With LeBron James Gone, Which Free Agents Should Miami Heat Pursue?

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With LeBron James Gone, Which Free Agents Should Miami Heat Pursue?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Clippers teammates once nicknamed Eric Bledsoe "Mini-LeBron." Will the Heat take that as an endorsement?

The Miami Heat are not throwing in the towel.

Though there’s an argument to be made that, in the wake of The Decision 2.0, the Heat would be wise to fold up shop for a season or three and focus on rebuilding through the draft; however de facto general manager Pat Riley, at 69, is not that patient.

Chris Bosh has been re-signed to a five-year, $118 million contract and most signs point to Dwyane Wade rejoining him—though his hometown Chicago Bulls are in hot pursuit of the aging star, according to James Neveau of NBC Chicago. But irrespective of what happens with Wade, this much is clear: Miami is going to try and compete next season.

Riley, the team president, said as much in his official statement released after LeBron James bolted, via James Herbert of CBS Sports. His tone was defiant, if a little defensive, when talking about owner Micky Arison and head coach Erik Spoelstra moving forward. 

Over the last 19yrs, since Micky and I teamed together, The Miami HEAT has always been a championship organization; we've won multiple championships and competed for many others. Micky, Erik and I remain committed to doing whatever it takes to win and compete for championships for many years to come. We've proven that we can do it and we'll do it again.

It’s hard to escape the sense he means “do it again” right now. This is dangerous but admirable, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe spelled out in the wake of LeBron’s decamping to Cleveland. The NBA is a league that rewards teams at the extremes—great teams win titles, bad ones get top picks—but has little love for the great unwashed middle.

Pat Riley is choosing to fight instead, and though that’s the right moral stand, the Heat need to be careful about trapping themselves in mediocrity. Wade and Bosh are both in their early thirties, and though Bosh’s shooting should help him withstand the aging process better than Wade, both of their contracts could look ugly in three or four years.

But the Heat’s own decision has apparently been made. And in an Eastern Conference that still isn’t terribly strong, it might not be that disastrous.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
By re-signing Chris Bosh, Miami made it clear that it intends to contend in 2014-15.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls figure to finish toward the top of the conference, but beyond them, the picture gets murkier. The Washington Wizards are young and talented, but they’ve never done it before. The Brooklyn Nets are old and talented, but they just went through a tumultuous offseason and needed a miracle second half to finish 44-38.

The Charlotte Hornets, nee Bobcats, are most favorably described as “interesting,” and the Atlanta Hawks have a surplus of shooters and two very good big men in Al Horford and Paul Millsap, but the franchise, despite this apparent feistiness, was still just 16-13 when Horford went down the day after Christmas.

With this level of competition, the Heat could probably finish fourth or fifth in the East if they nail the rest of this offseason. This might not be the best long-term course for the franchise, but again, it’s the one it chose.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Luol Deng is rumored to be one of the players Miami is targeting to replace LeBron. He's a strong defender, but given his age (29) and shooting limitations, he isn't a perfect fit in South Beach.

Two names that have already become strongly associated with Miami are Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng. Considered relative to what LeBron James offers, this is pretty depressing. But both could be nifty fits for Miami.

Ariza is a capable defender who just wrapped a career season—the forward finished 25th in the NBA in win shares according to Basketball-Reference.com and 11th in wins produced per Boxscore Geeks.

Deng is a sensible but imperfect option for Miami. He posted career lows in win shares and player efficiency rating after getting traded to Cleveland last season, per Basketball-Reference, and doesn't offer the outside shooting the Heat likely need alongside the similarly limited Wade, but he’s a borderline elite defender who cut his teeth in a winning culture in Chicago.

He could help fill the leadership void LeBron left while tightening up a Miami defense that slipped considerably last season, then collapsed in the Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

The pair could be pricey, though, as Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley reminded us.

There is still talent available, although it may come with a sticker-shock-inducing price. Considering the going rate for small forwards—four years, $63 million for Gordon Hayward; three years, $46 million for Chandler Parsons—veterans Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza could be looking to cash in on the open market.

Furthermore, Deng and Ariza, while useful, are already capped out on their talent. Given their ages—they’re both 29—and the number of miles on their NBA odometers, there isn’t going to be great improvement there. The best Miami can hope for is they, effectively, produce at the level they have throughout their careers.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Rising guard Eric Bledsoe should be at the top of Miami's list of targets. He's young, presently productive and has a sky-high ceiling.

If Miami really wants to compete for titles, it needs to do better than this. It has to roll the dice on a young, potential star. Someone who could grow into a dynamic, franchise altering player. Someone like Eric Bledsoe.

The Suns’ unrestricted free agent has already drawn interest from the Heat, according to ProBasketballDraft, and could be a tremendous fit in Miami.

At 24, and in his first season playing starters' minutes, Bledsoe was a revelation with the Phoenix Suns. Though he battled injury, he posted very nice averages of 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game in 32 minutes a night and set new career marks in PER and win shares, per Basketball-Reference.

No one can replace LeBron, of course, but in this market, Bledsoe is the guy who could come closest. Consider the advice of his old Los Angeles Clippers teammates. They called him “Mini-LeBron.”

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