So you’ve lost LeBron James, and with him the chance to legitimately compete for a title next year. Do you blow it all up and start from scratch? Pat Riley says no.
Dwyane Wade was unlikely to ever leave, unless both he and the Heat decided they would both be better off without each other. Likewise, the immortal Udonis Haslem was guaranteed (behind closed doors anyway) to get another contract to make up for his convenient-for-the-team free agency decisions. Beyond that, the cupboard was completely bare. It seemed that Chris Bosh would bolt for Houston, and that Miami would be in for a stretch of lottery visits and low playoff seeds as an aging Wade toiled with young players and waited for the draft picks to pile up.
Characteristically, Riley wanted no part of that, especially given his age and the need to keep Wade around. Instead of going the popular Oklahoma City route of bottoming out for higher draft picks when assembling the next version of the team, he began following the model of another Finals foe – the Dallas Mavericks.
Re-signing Bosh came as a surprise to many in the wake of James’ decision to return to Cleveland, but it gives the Heat a clear direction over the next few years. Like the Mavs, they will look to complement their core duo with a rotating cast of veterans while keeping the cap sheet clean enough to take advantage of any free agency coups they may manage to pull off.
Dallas, led by Mark Cuban, has perfected this strategy over the past few years. Rather than rebuild, they seek out deals for mid-tier veteran contracts while waiting for a big-time free agent to finally bite on their offers. Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, and Devin Harris formed a workable backcourt last season to support still-effective superstar Dirk Nowitzki, and none of the three was a huge burden on the team’s cap long term. Calderon may have eventually become just that, but Cuban flipped him for familiar face Tyson Chandler, who is on the last year of his deal. One veteran out, another in.
So far Riley has managed to lure Luol Deng as the major signing of the offseason, filling the gaping hole at small forward with a capable two-way player. Deng comes on a relatively cheap 2 year, $20 million deal.
As currently constructed, the Heat, featuring Wade, Deng, and Bosh, plus newly signed power forward Josh McRoberts, rookie point guard Shabazz Napier, and re-signed vets Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers, will be in a position to compete for something like the 4th seed in the East. That’s nothing to scoff at for a team that just lost the best player in the game. If the cap continues to rise as expected, next offseason the Heat will still have close to max cap room, and will be free to pursue top free agents. If they miss out on the big names, look for Riley to look for more bargain veterans who can add to the product on the floor in the short term without sacrificing the team’s flexibility in the long term.
Moving on from being one of the teams with enough talent to contend for a championship can be tough, but both the Mavericks and the Heat are hoping that you don’t have to bottom out to reach the top again.