Whatever becomes of the Miami Heat for the rest of this season -- whether first-round ouster to NBA Finals appearance -- there is trouble on the horizon for the champions of July. To a significant degree, the future of Pat Riley's superstar concoction will be determined weeks after the final buzzer -- in meeting rooms populated by lawyers and accountants.
After a much needed victory over the Lakers on Thursday night, a game in which the Big Three responded in big ways to a crisis moment, there are again reasons to look forward to such battles in the playoffs. Whether Miami can handle Chicago and Boston for a chance to flex its muscles against the Lakers in the Finals remains to be seen. It'll be fun. Just make sure you enjoy rooting for or hating on the Heat's superstar trio while it lasts, because the Big Three could be one and done.
Whatever the owners and players eventually decide during collective bargaining, some executives believe there's more than an outside chance Miami will have to break up its Big Three without even getting a chance to take the stage for an encore. What was good under a collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2005 may not be good under a punitive system that some hard-line owners are desperate to implement.
|The Heat are looking at paying forward Chris Bosh $16 million next season. (US Presswire)|
Under current rules, teams that are over the cap can only improve through the draft, through trades in which they send out almost as much salary as they get back and by going further over the cap by signing players with the bi-annual and mid-level exceptions. In a hard-cap world, neither of those exceptions would exist. Without knowing what the new rules will be, it's difficult to imagine how the Heat are going to add missing pieces to the Big Three's supporting cast without trading one of the Big Three.
"If there's no midlevel, they're stuck," one rival executive said. "They're done."
Oh, and as for first-round picks? Miami doesn't have one in the upcoming draft; it goes to Chicago. The Heat's first-round pick goes to Cleveland in 2013 (when they have six players scheduled to make $71 million), and their first-round pick also goes to Cleveland in 2015 (when Miami's Big Three alone will be on the books for that season at $66 million).
The most obvious candidate for subtraction from the Big Three is Chris Bosh, who hasn't been able to produce the kind of impact Miami could have gotten from two or three cheaper role players. Bosh also has complained recently about not getting the ball in the post enough. Whether he has a point, this sort of griping at a time when the Heat were in crisis mode won't make Riley any more eager to pay him $16 million next season -- especially if Miami falls far short of its championship goal in Year 1.
What could -- or should -- Miami get for Bosh? If they wait until there's a new CBA, they'll be subject to trading him under the new rules, whatever they are. But trades under existing rules can still be made around the draft, when several teams -- Cleveland among them, coincidentally -- will still have cap space and trade exceptions they'd be able to use to absorb Bosh's contract.
Either way, the Heat and other star-laden teams will face pressure from two directions. First, teams may simply have to get rid of players to fit under the hard cap -- and that goes for the Lakers and Celtics, too. This is the model the NHL adopted in 2005, and one that a significant number of NBA owners are pushing. The second possibility is that even in a system that retains some of its flexibility and cap exceptions, the Heat may conclude that having 70 percent of their payroll tied up in three players simply is no way to win a championship. It makes it too difficult to surround your best players with the other pieces they need to win.
When this modern sports phenomenon was formed back in July, we all marveled at the overwhelming talent but ignored a key ingredient that was lacking -- playoff experience together. That comes over a period of years, and is forged by the kind of adversity Miami has endured during stretches this season and figures to face in the playoffs. There's no substitute for on-court, postseason battles involving the same core players over time.
