's Michael Wallace has been told Bosh and Wade are acting individually. It's been a mess—a likely fabricated mess, but it's a mess all the same.
We're gotten to the point in free agency where some teams in pursuit think LeBron is more likely to leave than Melo. Stunning turn of events— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 5, 2014
Moreover, it's a mess that Riley must be prepared to fix.
Though the Heat are still considered favorites to retain Bosh and James, one or both of them could leave. It could happen. And if it does, Riley needs to pick up the pieces of a dynamic that perished after four years and pilot his powerhouse-turned-liability toward a quick and potent resolution.
If LeBron Leaves
Whatever happens, James will be the first domino to fall. Everyone is waiting on him. If he leaves Miami, the Heat will go from there.
One such scenario has him as the only one leaving. He'll take his talents to Los Angeles or Phoenix or Houston or Cleveland or Prague or Jupiter or Where the Red Fern Grows, and Bosh and Wade will stay in Miami, where Riley will try to rebuild around them.
I'm told, by multiple sources now, LeBron agent Rich Paul told Cavs he's impressed w what they've done and what they can still do to roster.— Sam Amico (@SamAmicoFSO) July 7, 2014
Moving forward without James can be a difficult, long and winding process. Ask the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have only contended for top lottery spots since he left. Riley would be attempting something even more difficult—a nearly instantaneous turnaround.
Wade and Bosh won't be retained for a gradual rebuild. They're not young enough. They are, for the Heat's purposes, also not at a point in their careers where Riley can justify throwing lucrative long-term contracts their way, as ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton (subscription required) finds out after an in-depth statistical analysis:
The way Miami fell short in the NBA Finals made it clear the Heat could not continue as constructed and expect to be the league's best team. The infusion of talent and clearing cap space will provide gives Miami a better shot at competing for championships next season and beyond.
However, it's not a permanent solution to the problem of aging among the Big Three and elsewhere on the roster.
Locking in Bosh and Wade to long-term contracts will in fact make it more difficult for the Heat to compensate as they decline, making it critical that the newcomers the team adds aren't on the same schedule.
Covering this up will be hard enough with James. Without him, you can forget it—unless Bosh and Wade will actually take pay cuts.
No matter what James decides to do, the Heat need the other two to make a financial sacrifice.
Like we discussed previously, they have the option of preserving cap space for 2015, when other superstars become available. They can bide their time, grind out 2014-15 and hope to strike it big in free agency that summer, chasing names such as Kevin Love, Marc Gasol and Rajon Rondo.
The Heat can also tell yours truly to stick it and go buck wild now. If James leaves and Bosh and Wade take pay cuts, they can pursue remaining big names.
It will be the same names they're chasing now—such as Luol Deng—only they'll have a shot at them.
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
Basically, the Heat can find a James replacement who keeps them in the title hunt, like Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal says while discussing Deng specifically:
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.
Could all this current legwork be a glorified backup plan that Riley is trying to sell as an attempt to placate James? Maybe, but it doesn't matter.
Regardless of intent, Riley needs cap space to retool the Heat if James pulls his ripcord—the more the better.
For agents negotiating on free agents w/ Heat, so far impossible to get concrete offers b/c Riley doesn't have precise figures on Bosh-Wade.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 5, 2014
Once he has that cap space to work with and he has Bosh and Wade locked down at reasonable rates, he's free to pursue immediate solutions in Deng, Trevor Ariza and Isaiah Thomas, among others, or stock the roster with stopgaps and placeholders before going on a superstar free-agency binge in 2015.
If Bosh Leaves
Replacing Bosh would be easier than supplanting James. Go figure.
According to Berger, Bosh has become a serious flight risk because he has the chance to follow the money outside Miami:
Thus, with James waiting for Heat president Pat Riley to revamp the roster and with Dwyane Wade leaving $42 million on the table at age 32, Bosh is the member of the Big Three most likely to break away.
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.
Wojnarowski corroborates Berger's findings:
Chris Bosh's reps have made recent calls on market to reconfirm that max slots would be available to him, sources tell Yahoo. Answers: Yes.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 5, 2014
ESPN's Marc Stein adds some Rocket(s) fuel to the fire, too:
ESPN sources say Rockets are "heavily engaged" with Chris Bosh in attempt to get Bosh to leave Heat in free agency. Story hits online soon— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 7, 2014
No one knows -- yet -- if LeBron is serious about leaving Miami. But Rockets have moved quickly to front of the Bosh line if Bron relocates— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 7, 2014
In the event Bosh leaves and James stays, the Heat's options are similar. Wade still needs to take a pay cut, and they have the option of filling out the roster with more expensive role players or soldiering through 2014-15 with expiring pacts in hopes of landing another luminary next July.
Or they could chase Carmelo Anthony.
