Since last spring, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat have been quietly arguing about whether the perennial All-Star can still play basketball. The quiet part of that debate is over.
On Wednesday, Bosh released the first part of a self-directed documentary titled Rebuilt on his battle with blood clots and the Heat. Two more chapters are expected over the next few days as we approach the opening of training camp.
In the first chapter, Bosh makes it pretty clear how he feels the Heat are treating him.
“The team doctors, they told me that my season’s over, my career is probably over, and yeah, this just happened, this is just how it is. I felt right away that I was written off. It was so just ... you know, put it to [the] side, matter-of-factly. If a doctor tells me, ‘Hey, that’s it, this is how it is,’ and I don’t buy it, I think that I have the right to disagree with you.
“I know inside me I have a lot of talent and a lot of ability and ... I have it, I know I have it. It wasn’t a matter of if I’m going to play again, but when. So I took the bull by the horns.”
We have an idea of what comes next based on recent media reports: Bosh gets opinions from other doctors on whether he can play while on certain types of blood thinners, hears an answer he likes, and challenges the Heat medical team’s assessment. The Heat don’t budge. And we have a stalemate.
In truth, very little has changed since Bosh and the Heat battled during the playoffs last year over whether the forward could play once the clot in his calf was resolved. Bosh wanted to come back for the second round. Miami abruptly declared him out for the season.
As I wrote at the time, the Heat had to do that if their doctors felt playing Bosh posed an inordinate risk to his health due to the clotting issue. Medical fitness is a two-party decision, and both the team and player (in all instances) need to agree before a player get back on the court. This is the case when franchises pressure players to come back from injury too soon. This is the case when players try to shake off concussions or other injuries before the team clears them. This is the case with Bosh: he cannot force the Heat to let him play.
What can he force the Heat to do, though? Because clearly he’s going far beyond what any player has done before to settle a feud with his employer. He made a documentary. Most players mired in a standoff with their team just talk to a sympathetic columnist or radio host. Chris Bosh made his own movie. He’s not going quietly.
If the Heat team doctors don’t have a change of heart after Bosh’s doctors present their case, there are three potential resolutions here. Spoiler alert: none of them look terribly plausible.
1. The Heat buy out Bosh’s contract.
Bosh’s contract has almost $79 million in guaranteed salary left on it over the next three years. Any buyout would be a) massive and b) a salary cap crusher, presuming Bosh doesn’t concede much salary. Even if Bosh agreed to a 50-percent buyout, the salary cap hit to the Heat over three years is too heavy to consider.
That’s why the Heat would prefer a medical retirement. Bosh would still get all of his money, but the cap hit to the Heat would disappear as of a year after his final game. That’d give Miami another $25 million in cap space in the 2017 offseason.
This is not to accuse the Heat of prioritizing cap space over Bosh’s career — there’s no doubt that Miami would rather have a healthy, expensive Bosh than this whole situation. But so long as a medical retirement remains a possibility, and so long as Bosh is uninterested in giving up most of his guaranteed salary, a buyout makes no sense.
Of course, there’s little reason for Miami to push for medical retirement so long as Bosh insists he can play. A medical retirement is really just cap relief on a waived player. To apply for the relief, the Heat would need to waive Bosh and ask the league for the injury exclusion that would remove Bosh’s salary from the Heat’s cap sheet. A doctor chosen jointly by the league and players’ union would determine if playing with Bosh’s condition represents a medically unacceptable risk.
If so, in Feb. 2017, the Heat would get the cap relief, which would mostly affect next season. But if Bosh came back to play at least 25 games for another team next season (or even this season), the Heat’s cap relief would disappear. If the Heat used the cap space in the summer and lost it once Bosh played his 25th game in the 2017-18 season, the result could be an enormous luxury tax bill and a complete annihilation of the team’s flexibility.
So long as Bosh is convinced he can play, there’s no incentive for the Heat to negotiate a buyout or to straight-up waive him in hopes of a medical retirement. Which brings us to ...
2. The Heat trade Bosh.
This would require a franchise desperate enough to take on a very expensive veteran who has been knocked out of each of the past two seasons with blood clots, with doctors willing to allow Bosh to play on blood thinners another team considered too risky.
Meanwhile, the NBA would have to ensure the Heat’s trade partner isn’t glossing over legitimate life-and-death safety concerns to land an All-Star caliber player. That means independent medical evaluation, additional insurance requirements, regular assessments, and anything else imaginable. The NBA is (rightfully) not going to sit idly by when a team that declares a player unfit to suit up trades said player to a team that disagrees. This isn’t a knee injury. The stakes on Bosh are much higher.
This is all to say that the mechanics of trading Chris Bosh would be inordinately difficult.
3. The NBA steps in to mediate.
This will probably happen in the immediate term. In producing a documentary about the dispute, Bosh has elevated the profile of the situation to a level the league can’t really ignore. Not that the league has been ignoring it — they are right to have let Miami and Bosh try to figure it out to this point. But the tenor of the dispute is changing, and it’s probably time for Adam Silver’s crew to take the reins.
That said, it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine the NBA disagreeing with the Heat. What could the league possibly do? Tell the Heat their doctors are wrong and the team has to play Bosh? No, that’s not happening. If Miami really is off-base with their fears, the NBA could provide doctors who convince the Heat that Bosh’s plan is safe. Together, the parties could produce a detailed, strict management, and evaluation plan.
To be frank, the Heat allowed Bosh to play after his first serious clot — one that led to doctors putting holes in Bosh’s ribs. Bosh was cognizant enough of the warning signs to immediately go to a hospital when he suspected another clot in 2016. This isn’t a situation where the player is especially likely to ignore symptoms and put his life at risk. Whether any given player’s disposition toward rationality should have any role in this level of decision-making is up for debate.
But again, it’s really hard to foresee league doctors disagreeing with Heat doctors and forcing resolution that results in Bosh on the court in Miami red. And should NBA-appointed doctors find that the Heat’s medical opinion is accurate, it’d hard to believe that will change Bosh’s mind about his ability to play.
That’s why it’s so hard to imagine any of this changing anything. That’s why this still looks like a stalemate despite Bosh’s documentary.