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The question for the Heat will become: Can we keep this team together long enough to get that? There are no guarantees -- other than the fact that you will now continue reading this week's Post-Ups:
• As Deron Williams continues on his path to an uncertain future in New Jersey/Brooklyn, more details are emerging over what led the Jazz to take the pre-emptive step of trading him to the Nets rather than dealing with a year-and-a-half of soap opera centered on trying to placate him in Utah. The powder-keg moment, to be sure, was an argument in the locker room between then-coach Jerry Sloan and Williams over at least one play -- and perhaps more -- that Williams refused to run in a Feb. 9 loss to the Bulls. Sloan resigned the next day. But multiple sources told CBSSports.com that Williams' wanderlust for a bigger market -- i.e. New York -- already had sealed his fate by then. During All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, CBSSports.com reported that Williams last summer began expressing a desire to join Amar'e Stoudemire with the Knicks when he becomes a free agent in 2012. After the All-Star Game, Williams dismissed the story as "not credible," but didn't deny his intentions. The Jazz, sources said, already were well aware of those intentions and had no desire to become the next Toronto, Cleveland or Denver as the NBA's game of superstar musical chairs rolled on. In fact, the website NBA Confidential reported recently that Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor's strategy all along was to enter discussions about Williams with either the Knicks or Nets -- whichever lost out in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.
But the final straw, sources said, came during All-Star weekend, when word got back to Jazz officials that Williams had been spending his time polling fellow All-Stars about possibly hooking up with them via a trade or free agency. This was nothing unique to Williams, said one of the sources, who added, "They were all doing it." As All-Star weekend was being consumed by speculation over Anthony's future, other All-Stars were using the gathering as a sort of job fair. This was precisely the kind of circus the Jazz sought to avoid, and Williams was traded to New Jersey within 72 hours.
• As the Timberwolves limp to the 50-loss mark and beyond, it becomes a question of which number will be greater at the end of the season: Minnesota's loss total or Kevin Love's double-double streak, which reached a record 52 Wednesday night. Of far greater certainty is the status of coach Kurt Rambis, who appears to be on his way out after only two seasons. Though management won't make a final decision until the season is over, sources say there is significant push from within to make a coaching change. Atop the Timberwolves' list of potential successors is Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson, one of the people with knowledge of the organization's thinking said. With a young roster clearly lacking in veteran leadership, some members of the Minnesota brain trust believe the team needs a more vocal, energetic coach on the sideline. Rambis is cut from the Phil Jackson cloth of letting his players police themselves, and also has been at odds with Love for long stretches. A coaching change is something Love would not oppose, sources say. Of course, perhaps Rambis would've been more vocal or energetic if he wasn't saddled with among the youngest teams and lowest payrolls in the NBA. Rambis was hamstrung from the beginning in Minnesota, which has the league's fourth-lowest payroll and traded Al Jefferson to Utah last summer for two first-round picks and Kosta Koufos -- who subsequently was shipped to Denver as a throw-in in the three-team trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York. The Wolves are 16-50 after going 15-67 last season under Rambis, who has had an inexperienced, wing-heavy roster with no serviceable point guard while the team waits for Ricky Rubio to someday leave Barcelona and join them. Though GM David Kahn continues to believe Rubio will be in Minnesota next season, the specter of a lockout would seem to lower those odds significantly. Rubio has a $1 million buyout, half of which could be paid by the Wolves -- but not if all or a significant part of the 2011-12 season is lost to a work stoppage.
• If you're puzzled by the Cavs' decision to acquire Baron Davis and the $28.7 million he has left on his contract over the next two seasons, it was the price the organization decided to pay for the rights to the Clippers' unprotected lottery pick in the 2011 draft. And given that Mo Williams makes $17 million over that span, the price for that pick actually was only $11.7 million. Both teams believe they got a good deal, but it all depends on what the Cavs do with the pick. Unless something goes horribly wrong, the Cavs will have two picks in the top 10 -- and still will have their $14.6 million trade exception intact from LeBron James' departure, the right to swap first-round picks with the Heat in 2012 (which won't likely be exercised), and the Heat's 2013 first-round pick (which is top-10 protected for two years and unprotected in 2015). The Clippers saw an opportunity to rid themselves of Davis, who never was able to live down his inability to keep Elton Brand in L.A. when Davis signed there in 2008. With a young roster showing promise, led by top Rookie of the Year candidate Blake Griffin, the Clippers have less need for a lottery pick in a draft that could be watered down due to underclassman staying in school over fear of a lockout. The Clippers also possess Minnesota's first-round pick, which is unprotected in 2012. See? An NBA trade that works for everybody. Maybe.