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Plan A came together nicely for the Miami Heat. Following what was reported to be a serious flirtation with the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade decided earlier this week to remain with the only NBA team he's ever known.
Chris Bosh was the next domino to fall, announcing that he would join Wade in South Beach. Bosh had been mentioned in conjunction with nearly half the league -- whether those teams had cap room or not -- but was considered to be the player most likely to team up with another prime free agent. With Wade, he creates the frontcourt-backcourt tandem that forms the cornerstone of the Heat's rebuilding process.
The Heat got more good news on Wednesday, when the league announced the salary cap for the 2010-11 season will be a robust $58.044 million. This increase -- David Stern had projected a $56.1 million cap just prior to the start of the playoffs -- gave the Heat additional spending power at exactly the right moment -- as the biggest prize of all was about to make his final decision.
Just in case you were living under a rock Thursday and missed LeBron James' hourlong TV special and the subsequent eruption of news reports and commentary, James decided to team up with Wade and Bosh, leaving Cleveland in shock, and now joins a Heat team with a superstar nucleus, but scarcely anything else.
So how does Pat Riley put the rest of the team together?
Riley's first move in the LeBron James era was to make another subtraction. Similar to last month's trade in which he sent Daequan Cook and the No. 18 pick to Oklahoma City in order to free up cap space, Riley continued the housecleaning by shipping Michael Beasley to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Although the Heat received only a second-round pick in next summer's draft and an unspecified swap of future first-round picks, the deal relieved Miami of $4.5 million of Beasley's $4.96 million salary.
So let's take stock of the Heat's assets. Aside from a commitment from the Big Three of LeBron, Bosh and Wade, they have third-year point guard Mario Chalmers and an outstanding qualifying offer to reserve center Joel Anthony. The qualifying offer establishes the Heat's right of first refusal (making Anthony a restricted free agent), and counts against the team's cap. They also have three second-round picks from this year's draft: center Dexter Pittman, and forwards Jarvis Varnado and Da'Sean Butler.
And then there's the cap room. After accounting for Chalmers, Anthony, the contract guarantee on released guard James Jones and various cap holds (the second-round picks don't count on their cap until they are signed), the Heat amassed a staggering $49.85 million in spending money.
While this could be the largest dollar figure ever wielded by a team in the free-agent market, Riley still needs to make it go a long way. After signing the Big Three he needs a backup for each, a starting center and at least one more point guard (to play either ahead of or behind Chalmers). NBA rules require teams to have at least 13 players signed, so the Heat have to get creative in order to add at least five additional players.
Had James, Wade and Bosh received their full maximum salary (about $16.57 million each), only about $1.56 million would have remained. But true to their word that it was about wins and not about money, each took less so that the Heat could pursue quality players. Sources told ESPN.com that James and Bosh signed for $14.5 million and Wade $14 million, leaving the Heat with nearly $8.3 million to spend.
Both the Cleveland Cavs and the Toronto Raptors decided that if their star was going to leave town, they might as well get something in return. Both teams are participating in sign-and-trade transactions -- signing the players themselves in anticipation of a trade that must, by league rules, occur within 48 hours. The Cavs and Raptors both netted first-round draft picks and large trade exceptions for their trouble. This arrangement makes accepting less salary up front much more palatable for James and Bosh, as each now receives a six-year contract (instead of five) with 10.5% raises (instead of 8%).
One persistent rumor has the Heat using some of their leftover cap room to add sharpshooting Mike Miller to the lineup, and Miller is reportedly close to agreeing with the team on a deal totaling $25 million over five years -- which would start at around $4.3 million. While he is a natural small forward (the same position James plays), Miller's skill set would complement those of LeBron, Bosh and Wade, and there would be several ways of slotting him into the lineup. In addition to using Miller as James' backup for the 8-12 minutes James is off the floor, coach Erik Spoelstra could play either Wade or James at point guard and put Miller at the vacated position.
Once Miller is on board the team would have just $4 million remaining to spend on free agents. It is possible Riley will try to use this money to persuade Lakers guard Derek Fisher to join the team. Since the Heat are without their own midlevel and biannual exceptions (sacrificed as part of the process to create cap room), the team would then be limited to offering players only minimum-salary contracts. Riley will have to sell some players on the idea of accepting the minimum in order to be a part of history. In return for their sacrifice the Heat could offer big minutes (including one or perhaps two starting roles), the chance to be part of a media phenomenon and a legitimate shot at the title.
What sort of player would be swayed by such a pitch? The likely candidate is an older veteran who has already banked his nest egg, and is now looking for a ring before he retires. There is a great precedent to this -- in 2003 the Lakers signed both Gary Payton and Karl Malone to complement the Shaq-Kobe duo, with the two accepting a combined $25.5 million less than they had earned the season before.
One advantage here is that the minimum salary is based on the player's years of service, so older veterans can sign for more than young players. The current minimum for a player with at least 10 years in the league is $1.35 million. The Heat could offer this amount to older veterans even after they have committed all their cap room to other players.
What players could Riley tempt with such an offer? The Heat need a starting center, and James has some recent experience with Shaquille O'Neal. Now that LeBron has left Cleveland for South Beach, it's not a stretch to imagine Shaq accepting the minimum salary to return to his old stomping grounds for another shot at his fifth ring. Don't think for a moment he isn't well aware that Kobe now has one more ring than he does.
Another player who could be a good fit is the Heat's own Udonis Haslem (who could sign for the minimum this season and be taken care of by the Heat next summer, as they retain his Bird rights). They may also want to look at point guard Earl Watson and defensive ace Raja Bell, who, in addition to belonging to the right demographic, also grew up in Miami.
Assembling the Big Three means Riley gets no grace period. He has to assemble a competitive team quickly. Anything short of an NBA Finals appearance in Year 1 will be viewed by many as a failure. Miami has the tools to get the job done. Now it's just a matter of execution.Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ. Follow Larry on Twitter.