The NBA trade deadline is looming. On February 8th, by 3pm, Miami Heat fans will find out what cards Pat Riley has been holding. This deadline was supposed to be an active one for the Heat. Pat had assembled trade chips in the offseason and it looked like the market was going to be flooded with whales. Then all of a sudden the Heat were winning, peaking at 29-23, and they seemed to shift focus, opting to stand pat (pardon the pun). But now the Heat are losing again and – boom – talk of Hassan Whiteside being traded came up, which was immediately walked back.
This deadline has been about as up-and-down as the Heat’s season. Now reports are surfacing of Miami pursuing the likes of Tyreke Evans and Marco Belinelli – not exactly the whales fans were hoping to see. But with Eric Bledsoe traded, Blake Griffin traded, DeMarcus Cousins injured, Anthony Davis too expensive, and DeAndre Jordan redundant, the market for whales, or at least the supply, has all but dried up. Pat can throw his harpoon out there, but he’s unlikely to hit anything except maybe DeAndre, the one player archetype the Heat don’t need. So what exactly is Pat doing here, why chase small fry rentals to add to a team that seems to be a playoff team and nothing more?
The answer to that is probably a little disappointing, but I’ll save that until the end to keep you reading. For now, let’s take a look at the market and speculate wildly. Let's look at the options. The aforementioned pair plus one, to whom the Heat have already been linked:
Tyreke Evans, Marco Belinelli, and DeMarre Carroll
Three frontrunners (Boston, Denver and Philadelphia) and a fourth team (Miami) staying engaged on Memphis' Tyreke Evans, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 6, 2018
The DeMarre Carroll trade talk was foreshadowing of Miami's goal this deadline. It seemed to be just an excuse to get rid of Tyler Johnson’s looming salary uptick from $5.8 million this year to close to $19 million in 2018-2019. The Nets themselves were the team that signed Johnson to this “poison pill” contract back in 2016 offseason. It’s been rumored that Pat would trade Tyler and throw in Justise Winslow to sweeten the pot, just to get out from under that contract - even though DeMarre came with a hefty salary in return: $15.4 million in 2018-2019.
That didn't look like the case for these next two. Evans and Belinelli are both slated to be unrestricted free agents in the offseason and neither have a big salary this year: $3.3 and $6.6 million respectively. What exactly a Heat package for either of these two would be is unclear, but one has to assume Winslow would be involved. He is the Heat’ s only realistically tradable asset (besides Wayne Ellington) and he has a small salary at $2.7 million.
But what would be the point of trading an upside player for a two-month rental? The answer is there wouldn’t be one, unless Pat could get them to take Johnson’s contract, or if he’s really desperate for a couple more wins (which I doubt).
Evans would be an upgrade over Winslow, he’s both more efficient and proficient on top of being a more consistent shooter. Plus he has the chops to be a backup ball-handler in place of a theoretically departed Winslow or TJ. But since Tyreke doesn’t come with Bird Rights that means the Heat would have to sign him using cap space they don’t have this offseason. So in all likelihood, he wouldn’t be returning, and he doesn’t raise this team’s ceiling enough to justify unloading a prospect with room to grow.
Now if the Heat could get either the Hawks or Grizzlies to trade their chips for Tyler Johnson and maybe a second round pick… that trade starts looking a lot better. Trading TJ now, while his salary is still manageable without having to take on massive salary in return, would be a huge boon to Heat and their payroll.
The Heat need to get younger, affordable upside players. Then they can either add big-ticket free agents or use their trade bullets to snag one while still maintaining the flexibility to flesh out the team via free agency. As a result, Pat’s short-term goals are twofold: he’s (possibly) trying to get rid of Tyler Johnson’s contract – and extract value from Winslow before his restricted free agency next offseason.
But what about Whiteside? Well, Hassan is definitely on the table, but the Heat don’t want to look desperate so they will likely hold onto him unless the right deal comes along. That being said, I doubt Hassan survives the offseason. He's tough to trade because he's an old-school center without the footspeed to keep up with centerless “death line-ups”. That is a largely why he’s been limited to 25.5 minutes this season; the lowest since his first year with the Heat.
Pat knows this team’s ceiling is relatively low and Spoelstra already has them playing right up against it. There isn’t much room for improvement going forward with Goran Dragic and James Johnson on the wrong side of 30, Dion Waiters struggling amid injuries, and little in the way of upside outside of Bam Adebayo. Speaking of whom…
Bam has shown that he can be a reasonable facsimile of Whiteside. He finishes lobs, grabs rebounds and defends the hoop. On top of that, he has the footspeed Whiteside lacks to switch on pick and rolls and keep up with guards. He, along with Kelly Olynyk, has made Whiteside expendable.
The Heat aren’t likely to extract equal value for Whiteside, but getting rid of his contract and getting a wing or guard depth in return might be the best they can do. Milwaukee seems to be keeping an eye on the hulking center, and after they settled for Tyler Zeller this deadline, a Whiteside trade is looking possible for the offseason. Malcolm Brogdon or Jabari Parker could look good in a Heat uniform.
So let’s recap. Tyler Johnson makes too much next season, Hassan is expendable and makes too much already, and Winslow still has upside but is facing restricted free agency soon. On top of all of that, the Heat don’t have a clear path to sustained organizational improvement. Only Winslow and Bam have significant upside (albeit ample in Bam’s case), and Bam still needs several years to realize that improvement.
Time to crunch the numbers.
Removing the salaries of Whiteside and TJ, the Heat would have around $74 million in salary commitments for next season. Factor in Ellington’s cap hold and that number ticks up to $82 million. The cap is projected to be around $101 million for 2018-2019. That would leave the Heat close to $19 million in room without the pair. Factor them in and our salary commitments soar over the cap to around $126 million, handcuffing the Heat from making any significant improvements.
Pat Riley looks like he is slow-playing his hand, but really he is trying to bluff teams into eating Tyler Johnson’s contract. By not explicitly making him available and targeting guys like Tyreke, who would be a temporary upgrade, Pat looks like he’s trying to improve the team (and he is to some degree). But the true benefit, and probably his goal, would be Johnson’s salary relief. Tyreke and Belinelli could leave in the offseason and essentially serve to wipe Johnson’s 19 million off the books. Then, if the Heat could flip Whiteside to an overeager buyer like the Bucks – desperate not to waste Giannis’ prime – they would gain cap flexibility and maybe even get an upside player in return. Including Winslow in either deal makes them more viable for the Heat’s trade partner. Winslow is still a palatable prospect, and trading him absolves the Heat of the decision of how much to pay him in 2019. That decision is shaping up to be a tough one. Winslow has shown upside, but a maddening lack of overall improvement makes giving him a significant contract a risk. By trading him a year ahead of this decision, Pat preserves Justise’s value by pretending he doesn't really want to offload him.
So it’s time to finally answer that question I asked early. The one I said you wouldn’t like the answer to. Just what are Pat Riley and the Heat going to do? What has the master GM got hidden up his sleeve? The answer is mostly nothing substantial. They don’t have the trade chips to chase real targets so they are subtly shopping their own players in the guise of buying a rental. The best we can hope for is a trade that sends Tyler Johnson elsewhere and brings back a surging veteran. So cross your fingers for Tyreke because that’s the best-case scenario.
Now the offseason… well that’s a whole different article.