The Miami Heat live by one overarching organizational rule: you can never be too aggressive. Championships are the standard, and they are not won passively. Pat Riley made that perfectly clear in a conference call with reporters Friday.
"I'm all about now," Riley said. "And we're going to press on. We're not going to stop. We are committed to winning and getting back into contending for a world championship. And I just say to you, we will. We will get players and get what we need in the next year or two that's not going to waste Jimmy Butler's years and try to do the best we can."
With Butler in place and no Warriors-caliber juggernaut standing between them and a championship, the Heat dreamed of a blockbuster that would lift them to the lofty favorite perch currently occupied by the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks. The consensus by the time the deadline passed, however, was that they had fallen short.
Andre Iguodala makes the Heat a better basketball team. That much is hard to argue. In Iguodala, the Heat are adding a former Finals MVP who held his own against Kawhi Leonard just eight months ago to fill a role previously held Justise Winslow, who only played in 11 games this season. After a hot start, Miami's defense has slipped to No. 14 overall. They are ranked 20th in passes per game. Iguodala will help on both scores. There might not be five smarter players in all of basketball than him.
But alone, he hardly bridges the gap between Miami and, say, the Bucks. After all, if Iguodala is a Winslow replacement, it should be noted that Miami lost four times in its 11 games with Winslow on the floor. Milwaukee has lost seven times in 51 tries.
Miami's core problems persist. For all of his gifts, Iguodala at 36-years-old won't fix an offense that is 6.8 points per possession worse when Butler goes to the bench, nor will he salvage their increasingly concerning minus-3.2 net rating in clutch situations. Such flaws required a bigger addition, the sort the Heat had in their sights.
On Wednesday night, it was widely reported that Danilo Gallinari was headed to Miami, as their deal with Memphis would be worked into a three-way with Oklahoma City. The Heat could hardly ask for a better immediate addition. A 41 percent 3-point shooter this season, Gallinari could have slotted seamlessly into Meyers Leonard's slot in the starting lineup and provided a defensive upgrade in the process. He scores 0.976 points per 100 possesions, putting him in the 85th percentile leaguewide and going a long way in solving Miami's bench offense problem. Giving Erik Spoelstra another passing forward to orchestrate his motion offense is borderline unfair.
By Thursday morning, however, the deal was on life support. It ultimately couldn't be saved in time for the deadline, with one of two possible hiccups serving as the possible explanations:
- The Heat and Thunder couldn't agree on draft-pick compensation. Miami currently owes Oklahoma City a 2023 first-round pick that is protected in such a way that, thanks to the Stepien Rule (which prevents teams from trading consecutive first-rounders) and Seven-Year Rule (which prevents teams from trading picks more than seven years out), prevents them from trading any other first-round picks. For the Thunder to get a new pick from the Heat, Miami would have had to have rewritten the protections on the existing pick that they owe the Thunder. It is possible that the two sides couldn't agree on those new protections.
- Gallinari is a free agent this offseason, and while the Heat negotiated a possible extension with his camp, they couldn't agree on exact terms. The Heat, protecting their cap space in 2021 for a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo, likely would have wanted Gallinari to agree to a similar deal as Iguodala's, which has no guaranteed money for the 2021-22 season. Gallinari may simply have rejected such a proposal.
While these concerns may have scared off the NBA's laymen, Miami has shown no fear on either front in the past.
The Heat have made only seven first-round picks in the past 15 years. This is a team that traded two first-rounders for Goran Dragic in 2015 despite a 22-30 record that would eventually keep them out of the playoffs, and with Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson all 25 or younger, Miami isn't exactly hurting for young talent. Miami has its best record through 50 games since LeBron James played for the franchise. Now seems like an odd time to find religion when it comes to draft picks.
More likely, Miami's 2021 ambitions stood in the way of a deal. Mathematically speaking, however, the Heat had more than enough flexibility to add a Gallinari contract without taking themselves out of the Giannis sweepstakes. The projected 2021-22 salary cap sits at $125 million, and that would set Antetokounmpo's max at $37.5 million in the first year of a new deal. The most Gallinari could get in an extend-and-trade deal would be a five percent raise this season, and he would be limited to two years beyond this one. That would set the total value of the extension at $48.6 million, with a $24.9 million cap figure for the summer of 2021. Here's how their cap sheet would look at that point with Gallinari's salary in place.
Bam Adebayo (cap hold)
Tyler Herro (team option)
Duncan Robinson (cap hold)
Kendrick Nunn (cap hold)
Chris Silva (team option)
Ryan Anderson (dead salary)
Incomplete Roster Charges (4x)
That's around $7.4 million away from Giannis, but remember, the Heat entered last offseason as a tax-payer and left it with a max free agent in Butler. Miami general manager Andy Elisburg created one of the most abused cap tricks in the NBA with the exploitation of unlikely bonuses. If any team is equipped to bridge that gap, it would be the Heat, and there are a number of ways they could theoretically do it.
- The Heat would save two-thirds of Gallinari's salary for the 2021-22 season by waiving him with the stretch provision (around $16.6 million in total). Doing so would create another $1.03 million incomplete roster charge, but those savings would give the Heat money not only for Giannis, but another supporting player in the neighborhood of $8 million. They would just have to pay out the remainder of Gallinari's contract over the next two years
- They could trade Gallinari to a team with cap space for a player making up to around $17.2 million to create the space. Considering Gallinari's likely production and expiring contract, they could likely find a good player in such a trade. By 2021, their 2027 and 2028 first-round picks would become tradeable through the Seven-Year Rule.
Those are the obvious measures. Elisburg has likely dreamed up several others. Yet Miami seemingly deemed a potential extension too prohibitive.
There are potentially valid reasons for that. The process of luring LeBron in the first place required two years of discipline as every ounce of salary flotsam was jettisoned. The Heat haven't cornered the market on free agency by allowing dead salary to linger on their books, and if they have any designs on luring a co-star alongside Antetokounmpo in 2021, stretching Gallinari destroys them.
The Iguodala trade itself, by virtue of dumping James Johnson and Dion Waiters, created an extra $26.6 million in 2020 cap space as well. That gives them around $32 million based on current projections, and Gallinari would vaporize more than half of that. Considering his pending free agency, the Heat could theoretically just sign Gallinari outright this summer with a one-year balloon payment to entice him into sacrifice the stability a longer-term deal could provide.
Miami knows what they're doing. They have a track record, and they know what Gallinari isn't: Giannis or LeBron. He is a very good player but not a superstar, and as much as his presence would help the Heat, he hardly assures victory over the Los Angeles teams or Milwaukee.
But Riley telegraphed his beliefs with the Iguodala trade. He thinks that the Heat have a chance to win a championship this season. Maybe not an overwhelming one, Gallinari or otherwise, but a meaningful enough one to explore such a deal in the first place, and when the chance to seize that moment stared them in the face, Miami blinked.
It is perhaps the boldest bet on organizational competence in NBA history. With the goal of a title potentially within immediate reach, Riley chose the promise of tomorrow over the "now" he claimed to prioritize. It is simultaneously irreconcilable with Miami's philosophy and its most extreme endpoint. On Thursday, patience was the most aggressive tool that the Heat could deploy, and that choice, shaped by every past decision Miami has made, will define both their present and future.