Can Pat Riley Rescue the Miami Heat (Again)?

This off-season, the Miami Heat will be at another franchise crossroad. So far, Pat Riley has done a very respectable job re-imagining the team in its post-LeBron era. Overall, Riley deserves to be recognized as one of the best upper-management-types in the NBA business. But Riley’s tenure in Miami illustrates the importance of an NBA franchise maintaining a flexible plan, and perhaps more importantly, the role of luck in building a consistent winner. It would be hard to envision a scenario where the Heat are playing for a championship this season. So can Pat Riley rescue the Miami Heat (again)? It’ll take Riley’s magic touch, and a little luck.

In order to understand where the Heat may be headed in the future, one must go back to the off-season leading up to the 2002-03 season. Riley was head coach and team president. However, he was at the helm of a team in turmoil. The team’s highest paid player (Alonzo Mourning) was on the books for over $20 million, but couldn’t play due to being diagnosed with kidney disease. Miami had a couple young, promising rookies in Rasual Butler and Caron Butler. Otherwise, they had solid veterans Eddie Jones, Brian Grant, LaPhonso Ellis, and Anthony Carter. Those pieces were nice, just not really anything that would make one think the Heat were on the verge of a championship. When the dust settled on the 2002-03 season, Miami finished 25-57. Mourning’s salary came off the books that offseason, and the lack of success opened the door for the team to position itself to draft Dwyane Wade, along with Udonis Haslem.

Can Pat Riley Rescue the Miami Heat (Again)?

Then the unthinkable happened: The aforementioned Anthony Carter’s contract contained an opt in clause, which isn’t very common in the NBA. Carter’s agent was under the assumption it was an opt out, meaning if he did nothing, (he thought) the contact would be renewed. Since the former was true, Carter’s agent needed to file paperwork with the Heat and the league informing all parties that his client would exercise his opt in. No such paperwork was filed, meaning Carter lost out on his $4.1 million salary (although he did eventually sign with the San Antonio Spurs for $751,179).

That off-season, Miami used its unexpected cap room (about $11 million) on several players. When the Heat entered the 2003-04 season, they were stocked with Wade, Haslem, Eddie Jones, Lamar Odom, Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant, and the Butlers, among others. At that point, the Heat was in its sixteenth year of existence, and made it out of the first round for the third time that year.

Suddenly, the Miami Heat were on the NBA map as a destination organization.

Then, the unthinkable happened (again).

The NBA’s most dominant player, Shaquille O’Neal, was available for trade after the well-documented falling out with the Los Angeles Lakers’ organization and their (other) superstar Kobe Bryant. Riley was ready and used his stockpile of talent. Miami turned Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler, and two draft picks into Shaq. Riley and the Heat now had their championship-caliber team. And they won the 05-06 championship.

Miami then had the sparkle to go with its relatively new-found shine.

You probably know how the rest plays out, up until now: LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, the Heat also signed Chris Bosh, and along with Wade, they went to four straight NBA Finals and won two. After James went back to Cleveland, Riley performed several other magic tricks by finding Hassan Whiteside (who had been playing oversees), acquiring Goran Dragic for scrap metal from the Phoenix Suns, and then landed Justise Winslow with the tenth pick in the last NBA Draft, a slot very few, in any, in the know saw him falling to. While maybe not a true NBA Championship contender this season, the Heat are certainly in the next tier down in the NBA hierarchy.

This off-season, Riley the Magician may be needed again. In any other organization, optimism might be a premium. In Miami, it can be taken for granted, because Riley is so good at rolling with the punches to build winning teams year after year. But the contract of Hassan Whiteside offers an interesting plot twist.

Since Whiteside was drafted in 2010 by the Sacramento Kings, but then fell out of the league only to resurface as one of the best big men in the game with the Heat, he’s one of the most fascinating players – from a contract standpoint – in recent history. Because he was playing abroad, Miami signed him for the league minimum. In making $769,881 last season and $981,348 this year, he might be the best bargain in the NBA right now. But he’s a free agent this off-season, and because of his usual career arc, the NBA collective bargaining agreement stipulates that the Heat do not have “Bird Rights” on Whiteside. (For those not in the know, it’s the “Bird Rights” clause that allows teams to re-sign their own guys for more money, regardless of their cap situation. It’s because of this clause that during every free agent period we hear about how Free Agent X can sign for a longer number of years and more money if he stays with Team Y.)

Since Miami cannot use the this clause on Whiteside, they’re in the unusual situation of trying to keep one of their own, but are in the same boat as every other team bidding for his services.  Which means the Heat might have to offer him a max contract, which wouldn’t allow them the flexibility going forward that has made the Riley era so successful. Signing Whiteside for that much money, and having Wade, Bosh, and Dragic also on the books for a ton of cap space, one must wonder if Miami can find the firepower to compete for a title going forward. Wade deals with so many injuries at this point that he’s slowly trending towards being what Kobe Bryant has been for the Lakers the past couple seasons. Which is to say: Wade is a legendary player whose past performance merits a salary upwards of $20 million a season, but is also on the downside of his career and in no way deserves that kind of money based on what he brings to his team at this particular moment. Bosh is a perennial All-Star, but if he’s the best player on a team, you’re probably not winning a title. Plus, the Heat lack shooting overall as currently constituted.

Furthermore, their most talented lineup of Dragic, Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh, and Whiteside is an awkward mix-and-match of players who want to run and guys who are best at a slower pace. Deng will probably be moved, and Winslow inserted in his place, but those two guys play almost an identical style, so it doesn’t offer anything in the way of problem-solving, aside from getting younger and maybe slightly more athletic, but at the cost of being smaller. With all that said, however, the alternatives would be let Whiteside leave in free agency for nothing, which wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, or trade Whiteside in-season. But he’s a weird trade chip to value due to his unique contract situation. Any trade involving him would probably also have to include somebody else. A Whiteside/Deng package seems feasible, but there’s probably nobody available via trade short of Carmelo Anthony that gives the Heat any sort of return worth their while.

With Pat Riley at the helm, the Miami has asserted itself as one of the premier franchises in the NBA. This off-season, however, brings Riley & Co. a set of circumstances they haven’t faced before; circumstances that really no team has faced before.. It might take a tear-it-down-to-build-it-back-up approach in order to make the Heat a champion again, or Riley just might have another trick up his sleeve. If history is our guide, be prepared for the unexpected.