No matter what happens over the next few weeks Pat Riley and the Miami Heat will be on a determined whale watch this summer, looking to add a cornerstone piece via Free Agency, trade, or even — though way less likely — through the NBA Draft.
Since the Heat is amid a two-day hiatus after a couple of disheartening losses over the weekend, I’ve been thinking a ton about this pivotal offseason. It’s an especially critical one because their flexibility will be at its peak under the roster’s current construction.
Half the team is on expiring contracts, Tyler Johnson’s cap hit remains low (for now), and they’ll have another tradable asset in June when they’ll be able to essentially move their first-round pick on draft night.
There are whales to be had this summer, though not all whales are created equal. Here they are ranked in descending status, mostly based on size.
Note: Plausibility was taken into account with this list (Steph Curry and Chris Paul ain’t leaving Golden State and Los Angeles, respectively).
Blue Whales (1)
1. Kevin Durant
Last year’s premier Free Agency prize carries over to this offseason because he has a player-option for next season, one he may not exercise even if he plans to return to Golden State (very likely) because he’s in for a bigger payday.
While I’d peg the chance of Durant legitimately hitting the market at 1 percent, we’ve seen stranger offseason moves in recent years and I’ll continue to dream about Durant in a Heat uniform goddammit. If a whale of Durant’s stature is even sniffing the market, you better make damn sure he picks up your scent.
Durant’s glowing recent comments about Erik Spoelstra’s coaching and the Heat’s impressiveness this season aren’t enough to connect the dots yet but Miami’s pitch would be simple: “We have a proven winning culture with an elite front office, we’re a YOU away from title contention, and Miami has the most beautiful women on the planet.”
A squad featuring Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson (if re-signed), Durant, Tyler Johnson, and Goran Dragic as its starters with Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington, and filler off the bench is at least a Top 5 team overall and a potential No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, offering the easiest route to the NBA Finals.
Killer Whales (5)
2. Gordon Hayward
3. Paul George
Next we have our Killer Whales, superstars for sure but a notch below the game’s most elite four or five players.
Hayward is ahead of George because he’s likely going to become an unrestricted free agent. He’s also a fantastic offensive specimen booming with versatility and remains the Heat’s most realistic whale addition.
If I’m Riley I’d rather add Hayward than trade a massive chunk of our core for George, if the latter is even plausible at this stage. It’d probably require a PG trade demand with Miami on his wish list and then a batch featuring something like Dragic, Winslow, and Miami’s first-rounder, which gives Indy an established great player on a value deal, an intriguing young piece, and a mid-round pick in a dynamite draft.
A lineup including Whiteside, J. Johnson, George, and Richardson has jaw-dropping defensive ability and with a few more shooters offers enough firepower offensively.
4. Kyle Lowry
There’s been no indication he’s ready to leave Toronto, and both his age (31) and injury history are worrisome for the $30 million annually he’d command but he is a dynamic two-way player.
Then there’s the issue of Lowry and Dragic playing the same position, BUT keep in mind Dragic had his career year in Phoenix playing off the ball 48 percent of the time, per Basketball Reference. In today’s NBA you need more than one perimeter player who can create and that tandem could be worth exploring.
The question here becomes whether you’d rather have Lowry instead of re-signing Johnson and Waiters. It’s a tough one but I’m not sure Lowry alone makes them a true contender. They’d probably be similar to what Toronto is now.
5. Blake Griffin
A tantalizing option in Free Agency, Griffin’s fit in Miami wouldn’t be as seamless as Hayward’s.
Blake has excellent playmaking, rebounding, and finishing skills but his 3-point shooting, while improving, isn’t on par.
His injury history is also a red flag, especially being a big man approaching his 30s. He’ll have played well under 100 games the last two years when this season ends.
6. Jimmy Butler
While Butler and George are often discussed as equals when looking at the league’s potentially available superstars, Jimmy’s offense isn’t on George’s level yet. He’s not as smooth on the ball and an inferior 3-point shooter (career 33.5% to PG’s 36.9%).
Both are elite and versatile defenders but I don’t think Butler is good enough to be a No. 1 on a legit contender, hence why he ranks No. 5 on this list, in addition to the fact you’d have to trade a bundle for him.
Beluga Whales (3)
7. Danilo Gallinari
8. Paul Millsap
9. Serge Ibaka
Beluga whales are technically whales but they look more like Dolphins. Gallinari, Millsap, and Ibaka aren’t elite players but they’re All-Star caliber vets who nudge a team’s needle in a positive direction.
Gallinari offers fantastic all-around shooting, while Millsap and Ibaka both offer impactful play on both ends. However, each of these players is limited in some ways and nobody in this category deserves close to max money.
For the right price, I’d be game.
Washed-up Killer Whale With Limited Vitality (1)
10. Carmelo Anthony
Our final entry on the whale list will undoubtedly be a controversial one but I hope this unique category adds a sufficient preface.
Carmelo’s relationship with the Knicks is shattered. Despite his no-trade clause, we can rightfully assume he’s going to be dealt to a team of his choosing this summer. Considering the poisonous relationship, the Knicks’ desire to move on as quickly as possible, and the diminishing value of a isolation-heavy player in today’s NBA, don’t expect New York to land much in return.
With Chris Bosh’s deal likely getting expunged from the Heat’s books in the coming months, the Heat could easily absorb Melo’s $26 million salary for next season. Miami is an attractive destination to Anthony for several reasons, the biggest being the city itself and the fact American Airlines Arena has become the NBA’s go-to player rejuvenation facility.
As discussed in the most recent episode of the Be the Ball Podcast, trading for Melo is a fascinating option this summer if Plans A, B, and C all fail. Riley isn’t going to bring the same exact core back. It’s just not happening.
If Melo were to buy into the Heat’s unselfish style and elite conditioning program, he could follow in the footsteps of Johnson, Waiters, and Wayne Ellington in revitalizing his career — imagine Melo’s role as a stretch four next to Whiteside. The risk is also low considering he has an Early Termination Option for the following season and it could end up being a one-year rental if things don’t pan out.
Anthony has always had his warts but you can’t ignore he’s one of the best scorers in modern NBA history. He’s not finished but in need of a new home.