Top Offseason Priorities and Potential Targets for Miami Heat

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 25, 2018

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 16: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat talks with Hassan Whiteside #21 in the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Two of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoff at Wells Fargo Center on April 16, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Miami Heat are trying to find their way in the superstar-driven NBA without a superstar of their own.

If the plan sounds fatally flawed, that's because a preponderance of evidence suggests it is.

This season was supposed to be a significant step forward. All key parties responsible for last year's 30-11 finish were retained—at a substantial cost—and that core was supplemented by a big-ticket free agent (Kelly Olynyk) and a lottery pick (Bam Adebayo).

It didn't matter, though. Miami wound up with only three more wins than last time around, finishing exactly where Vegas thought it would.

More worrisome, however, was the fact the Heat could never come within arm's reach of true elites. They went just 18-27 against .500 or better teams, the worst such mark among playoff participants.

Speaking of the postseason, the Heat were politely dispatched by the Philadelphia 76ers via the 4-1 gentleman's sweep. Two of the losses were by 20-plus points, and the lone win was keyed by 28 points from 36-year-old Dwyane Wade, who isn't sure he has another year left in him.

Miami's lack of a reliable No. 1 option was glaring, and it will get worse if Wade heeds the siren song of retirement.

The Heat appear in dire need of dramatic changes. But with at least $116.2 million already on next season's books and zero picks in the upcoming draft, creativity will be key in reshaping this roster.

                  

Setting the Stage

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 21: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat brings the ball up the court in the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Four of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 21, 2018 in Miami, Florida.
Mark Brown/Getty Images

There are straitjackets with more wiggle room than the Heat have.

Of the nine players holding guaranteed contracts for next season, seven will collect salaries of $9.3 million or more. Four of them will make at least $14.6 million, only one of whom has made an All-Star Game—Goran Dragic, who debuted this season as a 31-year-old injury replacement.

"This is a roster loaded with fourth and fifth men, players who can help but not necessarily dominate..." Ira Winderman wrote for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "And the problem is there isn't the cap space or trade enticement to land such a star. Of all the front-office riddles Pat Riley has faced, this might be the most challenging."

There's virtually no hope the Heat can make up their talent deficit internally.

Miami has two first-round picks from the last four drafts combined—Justise Winslow and Adebayo, who made a combined 44 starts this season. The former is unreliable on offense, and the latter sits third on the depth chart behind players making a combined $36.5 million next season.

A healthy Dion Waiters should help, but he's about to start his seventh NBA season and had the last two beset by ankle issues. Hassan Whiteside has only had three-plus seasons as a rotation player, but Miami showed him a declining level of trust, which brought down his value as both a building block and a trade chip.

Miami has at least four players unsigned beyond this season—franchise icons Wade and Udonis Haslem, plus Wayne Ellington and Luke Babbitt. The Heat have a team option on Jordan Mickey, while Rodney McGruder's salary is non-guaranteed.

                 

Priority No. 1: Cutting Costs

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

The first-round dismantling by the Sixers was a humbling look at the massive odds against this iteration of the Heat. It's not just that they were outexecuted by a younger, less proven squad, it's that Philly had such a noticeable talent advantage with a much cheaper roster.

The Sixers have just $67.3 million committed to next season's payroll. The Heat are paying nearly $50 million more for an inferior product.

Granted, part of that is due to the different points on the draft board these franchises have held in recent seasons. But a lot of it comes from the head-scratching contracts Miami has handed out.

Whiteside, who averaged his fewest minutes in three years, is due to make $25.4 million next season. Tyler Johnson, who has one above-average player efficiency rating in four campaigns, will cost $19.2 million. James Johnson, who backtracked in points, threes, blocks and PER, will collect $14.6 million. Another $11.1 million will go to Olynyk, who has yet to average 24 minutes through five NBA seasons.

"They have a bunch of average players you can't win big with," an NBA scout told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "...In my opinion, you have to clean house. But some of these players will be difficult to move."

Without dealing Adebayo or Richardson—arguably the two most attractive trade chips—Miami will struggle to approach equal on-court value through trades. That's actually fine. Trimming the payroll should be the focus, anyway.

If the Heat can free themselves from salary-cap prison, they still have a lot to sell to external targets. If Riley and Erik Spoelstra aren't enough, there's still South Beach, warm weather and no state income tax. Plus, there are a bunch of support players already in place, so it might only take the right whale to turn things around quickly.

But Riley and Co. can't do big-game hunting of any kind until the self-imposed financial handcuffs come off.

                 

Priority No. 2: The Wayne Ellington Dilemma

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

This might sound blasphemous to some members of Heat Nation given Wade's future uncertainty, but the biggest free-agency decision involves the flame-throwing Ellington. (There's not much of a decision with Wade; if he wants to play another season, it's impossible to imagine Miami saying no.)

The market should be robust for Ellington and his golden arm. The Association craves shooters, and he's objectively an elite marksman.

The 30-year-old tied for sixth overall with 227 triples (most in franchise history and most all-time by an NBA reserve), and he was one of only 20 sharpshooters to average at least two threes while hitting 39-plus percent outside.

"Wayne, especially if we have a broken play and if you don't get a good look, it's always the best option to go to Wayne because of his ability to catch and shoot," Dragic said, per Winderman.

Ellington's floor presence netted Miami an additional 4.1 points per 100 possessions with him than without. Its offensive rating plummeted from 106.4 when he played (would have been 15th) to 102.5 when he didn't (would have been 26th).

All of these numbers might paint Ellington as a no-brainer keeper. But reality isn't so cut and dry.

