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Where do the Heat go from here?

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Stuck between youth and experience, the Heat need direction.

NBA: New York Knicks at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are in an awkward situation. Pat Riley locked this team into a core lacking a superstar in the hopes that he could package assets together and acquire a player like Kawhi Leonard. Then Dion Waiters got injured, Hassan Whiteside torpedoed his trade value and Goran Dragic is on the wrong side of 31.

The players Riley would most like to trade are the ones least likely to bring back value. This leaves the Heat in limbo between a promising core of young players: Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo and a productive but aging core of veterans: Dragic, Whiteside, James Johnson, and Dwyane Wade. Those two groups together can be a playoff team, and maybe even win a series, but can’t contend for a title. Pat Riley has two choices going forward: try to win now, or commit to a youth movement.

As for winning now, superstars are available. Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, LeBron James looks to be on the move, Paul George is a free agent — even DeMarcus Cousins could be a target depending how the Heat feel about his health.

Maybe Riley has a plan. He traded a group of young, promising players for Shaq back in 2004 and won a title. This team has a similar feel, except it doesn’t have an emerging superstar. Even if the Heat could reel in Kawhi Leonard for two or all three of their young guns, would they have enough around him? Could Dragic, Ellington, Leonard, JJ, and Whiteside (or Olynyk) contend for a title? It seems doubtful, given the composition of the leagues most competitive teams.

Fielding two superstars is a necessity these days. Unless Riley could somehow swing Leonard and LeBron, the Heat can’t build a team good enough to contend with the NBA’s elite. Maybe there’s a trade to be made for a superstar, but the Heat shouldn’t make it. They need to go young, and its a reality that doesn’t jive with Riley’s timeline of building one last contender.

The Heat own their 2019 and 2020 1st round picks, for now. Their unprotected 2021 1st pick originally headed to the Suns as part of the Dragic trade was sent to the Philadelphia 76ers in a draft day deal. That gives the Heat two years to commit to developing young players and adding two (potentially) high draft picks. No team likes to say they’re tanking, but its the best choice going forward.

Josh Richardson deserves a shot at being the number one option. He looked the part at times this season and might have the highest ceiling of the Heat’s mini-three. Bam’s athleticism and flashes of perimeter skill make his ceiling hard to pin down, but at minimum he should serve as a rim-runner and solid switch defender. Winslow has demonstrated the ability to play as a point forward from the SF or PF position, but he is headed for restricted free agency soon and he could be looking at a bloated offer sheet. That means cap management will be crucial.

The Heat currently have $56 million on their books for 2020-2021, add in Winslow’s extension and rookie contracts for our draft picks and that leaves just enough cap flexibility to pursue big name free agents. This is assuming we haven’t added any onerous salaries in the meantime. This is where shedding our older assets and landing high in the lottery begins to pay off. In this scenario we would have Olynyk (player option), Waiters, James Johnson (player option), Richardson, Bam, Winslow, and our 2019 and 2020 draft picks under contract. If Johnson and Olynyk opt in, our mini-three continue their development, and at least one of those draft picks pans out, we have an attractive core to advertise to free agent superstars. The caveat is it has to be the 2020 offseason, because the next year Richardson (player option) and Bam will be eligible for new contracts, and they could swallow up all that cap flexibility.

The Heat’s goals moving forward should be threefold: develop their young talent, land high in the lottery, and keep their books clean for 2020. It might burn, but it’s time for the Heat to take a step back in order to move forward.