ON BASKETBALL | Miami Heat President Pat Riley has always given off the ultimate air of cool for more than three decades. And at no point during this critical free agent period for the franchise has he given off the impression that he is worried about the dissolution of a dynasty with the loss of LeBron James or Chris Bosh (Dwyane Wade is a Heat lifer who isn’t going anywhere).
But Riley had better hope his calm demeanor and charm will be able to keep the Heat together because the prospect of beginning another rebuilding effort around an aging and fading Wade is more gruesome than anything he has encountered in nearly 19 years in Miami. And, that includes the 15-win season in 2008. At least then, Wade was in his prime and set to spend the Olympics laying the foundation for a free agent super team.
Riley will reportedly sit down with James Wednesday and have a discussion that will likely go a long way toward determining if the four-time league most valuable player stays in Miami and attempts to make good on the seven or so championships he claimed he’d win with Bosh and Wade. As he stated in that bombastic news conference following the Heat’s NBA Finals loss to San Antonio, Riley won’t be able to win over a championship-starved James with a bag full of rings because James has his own rings.
Instead, Riley has to win over James with a plan. His moves to bring in Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger could hardly be considered massive upgrades but the fact he used salary exemptions — something that’s only available to teams that spend above the salary cap — to retain both players revealed a certain amount of confidence that his all-star trio will be back.
But the specter of a James and Bosh defection lingers. And for the first time since assembling the first team in 27 years to make four straight trips to the NBA Finals, Riley faces some serious threats to the kingdom he intends to maintain on South Beach. Keeping James goes without saying, but Riley hasn’t offered much indication about where he is leaning with regard to added reinforcements, and the storyline of a heartwarming return to Cleveland has dominated the headlines since Sunday.
If James does stay, Bosh is expected to return. Bosh has never quite seemed open to prospect of leaving Miami, since he was adamant about being willing to return to Miami for a discount to continue chasing championships with James and Wade. He opted out of a contract that would’ve paid him more than $40 million over the next two years so that the Heat could find some help in free agency.
But now the Houston Rockets are testing the value of potentially playing with James. The Rockets have reportedly offered Bosh a four-year contract worth $88 million that will give him the chance to form a new all-star trio with Dwight Howard and James Harden and play in his native Texas — where, like Florida, he wouldn’t get taxed on his income. The lefty big man has a difficult decision to make.
James has made it known he will take no less than a maximum-salaried contract starting a $20.7 million in the first year — a discount considering his actual value to a franchise’s title hopes and bottom line. In order for the Heat to make that happen and find the necessary complementary pieces, Wade and Bosh would have to take significant pay cuts — especially since the new collective bargaining agreement prohibits the Heat from spending above the $4 million luxury tax apron, meaning it is operating on a hard cap of $81 million next season.
Playing with James increases the chances of winning a title and also creates somewhat of a protective shield with his status as the “easiest target in sports.” Bosh was still maligned for much of his time in Miami but he was usually absolved from the blame until the Heat lost in five games to San Antonio last month. Few remember that Bosh failed to score in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals … and it didn’t matter because the Heat won the title.
But does the security of deep playoff runs override the loss of $5 million — or more — a year in salary? The last time Bosh decided to team up with James, he came out ahead with the biggest contract. That won’t happen this go around.
And with James not providing any assurances about his return, Bosh has no choice but to consider the available options. If Bosh decides to leave, the Heat becomes a less attractive destination. Carmelo Anthony has been rumored as a possible replacement for Bosh, but Miami would have to dip below the cap and lose its exceptions to make that happen. Given James’s salary demands, the cap hold on Udonis Haslem and the money already set aside for McRoberts and Granger, Wade and Anthony would have to make a huge sacrifice in order to make it happen. And with big money already on the table in New York and Los Angeles, Anthony has better options than Miami.
Absent Melo’s monetary concessions, the Heat would have to use Bosh’s salary slot to sign two good players instead of one great one and hope that more depth would suffice with James leading the way. But if James jets, too …
Right now there’s nothing more than a possibility that Bosh, James or both don’t return to Miami. But it’s a very, very dark possibility.
Here’s the Heat roster right now if James and Bosh depart: Wade (because no other team is going to pay him what an indebted Miami can and inevitably will), McRoberts, Granger, Norris Cole, Justin Hamilton and Shabazz Napier. The free agent market isn’t going to replenish losses of that magnitude. And Miami doesn’t have attractive assets it could afford to trade. The Heat could go from a four-year NBA Finals streak to a black hole.
So, Riley’s task is easily stated if not easily executed. To maintain his kingdom and his ever-present cool, he needs to keep James, Bosh and Wade together.