Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat Facing Obvious Free-Agency Problem Without Clear Answer

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 8, 2015

USA Today

If Dwyane Wade isn't in a Miami Heat jersey next season, we'll know something has gone horribly wrong.

Perhaps it'll mean he's been conscripted into service as a fighter pilot against an alien invasion. Or maybe NBA basketball will cease to exist following a post-apocalyptic societal collapse.

Far-fetched as those scenarios may seem, they still feel more plausible than Wade, the truest Heat lifer in existence, wearing another team's colors in 2015-16.

As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick wrote:

Wade is home. He has been since 2003, when South Florida became his town, AmericanAirlines Arena became his house and Heat fans, even a man named [Dan] Marino, became his fans. Even if it comes at an uncomfortable cost, the Heat must do what it takes to keep him there. 

Wade, who has never been the highest-paid player on his team, gave up $11 million last summer to sign a new cap-friendly deal that he thought would give the organization a better shot at keeping LeBron James and rebuilding a championship contender.

Now, Wade wants to be made whole, and according to a report from Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Heat aren't ready to hand over an above-market deal this summer to make that happen.

"With the amount of time he has spent with the organization, every effort will be made to try to work something out," Wade's agent, Henry Thomas, told Jackson. "The five times he played for a championship, resulting in three championships, is a significant accomplishment for any professional."

Wade has a player option, which means he can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. As absurd as the Wade-leaves-Heat scenarios above may seem, and as vital to Miami as Wade's history makes him, salary-cap realities truly do make a Wade exit possible.

The details are complicated, but here are the basics that help explain why something as unthinkable as Wade leaving is on the table.

The Ugly Financial Reality

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Along with Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng can opt out of their deals this summer. With just over $42 million committed to guaranteed salaries next year, Miami cannot realistically re-sign all three of its opt-out candidates and stay under the luxury-tax line.

Dragic could command a maximum contract, Deng will be looking for a raise from his $10 million salary and Wade would need a bump up to around $22 million to recoup what he gave up last year.

Miami can retain those players—at brutal expense.

According to NBA analyst Nate Duncan, who broke down the situation on Real GM's Dunc'd On Basketball Podcast, conservative math has the Heat paying $120 million in salary and tax penalties for next year's roster if all three free agents stick around.

Albert Nahmad of HeatHoops.com attacked the cap math in detail to find an even bigger number. For the Heat to retain Wade, Dragic and Deng at market rates next year, a total roster bill of $158 million may be necessary...for a team that might not even be good enough to compete for a title.

And that's to say nothing of the fact that keeping those players would make it impossible for the Heat to hold on to 25-year-old breakout star Hassan Whiteside in 2016.

Hassan Whiteside's contract could pose a problem down the road.
Hassan Whiteside's contract could pose a problem down the road.Joel Auerbach/Associated Press/Associated Press

Loyalty to Wade is important, but it may not be worth $158 million.

The Fallback Plans

So, if the Heat won't give Wade what he wants, leading to a painful split, where can they turn for a replacement?

Miami has the No. 10 pick in this year's draft, which could provide the long-term answer. Devin Booker, a 6'6" shooting guard from Kentucky would be a good candidate to slot in alongside Dragic (whom we'll assume the Heat plan to keep; you don't give up two first-rounders for a player you intend to let walk away for nothing).

Booker is bigger and younger than the 6'4" Wade, 33, and he's also a better long-range shooter than Miami's veteran star has ever been. Plus, and this is the part that matters most: He'll be on a cheap rookie-scale deal.

Maybe it won't be Booker, but we should assume Miami will target a shooting guard in the draft—regardless of whether Wade stays or goes. Remember, Wade has missed 48 games combined over the past two seasons, forcing the likes of Mario Chalmers into out-of-position relief duty.

The Heat need depth at that position either way.

Free agency won't provide many high-profile solutions, because the Heat will almost certainly be above the cap even if Wade isn't around. On its own, a decision to keep Dragic on a deal that starts around $19 million a year will put Miami right up against the salary ceiling.

The Heat will have the mid-level exception available in that scenario, which they could use on a rotation guard like Marco Belinelli or Gerald Green. They'll be priced out of the bidding for players such as Jimmy Butler and Monta Ellis. The same goes for Khris Middleton and Danny Green.

Expectations will have to be tempered.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Perhaps Wesley Matthews, coming off an Achilles tear and carrying major risk, is a gamble worth taking.

Lou Williams made $5.4 million as a scoring reserve for the Toronto Raptors last season. Maybe he'd sign on for the MLE (which wouldn't represent a raise) if Miami promised him a starting gig alongside Dragic.

Beyond those modest options, the Heat simply can't replace Wade on the court without giving up a ton of money elsewhere.

Keeping him on a salary greater than the $15 million he made last season will cost the franchise millions, crippling the roster's near-term flexibility. Letting him go would destroy the image of the Heat as a loyal franchise that takes care of its own.

So...is there a Plan C?

Because neither of the first two options sound all that great.

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