In atypical fashion, Pat Riley is betting on a roster lacking in traditional star power. Is he sacrificing the future or making the right choice?
When the Miami Heat emerged as a suitor for Gordon Hayward, it all felt very familiar. Pat Riley has always pursued the best free agents on the market – LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, now Hayward – largely because of his obsessive preservation of cap flexibility. You can’t fault the guy. Since 2010, Riley has assembled the Big Three, won two NBA Championships, weathered the departures of the best player in franchise history and the second-best player in league history, and retained Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic in free agency.
But Riley didn’t get Hayward this offseason. And that strikeout led to a decidedly un-Riley move. Miami finished 41-41 last year and missed playoffs altogether. Yet Riley opted to bring the whole gang back, doling out sizable long-term contracts to Dion Waiters (four years, $52 million) and James Johnson (four years, $60 million). He even added former Celtics center Kelly Olynyk on a four-year, $50 million deal.
The Heat lost out on LeBron James in 2014, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade in 2016, and now Gordon Hayward in 2017. https://t.co/1W20b0mm8S— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 6, 2017
Barring an unprecedented avalanche of salary dumps, no superstar free agent will be taking his talents to South Beach anytime soon. Miami will owe its players more than $100 million in guaranteed contracts in each of the next three seasons. How those players perform, however, is all but guaranteed. Instead of employing his trademark cap gymnastics, Riley is rolling the dice.
We all know why he’s doing this. Over the second half of last season, the Heat had the second best record in the NBA, going 30-11 after a putrid 11-30 start. But if you take a closer look, the Heat weren’t just a cute fairytale story. They were damn good. During the 30-11 run, they posted a +6.4 net rating, which would place them in elite territory over the course of a whole season. And far from a one-trick pony, Miami flourished on both ends, ranking third in defensive efficiency and eighth on offense.
Pundits like myself will question whether that second-half surge is sustainable across an entire season. Miami is short on star-level talent, which is the exact reason they targeted Hayward this season and Durant in the past. The Heat’s best player, Whiteside, is a mere rim-running center with zero range or passing ability, while their second best player, Dragic, is 31 years old and may have peaked last season. Talent-wise, Miami’s roster doesn’t scream “elite,” let alone “championship.” It’s possible Riley just committed to a 40-win team.
Still, you can’t just dismiss the magic Miami captured last year. The Heat’s front office is betting that nothing fluky happened, and there are decent reasons to suggest Riley has once again built a very strong playoff team for the next few years.
Although the Heat lack bona fide superstars — and it’s pretty much proven you need those players to win titles — they can sneak up on 50 wins with sheer depth. Forget Eric Gordon and Lou Williams; James Johnson and Tyler Johnson were the most impressive bench duo in basketball last season.
The former grew into a unique playmaking big equally capable of setting ball screens and using them. He finished the year averaging 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, all while posting a +2.3 defensive box plus-minus. The latter, meanwhile, improved as a ballhandler, finishing with a career-low turnover percentage and a career-high assist percentage. He spent 53 percent of his minutes at point guard, but he’s still a scorer at heart with a pristine shooting stroke (37.2 percent from three). Going into just his third season, the younger Johnson is still improving.
There’s also the addition of Olynyk, a sweet-shooting, playmaking big man with underrated defensive ability. With his ability to stretch the floor and drive closeouts, the gangly Canadian can play slow-footed centers off the court. Just ask Ian Mahinmi.
$50 million over four years may be a slight overpay, but Olynyk brings new possibilities to Miami’s multi-pronged attack. Add in Josh Richardson and two of Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington, and Justise Winslow, and its obvious that Miami has one of the most versatile and explosive benches in the NBA.
In truth, it’s disingenuous to paint the Heat as a team of castoffs, misfits, and sixth men. Whiteside has played just two-and-a-half years’ worth of NBA basketball and quietly averaged 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game last season. He has no shooting ability and he’s still not comfortable guarding the perimeter, but he’s a monster around the rim and proved capable of anchoring an elite defense.
Hassan Whiteside says he’s thrilled the Heat “get a second shot.” Thinks this team can be Top 4 in East.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) July 8, 2017
Dragic, meanwhile, is a James Harden-lite (albeit very lite) who gets to the paint at will and can stroke threes. Since his game is based more on size and guile than pure athleticism, he should age well, all while Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters develop behind and next to him. Hell, both Winslow and Bam Adebayo are Roman sculptures who have high ceilings if they can harness their obvious gifts. This team is good.
Are they great? Maybe not, and only time will tell, really. Pat Riley isn’t usually a “time will tell” type of guy, though, so if things turn sour, he has some escape valves he can use to revamp his roster. Winslow and Adebayo are decent trade fodder who Riley could easily package with a big contract in a deal for a more talented win-now player. Perhaps more importantly, after three years with this roster, the Heat could potentially have an empty payroll in 2020, or at least close to it. The last time the Heat had a blank slate, they signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Perhaps the franchise is eyeing that future cap space, content to wait out LeBron’s reign in the East and the juggernaut from the Bay Area. In the meantime, the Heat will at least be decent. It’s atypical for Riley to handcuff himself to a roster, yet this roster brings an upside — as the basketball world learned last season — that most good-not-great teams lack.
Miami’s offseason has raised some eyebrows, and rightfully so, but Riley knows what he’s doing, and this “gamble” is about as safe and calculated as it gets.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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