In a league built on selling hope, the Miami Heat stand apart. By always focusing on right now, Miami has ignored the torpedoes and plunged into what is widely considered salary cap hell. Including player options likely to be exercised, the Heat have more than $120 million committed for the 2019-20 season with seven players due more than $10 million.
Make that eight, actually, as the Heat reached a rookie extension with Justise Winslow this weekend. That will play Winslow $39 million over the next three seasons (beginning with 2019-20).
Needless to say, most NBA teams don’t have eight players worth more than $10 million per year, even with salaries on the rise. Unless Erik Spoelstra plays really deep rotations, none of the rookie contract players like Bam Adebayo or Rodney McGruder get playing time, or injuries strike, they’ll almost assuredly leave a lot of money on the bench.
It’s a strange team composition. Hassan Whiteside makes almost $30 million per season. (He’s one of the guys with a player option well above his market value in 2019-20.) Tyler Johnson and Goran Dragic each make just under $20 million with player options next summer; Johnson will definitely pick his up barring a huge upswing this season, while Dragic (much older) is a question mark. Then five players are set to make $10-15 million in 2019-20: Winslow, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, and Josh Richardson.
In a way, this mess of a salary cap hell is what allowed the Heat to commit $39 million to Winslow, who has enormous potential but also averaged just 11-8-3 per 36 minutes at age 21 on an effective field goal percentage below 48. If Miami were angling for a maximum contract salary slot in the summer of 2019 to recruit Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, or DeMarcus Cousins, locking up Winslow for tens of millions instead of using his low cap hold to maximize cap space wouldn’t make sense. But because the Heat have no hopes of escaping their salary prison any time soon, it’s not as huge a deal.
Salary cap hell is freedom for the Heat. The financial situation is already ugly. What’s a little more on top?
There is an advantage to Miami’s relatively decentralized salary commitments in player movement. Having those five players between $10-15 million (four now, with Winslow joining the group in a year) allows the Heat to come up with different combos in the trade market. This matters in the Butler sweepstakes: the Timberwolves don’t need to swallow Whiteside’s gargantuan deal to make a potential deal work under league rules, because the Heat can mix and match players like Richardson and Waiters.
Of course, those combos haven’t convinced Minnesota to part with the belligerent Butler just yet. But given that other teams in the mix have needed to recruit third parties to make salary swaps work, Miami’s versatile salary sheet is an advantage. (There’s also the hope of swapping a short ugly Miami contract for a longer ugly Minnesota contract.)
Eventually, if the Heat have made the wrong bets, they’ll hem themselves in. Whiteside and Waiters are on ugly deals right now, and neither Johnson (Tyler or James) would likely fetch their contracts on the open market right now. Richardson and Dragic are worth their deals, Olynyk is only mildly overpaid, and Winslow would like draw an offer sheet this large as a restricted free agent next summer.
Miami also still owes its unprotected 2021 first-round pick to the 76ers, so getting real bad over the next few years needs to be avoided. The Heat’s expensive roster is good enough to compete for playoff seeds and maybe even cause some ruckus in the East. Obviously, swapping a few of the big contracts for the chance to give Butler the biggest contract of all would be smart. But if it doesn’t happen with Butler, the Heat could be in the mix for the next disgruntled star who thinks winter in Miami sounds like a better deal.
Salary cap hell really limits what the Heat can do, but it allows them to take a different tact in team-building. Sometimes, it can be worth it.