All throughout last season, the Miami Heat prioritized keeping 2021 cap space. This goal led Miami to balk at giving Danilo Gallinari a contract extension that went past the 2020-21 season at the February trade deadline.
Miami even refused to offer Jae Crowder, who offered invaluable two-way play in the Heat’s second-round upset over the No. 1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks, more than one guaranteed season. Crowder signed with the Phoenix Suns instead on a three-year deal. As recently as one month ago, Heat officials told Crowder they had a “master plan” for the 2021 off-season and were sticking to it.
Background on Crowder situation, per source: Heat offered two-year deal with $14 M this season & team option for 2021-22. He instead took 3 years, $30 M from Suns. Heat told him they would love to have him but have a master plan for 2021-22 and sticking to it.They wished him well— Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) November 21, 2020
That master plan failed to materialize. The Heat gave Bam Adebayo a max contract extension, limiting their cap space for next season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George re-upped with their teams, taking themselves off the 2021 free agent market. Miami is now rumored to land that third star to join Adebayo and Jimmy Butler through a trade, James Harden the most prominent example now being floated.
All this raises the question — will the Heat regret not going all-in on Gallinari last February or giving Crowder more than one guaranteed season last month?
Moe Harkless’ abysmal play in the preseason hasn’t inspired any confidence. In just 31 minutes, Harkless has committed 11 fouls. Erik Spoelstra may go back to starting Adebayo at the four next to Meyers Leonard, but Leonard didn’t play in Miami’s final preseason game at the Toronto Raptors Friday night.
Some Heat fans are already clamoring for KZ Okpala to take the Heat’s starting power forward spot based on his impressive game Friday. Okpala knocked down six 3-pointers and offered defensive versatility that would fit right into Miami’s switch-heavy defense from the 2020 playoffs.
But it’s worth keeping in mind the progression of Duncan Robinson last season. Jimmy Butler missed the Heat’s first three games of the season for the birth of his daughter. Robinson came off the bench and played 23 minutes in each of those games. But in Butler’s debut, Robinson was out of the rotation and only played one-and-a-half minutes of garbage time.
It wasn’t until the Justise Winslow missed his first game of the season Oct. 31 that Robinson started. Winslow’s injuries derailed his entire season, leaving more time for Robinson. If Butler and Winslow hadn’t missed time early in the season, Robinson wouldn’t have had as much of an opportunity to showcase his value.
It’s one thing to say that Okpala could mirror Robinson’s ascent from a seldom-used rookie to a key role player in his second year. But Robinson wasn’t counted on becoming that player until Winslow went down. In this case, some are hoping Okpala takes on that role because Harkless has gone nowhere.
And that all brings us back to Miami’s refusal to complete the trade for Gallinari or sign Crowder to a longer contract. Now, Pat Riley may have not wanted to repeat his mistake of giving James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk four-year contracts in 2017. Those moves prevented Miami from having cap space in 2019, when Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard were free agents. The Heat had to trade away Josh Richardson, a quality role player Miami had developed, to facilitate a sign-and-trade with Butler.
But the Heat’s experience with Butler proved that they can find a way to land a star, even after giving up cap space. If Antetokounmpo didn’t sign the extension, the Heat could’ve traded Gallinari or Crowder to make room for cap space.
Miami is still in a strong position. Adebayo, a first-time All-Star in 2020, still can improve his game. A trade for Harden would form a formidable Big Three. But giving a 30-year-old Butler a max four-year contract in 2019 put the Heat in win-now mode. And in a few key instances, Miami exercised caution and concern for the long term when going for it may have made more sense.