"Here are the Heat's choices: Re-sign Ellington this summer and pay a luxury tax (an unappealing option for a team that isn't considered a title contender); part ways with Ellington (that clearly would be damaging to this roster); or try to trade another player or players for less salary back to create room under the tax to keep Ellington," Jackson wrote.

Next season's Heat could be heavy on the wings. Barring a trade, Richardson, Winslow, Waiters and Tyler Johnson should all factor in the 2-3 rotation. And that's before the possible additions of Wade and/or McGruder.

Would that still leave room for Ellington? In a vacuum, yes. He's the best shooter on a team whose highest-paid players are attacking guards and an interior big man.

But will there be a big enough role to justify both Ellington's salary and the accompanying tax hit? Only the front office and coaching staff can answer that.

                 

Free-Agency Targets

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 30: Mario Hezonja #8 of the Orlando Magic goes up for a dunk against the Miami Heat on December 30, 2017 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using thi
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

Given the budget constraints, it's easier identifying Miami's needs than its potential ways of addressing them.

The Heat are woefully short of off-the-bounce scoring. This was the sixth-least efficient team on isolations, a shortcoming made all the more obvious by the amount of late-game action that ran through Wade. Sure, he's a future Hall of Famer, but he was second fiddle on last season's 41-loss Chicago Bulls and a support piece for a Cleveland Cavaliers club that required a midseason makeover.

"When your best player is a 36-year-old off the bench, that is not a sustainable business model," Greg Cote wrote for the Miami Herald. "It hits all the warm and fuzzy notes because Wade is so beloved here, but it actually is not a good sign for the Heat."

Less pressing, but potentially more obtainable, is an itch for youth and upside.

How many Heat players have a realistic chance of becoming something greater than their current form? Adebayo for sure, but does anyone else qualify? Can Waiters sustain the level he reached from January to March 2017? Does Richardson have the shot-creating chops to boost his scoring average into the high teens? Can Winslow's newfound three-point efficiency withstand a heavy volume increase?

An affirmative response to any of those inquiries seemingly requires heavy servings of optimism.

So, how can Miami find reliable bucket-getters and up-and-coming players at discounted rates? Good question. If the answer is something other than "It can't," it has to involve uncovering diamonds in the rough, which this roster would suggest is a Heat strength.

Is this the player development system that unlocks the talents that once made Mario Hezonja, Nik Stauskas and Shabazz Muhammad first-round picks? Could Seth Curry be a possible steal after having his contract year erased by a stress fracture in his left leg? Is Ian Clark flying under the radar after failing to repeat the stellar shooting rates he posted as a member of the Golden State Warriors?

Those are the kind of gambles it will take for the Heat to find undervalued players.

If Miami lets Ellington walk, it could use the mid-level exception to find a replacement. That could be the right amount to use on someone such as Joe Harris, a 26-year-old who shot 41.9 percent from three and 62.7 percent on drives for the Brooklyn Nets, or Will Barton, a do-it-all wing who can create for himself (15.7 points per game) and others (4.1 assists).

                    

Trade Targets

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19:  Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against Marcin Gortat #13 of the Washington Wizards during a game on November 19, 2016 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

The one way for Miami to materially change its makeup is playing the trade market. The tricky aspect is the likely disconnect between which players the Heat would be comfortable moving (Whiteside and Tyler Johnson presumably top that list) and which ones trade partners would want (Adebayo, Richardson).

It seems plausible, though, that a center-starved squad could view Whiteside as a worthwhile investment. He had a league-leading statistic the previous two seasons (3.7 blocks in 2015-16, 14.1 boards in 2016-17), and he posted personal bests in per-36-minute points (19.9) and rebounds (16.3) in this one.

In January, one scout pegged Whiteside's trade value as "a first rounder and a decent player—a rotational guy—but not a lottery pick and a decent player," per Jackson. That sounds like a good enough haul for the Heat, provided the player brings salary relief.

The Milwaukee Bucks reportedly eyed Whiteside around the trade deadline, per Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler. Would the Heat bite on a package involving John Henson, Matthew Dellavedova and a 2019 first? The pick is the big prize, but Miami could save roughly $13 million over the next two seasons.

The Washington Wizards were aiming to upgrade over Marcin Gortat at the deadline, sources told ESPN's Brian Windhorst. Gortat and Jason Smith are owed nothing beyond next season (Whiteside holds a $27 million player option for 2019-20), and the Wizards could sweeten the pot with 22-year-old swingman Kelly Oubre Jr.

The Dallas Mavericks have been searching for a long-term solution at center since letting Tyson Chandler walk. If they like Whiteside, perhaps there's an offer to be built around Wesley Matthews ($18.6 million player option next season, nothing after) and a future first.

All of these deals would save Miami money and add some sort of future asset, be it a draft pick or a prospect. If none is thought to improve the current on-court product, though, is that something the 73-year-old Riley would embrace?

This will be a revealing offseason for the franchise. Maintaining the status quo is the simplest strategy, but it would be the most damaging if it locks the Heat into multiple years of mediocrity.

A summer spent thinking outside the box and focused on the future could be the only way to change that fate.

                 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via Basketball Insiders.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

Related

    2018 Playoff Teams That Won't Make the Cut Next Year

    Miami Heat logo
    Miami Heat

    2018 Playoff Teams That Won't Make the Cut Next Year

    Zach Buckley
    via Bleacher Report

    Donovan Mitchell Wins Best Breakthrough Athlete ESPY

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Donovan Mitchell Wins Best Breakthrough Athlete ESPY

    Alec Nathan
    via Bleacher Report

    Report: Kawhi Warming Up to Raptors

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Report: Kawhi Warming Up to Raptors

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    Shams Is Leaving Yahoo

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Shams Is Leaving Yahoo

    Tyler Conway
    via Bleacher Report