Satisfying LeBron costly to Heat draft

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
5:17
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Having boasted one of the league's oldest rosters last season, there's no question the Miami Heat need to get younger.

Considering their failures at the position during their demoralizing loss to San Antonio in the Finals, the Heat also are in desperate need of help at point guard.

And beyond anything else right now, the Heat need to keep LeBron James. One of the keys to keeping LeBron is to make him happy and satisfied with every potential roster move.

According to his Twitter post during the NCAA Final Four, LeBron likes Shabazz Napier, who led the UConn Huskies to a national title last spring. Ray Allen likes LeBron and is leaning toward returning for a 19th NBA season as long as he can continue playing alongside the four-time MVP next year.

And Allen is also a former UConn star, who would be an ideal mentor in Miami for Napier.

Connect all of the dots, and it's easy to see why Pat Riley and the Heat reportedly are pushing to move up from their No. 26 slot in Thursday's NBA draft for a shot to acquire the speedy, sharp-shooting combo guard. In addition to Cole and the No. 26 overall pick, the Heat could also offer their $2.2 million trade exception to sweeten a potential deal. But there's a sobering question that keeps coming up each time one of these pipe-dream type scenarios are bantered about seemingly every other day with the Heat this time of the year.

Is it realistic?

The quick answer: hardly.

The Heat are almost completely out of assets. On one hand, it's a position of ultimate flexibility and authority, with the team in a situation with 14 of the 15 players on last season's roster either at the end of expiring contracts or in position to opt out of deals to become free agents next week.

Should Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh follow LeBron's decision this week to opt out of the final two years of their contracts, it would leave only third-year point guard Norris Cole on the Heat's ledger for guaranteed salary next season. So in essence, the Heat's lone play is to move up in the draft for a chance to land Napier and try to entice a team to take back Cole, who is owed $2 million next season, along with the Heat's first-round pick in a future draft.

That means the Heat would be attempting to trade a young, speedy, relatively inexpensive point guard who was a rotation player on two NBA championship teams -- and a future No. 1 pick -- to move a handful of spots up in the draft to get a younger, slightly cheaper, NCAA champion.

But if LeBron wants Napier, the Heat are obligated to try to get him.

As Riley said last week during his season-ending press conference that also served as the launch of the LeBron James Recruitment campaign, the Heat are willing to do “whatever it takes.”

What this reveals more than anything is that the power of LeBron as a free agent is far greater and more dominant that any of his collective powers on a basketball court when he's in uniform and deciding the outcome of a game or a playoff series.

It's clear Riley and LeBron agree on several things about this team entering Thursday's draft and next week's free agency. The Heat need to get younger and more athletic, particularly on the perimeter.

Napier was a fantastic shooter and scorer in college, which makes him similar to other former UConn combo guards in Ben Gordon and Kemba Walker. A bigger priority for the Heat is to find a shooting guard and small forward with length who could alleviate the two-way burden and take some minutes away from LeBron and Wade on the perimeter.

If you're the Heat and are going to trade up, it seems more fitting to reach for swingmen such as Duke's Rodney Hood or Kentucky's James Young.
Riley insisted that among the improvements the Heat needed to make was to develop “a layer of youth” behind the team's veteran core. He also talked about the virtues of players and coaches reinventing themselves to make the next four seasons of Heat basketball around James as dynamic and productive as the past four were.

If Riley takes his own advice, his own reinvention would start to take shape with his approach to the draft as soon as Thursday. Never a huge proponent of relying on youth and developing teams through drafts, just the notion that Riley would sign off on the Heat's attempt to trade up to acquire talent would be a step outside of his traditional team-building comfort zone.

Another option for the Heat would be to make their selection and then trade the pick to clear an additional $1 million off the salary cap to help in other free-agency pursuits. Miami could also make the pick, stash a foreign player in Europe and avoid the salary-cap hit for next season.

That's been Riley's preferred method of operating in the draft. But these are different times.

These are desperate times. These are LeBron-dictated times.

But giving LeBron his way is also part of the reason why the Heat are in this predicament.

Four years ago, to complete sign-and-trade deals with Cleveland for LeBron and with Toronto for Bosh, the Heat forked over a total of four first-round picks over a five-year span. The moves were made to ensure LeBron and Bosh could get the sixth season, respectively, on their contracts instead of being limited to the maximum of five years allowed had they joined the Heat without the trade.

One of the most overlooked aspects of LeBron's decision to opt out Tuesday after his fourth year in Miami is that by doing so, the Heat wasted two first-round picks. If Bosh does the same by opting out, that total rises to four -- one of which the Heat still owe -- to add years and money to contracts that were discarded.

Just in the past four years, those picks could have been parlayed into one of the Plumlee brothers, Perry Jones, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jimmy Butler or Reggie Jackson among others taken late in the first round.

That represents the kind of youth and athleticism the Heat sorely lacked in recent seasons, a shortcoming that culminated in the Finals meltdown against the Spurs.

There's a good reason why LeBron likes Napier, and the Heat are working to get him.

Napier potentially offers a lot of what Patty Mills gave the Spurs against the Heat.
Shooting. Speed. Defense. Youth. Electricity off the bench.

The Heat will have to give LeBron just about everything he wants in order to keep him.

Four years ago, that meant sacrificing first-round draft picks for what proved to be no reason at all.

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