SB Nation has another Theme Day today of "What Ifs?" for each respective franchise. Sure, we could ponder if the Heat had won the 2008 NBA Lottery and drafted Derrick Rose first instead of Michael Beasley with the 2nd pick, or what a healthy Alonzo Mourning could have done without his kidney disease, but let's focus on a huge "What If" that set the team on a different course and it was all because of human error, not bouncing ping pong balls or freak illnesses.
Ten years have now passed since agent Bill Duffy failed to notify the Miami Heat that his client, point guard Anthony Carter would be exercising his player option for the upcoming 2003-04 season. Once the June 30th deadline passed without a word from Duffy's office, the Heat were officially off the hook for the inflated $4 million salary that Carter, coming off a disappointing 02-03 season in which he only averaged both 4.1 points (on .351 shooting) and 4.1 assists per game, was set to earn the following season.
With Mourning's contract expiring, Pat Riley (who had vacated the head coaching spot and promoted assistant Stan Van Gundy) was set to have around $7 million to spend that offseason but with Carter and Duffy's blunder, the team were now major players in free agency with $11 million instead to play with. The Heat initially went after Los Angeles Clippers restricted free agent Elton Brand but the team matched Riley's contract offer, at the time the largest contract Clippers owner Donald Sterling paid out for one of his players (6 years, $82 million). The Heat shrewdly then went after their other prized restricted free agent Lamar Odom and were able to snag him with a 6-year $65 million deal with Sterling unwilling to match another big offer.
Duffy, meanwhile, was able to secure a veteran's minimum contract for Carter with the San Antonio Spurs, a salary much more in line based on his production. Though he only played 5 games for the Spurs that season, Carter did manage to beat the odds and carve out a decent NBA career that ended in the 2011-12 season with the Toronto Raptors.
Just one year later, Riley would flip Odom, along with Brian Grant and Caron Butler, for Shaquille O'Neal in the blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Lakers. Had Carter still have been with the Heat, it's highly doubtful Riley could have assembled an attractive offer for the superstar center who would go on to team with the Heat's prized young star Dwyane Wade for the franchise's first title in 2006.
This is one "What If?" that Heat fans would rather not ponder too much. Without Shaq, how would Riley have made his dream, declared when he joined the Heat in 1995, of holding championship parades down Biscayne a reality? How would the Heat return to becoming an elite team in the East after the loss of Mourning in his prime? Without a superstar to team up with, would Wade's game have progressed as quickly as it did and would he have possibly bolted to another team in free agency if the Heat had been stuck in mediocrity? Just the mere thought of any of this being possible had Carter simply picked up the phone after the 2002-03 season ended and made sure his agent was taking care of his contract is enough to give any Heat fan a serious case of the shudders.
Let's not ponder anymore and move on to what really happened, shall we?
The following years, Wade and Udonis Haslem were locked up with multi-year contracts and Riley eventually dismantled the core that had made up the biggest trade in NBA history with Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and James Posey all moving on. Shaq's salary cap space was essentially replaced with Shawn Marion in a trade with the Phoenix Suns in 2008. Almost exactly a year later, Marion (and his expiring $17 million contract) was on the move to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Jermaine O'Neal.
This Heat big man named O'Neal possessed a huge $23 million contract that would expire in the summer of 2010, along with the contracts of Wade ($15.7 million), Haslem ($7.1 million), Quentin Richardson ($8.7 million) and Dorell Wright ($2.9 million), allowing the Heat to make their now legendary run at LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team with Wade.
We all know what happened then and Heat Nation has Anthony Carter and his agent, in part, to thank for helping Riley's dream of downtown Miami championship parades become a reality.
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