What Do Heat's Modest Free Agent Signings Reveal About LeBron James' Future?

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJuly 8, 2014

Lynne Sladky/AP Images

MIAMI — Something irregular occurred Monday, and it wasn't the Miami Heat agreeing to terms with two players who have had playoff confrontations with the superstar they are still trying to keep.

No, it was the organization's decision to actually confirm that they did so.

It has not typically been the Heat's practice during the Pat Riley era to send out statements or press releases prior to a player passing a physical and signing a contract. But these are hardly typical times. And, with a noise war coming on several fronts, the Heat finally decided to do a little shouting back.

OK, signing forwards Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger won't exactly send the San Antonio Spurs off shuddering. And they don't even have the star power of the free agents that Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat's traveling contingent had been trying to stay to take below-market deals to chase a championship. But it had become clear that Miami, due to its salary cap constraints, was not in ideal position to secure Trevor Ariza or Marvin Williams, let alone Pau Gasol or Luol Deng.

And so the Heat, as they had been promising privately, quickly moved to Plan B, starting to add depth to the roster before more of those options evaporated, while still working toward finalizing the returns of their three signature stars. 

In doing so, they offered some clues.

First, that they're expressing the same confidence to agents as they've been exuding to reporters, about their chances of retaining the Big Three, starting with James. After all, it is an agent's duty to make sure, prior to committing a complementary player to a contender, that their new team will actually contend. McRoberts started in the playoffs for Charlotte last season, and was a favorite of a coach the Heat greatly respect, Steve Clifford. He wouldn't leave that situation on a lark.

Second, the Heat gave some clues, with the numerical figures of their outlays, about exactly how they're operating. 

It is possible, if the Big Three collectively returned at a significant salary reduction, or if one of them surprised the Heat and left, that McRoberts could slide under the salary cap for the $5.3 million the Heat have now promised him in the first year of a four-year contract. But it is expected that the salary for the "stretch four" power forward will simply slide into the Heat's full-level exception, an exception they only possess if they are functioning as a capped-out team.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

That, contrary to errant reports that had the Heat dangling more than $10 million in cap space on the market, has always been the most plausible scenario.

It would mean that LeBron James would get the maximum salary that he wants, while Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are subject to smaller paycuts than they would otherwise. It would also mean that the Heat could choose to retain some combination of Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem and Ray Allen using their Bird rights, before signing other players (perhaps James Jones, Greg Oden and Rashard Lewis) to the minimum. Finally, it would also mean that Miami would be using either its biannual exception ($2.1 million) or trade exception ($2.2 million) for the first year of Granger's two-year deal, depending on whether the Clippers are interested in trading for that exception, and they would still have the option of signing-and-trading Andersen or Chalmers for talent at another position if they find takers.

Again, this likely precludes the Heat from adding premium talent, but that wasn't probable anyway once profligate spending supercharged the market, with the likes of Avery Bradley ($8 million), Channing Frye ($8 million) and Jodie Meeks ($6.3 million) all collecting more than expected. That market inflation has made it difficult for Miami to land anyone, especially as Riley is balancing several plates on his head, and doesn't have James' commitment available as a recruiting tool. They've tried, offering the full mid-level exception to players who have since, or will soon, take much more. And they've even tried to entice some talents you wouldn't expect, such as Pacers' agitator Lance Stephenson.

That report, from ESPN's Dan LeBatard, may have surprised some, considering that James, Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heat became weary of what Ray Allen labeled "buffoonery" during the recent Eastern Conference finals. But it shouldn't, if you know how strongly James feels about simply adding talent that can assist his championship aspirations, even if it comes with some attitude.

Compared to Stephenson's transgressions upon James, McRoberts and Granger were modest offenders. Yes, McRoberts angered James with an elbow to the throat in the Heat's first-round sweep of Charlotte, one that the officials ruled a common foul. And yes, Granger, while with Indiana, instigated several confrontations with James or Wade during a second round series with the Heat in 2012, causing James to call his tactics "stupid."

But James has also repeatedly praised Granger's game, frequently pointing to the veteran as an important piece that the Pacers were missing in the past two playoff series. And, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, he was aware of the Heat's pursuit of McRoberts.

So how will each fit?

Well, that depends on whether Granger, 31, can find anything close to his previous form; knee trouble has limited the 2009 All-Star to 46 games over the past two seasons with the Pacers and Clippers, and he's shot just 37 percent from the field. That depends on whether McRoberts, 27, can continue to build on a revelatory season, one in which he significantly extended his range, making 57 more 3-pointers (105) than in his previous six seasons combined (playing for five teams).

But it depends mostly on whether James ultimately returns, and that will depend at least in part on Riley's meeting with him in Las Vegas, where James is hosting a skills camp. As role players, they can help relieve some of his burden. As replacements, they can't come close, and it will raise questions about whether Miami allocated too much of its cash stash to those of their ilk.

One thing to be sure about:

If Riley gets a commitment from James, the Heat's confirmation—and celebratory statement—will come quickly.

Ethan Skolnick covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @EthanJSkolnick


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