The Miami Heat are in NBA purgatory, and it’s the worst place for a team to be.
This season projected to be more of the same for the Heat: a competitive team that would be a first-round playoff exit. Well, it looks like that’s literally what may be the end result. Currently 32-35, they’re the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. And while sniffing, or getting into the playoffs is great for an organization, it does little more than sell T-shirts for home games in the case of the Heat.
First off, the reason why the Heat look like a likely playoff participant is the East being underwhelming from the sixth seed down. They’re in a five-team battle with the Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, and Charlotte Hornets for the bottom three seeds in the conference. So, what happens if the Heat make the playoffs? They put up a valiant effort and lose to the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors, and then what?
In a scenario where the Heat make the playoffs (which, if the playoffs began today, they would), the highest draft pick they could have is 15; they wouldn’t be able to bank on the lottery being nice to them because they wouldn’t be in it. And while they have some proven commodities and energetic young players, the Heat don’t collectively give off the vibe that they’re a playoff team. But in a conference that never seems to turn a corner, they are.
Now, the Heat do have some young two-way players who have shown the ability to be featured parts of head coach Erik Spoelstra’s offense such as Josh Richardson (25), Justise Winslow (22), Rodney McGruder (27), and Derrick Jones Jr (21).
Richardson has seen his scoring output improve every season and is averaging a team-high 17.2 points per game this season. He can go coast to coast, plays at a high level defensively, and is a focal point of Miami’s offense; like Richardson, Winslow plays both ends of the floor, is athletic, and can get to the rim and finish; McGruder has been a pleasant development for the Heat this season, averaging a career-high 8.1 points per game and playing with aggression; Jones has been a human highlight reel given his ability to sky above the rim; second-year center Bam Adebayo (21) has shown glimpses of promise, averaging 8.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
But there’s two problems with the Heat: A) they’re nearly $28 million over the cap for this summer and B) their core has little room for growth.
Why are they in a financial limbo? Self-inflicted spending. The Miami Heat used to be a roster of three stars taking up the bulk of their cap space, someone on a mid-level exception, veteran minimum deals, and rookie deals. Now, they’re a roster of wings on eight-figure contracts — which add up to eventually suffocate a team’s spending ability.
Richardson is in the first year of a four-year, $42 million deal; Winslow begins a three-year, $39 million deal in the 2019-20 season; Dion Waiters is in the second year of a four-year, $52 million deal; James Johnson is in the second year of a three-year, $43 million deal which could potentially include a fourth year; center Kelly Olynyk is in the second year of a four-year, $50 million deal.
Sure, Richardson, Winslow, McGruder, and Jones are athletic and capable of making an impact on both ends, but are they franchise players? Outside of Adebayo and maybe Jones, is there any room for growth with this core based on what they’ve shown in their respective NBA careers?
Richardson and Winslow have similar skill sets. They can each take part in a team’s scoring efforts, get to the rim, and play at a high level defensively. But they’re not franchise players, or ones who can be the number one scoring option on a championship, or top-tier team. While McGruder and Jones’ athleticism give them wiggle room for growth, neither individual has shown the ability to play in isolation, or produce points at a high level on a consistent basis.
Whiteside has been criticized by president Pat Riley, been frustrated with his role in the team’s rotation, and has been benched in the fourth quarter of games in the past. The star center has a player option worth roughly $27 million for next season. He may be wise to opt into the deal based on his shaky last two seasons with the Heat, but him doing so clogs up their cap space.
Meanwhile, if he opts out, the Miami Heat will still have little to no cap space. And trading Whiteside likely won’t grant the Heat much because teams will have leverage over them in trade talks given the supposed friction between the two parties.
On the other hand, Dragic’s time with the Heat could be coming to a close this summer. He’s still recovering from a December knee injury, is a free agent at year’s end, and the team could be looking to roll with the youth in their backcourt beyond this season. Once acquired for two first-round picks and re-signed to a five-year, $85 million deal, Dragic looks poised to be playing elsewhere next season as a result of unfavorable circumstances on his end.
If the Heat had the cap space to sign max-level free agents, they’d be in the mix with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers to sign some of the summer’s top free agents. Heck, they’d probably have an edge over both of them given their success this century, as well as the presence of Riley and Spoelstra. Plus, palm trees are cool.
Their youth is, for the most part, compensated moving forward, their star player has a murky relationship with the organization, and their floor general of the last four and a half years may leave in free agency. The Heat need frontline scorers and perhaps a new point guard, but have few resources to make it happen. And if they opted to go the trade route to improve, they’d have to trade from their young core, which won’t make them substantially, if at all, better.
The Heat are a respectable team, but they’re likely going to be eliminated in the first round for a second consecutive season. They’re going nowhere and have little room for adjustment. This is the last place you want to be in this league.