King James and Melo want to play together. We know this. At least, we should. For those who don't, Sam Amick of USA Today offers a refresher here.
Dreams of adding Anthony to the current Big Three and spawning a Big Four are dead. Each member of the quartet would have to accept a starting salary at or below $14.1 million for it work out. It's not happening.
But it could if Bosh leaves.
Anthony won't give the Heat a second look if his buddy James walks, but if he has the opportunity to play with him and make max or nearly max money in the process, you better believe he leaves the imaginary UCLA workout he's having with Kobe Bryant to listen to Riley's sales pitch.
A UCLA official confirms only that Kobe was there today, and that Carmelo worked out there last week. Nothing more.— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) July 7, 2014
That's option No. 1 if Bosh chooses cash and ego over Miami. If Anthony's still inclined to spend his days enjoying "Early Bird" dinner specials with Bryant or midnight yoga classes with Phil Jackson, then the Heat adjust course and go after the Dengs and Arizas.
They're just obligated to go after that third superstar first.
If LeBron and Bosh Leave
This, admittedly, is the more likely scenario: lose one, lose both.
We can pretend like Bosh would leave Wade and James hanging. We really could. But we shouldn't.
"Bosh is back in a second if LeBron commits," one league source involved told Wojnarowski.
Assuming this is true, the only way Bosh would leave is if James leaves. And if both of them leave, Riley has a slew of decisions to make—starting with Wade.
What becomes of Wade if both his cronies head elsewhere? Will he want to stick around? Should the Heat even want him to stick around?
If you answered "yes" to the last one, you're a nostalgic romantic, and I'll be contacting you for significant other gift ideas in the future.
Sans Bosh and James, the Heat are better off starting from scratch, hitting the reset button, bidding Wade farewell and rebuilding from the ground up. It's awful, it's mean and it's heartless.
It's also business.
Committing four or five years and tens of millions of dollars to Wade when he's not accompanied by superstar sidekicks does nothing for the Heat. He's a lock to miss 20-25 games a season. Even when he's healthy, he can't play back-to-backs consistently.
Teams cannot tether their futures to players on maintenance programs. They cannot be used as primary building blocks.
Pushing Wade out the door gives the Heat a blank slate and the chance to spend, spend, spend on anyone and everyone they want. They won't have money wrapped up in a 32-year-old shooting guard with deteriorating knees. They can sell other free agents—such as Deng, Thomas, etc.—on being the face of the franchise. They can conserve cap space and go after Love in 2015 and Kevin Durant in 2016.
Rebuilding this way will take time, but it promises flexibility. It's also unlikely.
"Dwyane is a champion, a Miami Heat for life," Riley said at his end-of-season presser, per the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman. "He is examined more than anyone else...You can criticize him on his performance. But he isn't a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately guy or a Johnny-do-nothing."
Precisely translated: Wade isn't going anywhere. No way, no how. His return is still a formality...no matter what.
Riley moves forward with Wade because he has to, because he wants to and because Wade is still a face, name and reputation he can pitch free agents on for now.
That doesn't mean you max him out. You don't—not even close. The same type of pay cut needs to be negotiated, and you go from there, knowing full well that enough cannot be done this summer to maintain contender status.
Down Bosh and James, you offer a contract to Deng. Case closed. He's a two-time All-Star who's available and brings two-way grit to the rotation. Then you target a modestly priced floor general to run the offense in James' stead. His name is still Isaiah Thomas, the diminutive playmaker who is watching the Heat on Twitter.
Look who Isaiah Thomas just followed... pic.twitter.com/3o9yNh3Ref— Thomas Duffy (@TJDhoops) July 7, 2014
Most of all, you wait.
This isn't like losing James or Bosh. This is losing both. Conserving cap space for future free-agent classes and pulling out all the stops for the Loves, Rondos and LaMarcus Aldridges isn't just an option; it's a necessity.
Slowing the Roll
Breathe freely and without harboring resentment. These aren't predictions.
What's more likely to happen?
These are contingency plans, and they're called contingency plans because they're crafted for the worst-case scenario. That's what all of these are: different versions of Miami's worse-case scenario.
"Worst case, we could have most room in history of NBA," Riley said via Winderman. "I'm not planning on that."
Until James and/or Bosh put pen to paper with another team, they are still members of the Heat. That's still unlikely to change, ever, amid unsettling Woj bombs like this:
Longer James has gone w/ minimal contact, more unsettled Bosh/Wade have become on Heat future. "They're reading the tea leafs," source says.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 7, 2014
But with all the rumors, smokescreens and stagecraft being peddled up and down the streets of South Beach, it's important Riley confront these nightmare scenarios head on, preparing for them, conceptually combating them. That way, if and when he's forced to actually face them, he's able to steep trying, despondent times in something resembling security, resilience and hope.