NBA

Heat trade deadline preview: What Miami needs in order to trump East contenders, return to NBA Finals

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We’re doing it again. In our rush to crown the Brooklyn Nets as the new kings of the Eastern Conference favorites and debate the Milwaukee Bucks’ and Philadelphia 76ers’ merits as possible rivals, we’ve ignored the Miami Heat as viable contenders despite the mounting evidence suggesting otherwise. Six months ago, that meant a surprise trip to the NBA Finals. Now? If the Heat play their cards right, it might mean taking that last step and reclaiming the championship throne they surrendered eight years ago.

The Heat struggled with injuries and COVID-19 early this season, but are now 17-8 with Jimmy Butler in the lineup. They’ve won nine of their past 10 games, and the five-man unit of Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Butler, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo is outscoring opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. When the Heat have had their best players available at the same time, they’ve been as good as ever. 

But given Brooklyn’s newfound dominance, Milwaukee’s schematic adjustments and Philadelphia’s roster upgrades, Miami might need another piece or two if it plans to make it back to the Finals. Here’s everything you need to know about the Heat’s position as we approach the March 25 trade deadline. 

Needs

  • Guard defense: The Heat signed Avery Bradley hoping to improve their defense at the point of attack. Injuries have largely kept Bradley out this season, and while their zone defense can compensate against certain opponents, teams with enough shooting (like Brooklyn) will pick it apart. A healthy Bradley might change the equation here, but it wouldn’t hurt the Heat to explore other options to throw at James Harden and Kyrie Irving in a potential Nets matchup. 
  • A Jae Crowder replacement: This is a somewhat unfair request of Heat management. Jae Crowder shot nearly 45 percent on 3s in the regular season once he joined the Heat last season and then followed that up by making 40 percent of his attempts in the first two rounds of the postseason. The Heat didn’t pay for an elite shooter when they got Crowder as part of the Andre Iguodala trade, but they landed one, and it proved essential in their trip to the Finals. Now Crowder is gone, and while the Heat have plenty of capable shooters and defenders, they’re missing a forward that can do both. Getting one as good as Crowder was last season probably isn’t realistic because, well, there aren’t that many players on Earth who can defend at Crowder’s level and shoot above 40 percent. Even Crowder couldn’t do it forever. But someone of that ilk will be necessary in the playoffs, when starting Olynyk becomes too costly on defense. 
  • A backup center: Precious Achiuwa is going to be a good NBA player some day. He is not ready to tangle with Joel Embiid yet. The Heat largely got away with playing small when Adebayo went to the bench last postseason because Boston and Indiana lacked the personnel to punish them for it. Mike Budenholzer refused to push Giannis Antetokounmpo’s minutes beyond his regular-season allotment. When they got to the Finals, Anthony Davis shredded everybody who wasn’t Adebayo. Eventually, Achiuwa might be an answer. He isn’t there yet, and the Heat need a better plan for the minutes that Bam rests. 

Assets

  • Untouchables: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo
  • Probably staying: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic
  • For the right price: Precious Achiuwa, Kendrick Nunn, Andre Iguodala, Avery Bradley, KZ Okpala, Kelly Olynyk
  • Let’s make a deal: Meyers Leonard, Avery Bradley, Maurice Harkless, Chris Silva
  • Tradable first-round picks: N/A
  • Tradable first-round swap rights: 2022, 2027
  • Tradable second-round picks: 2022 (Denver or Philadelphia, less favorable), 2027 (own)

Cap notes

  • The Heat won’t quite have max cap space this offseason, thanks to Adebayo’s recent extension, but they will come relatively close. That will inform every decision they make at the deadline. They’ll have to weigh the value of adding a player now against the opportunity cost of lost cap space if they pursue anyone on a long-term deal. Assuming Robinson and/or Nunn are retained this offseason, this will likely be Miami’s last chance at anything close to max cap space for the next several years. 
  • By virtue of using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (on Bradley and Harkless), the Heat are hard-capped at the apron ($138.928 million). They currently have roughly $14 million of room beneath that line, and around $8 million in room beneath the luxury tax line. 
  • The Heat still have their bi-annual exception, which started at $3.6 million but is prorating by the day. That can be used on free agents in the buyout market. 
  • The Heat have a $7.5 million trade exception, thanks to the James Johnson deal at last year’s deadline. This can be used to absorb a player in a trade. 
  • The Heat have a $4.7 million disabled player exception, thanks to Meyers Leonard’s injury. This can be used either in midseason free agency or in a trade, but only for a player on an expiring contract. 

Expiring contracts

  • The Heat have a whopping five team options on players next season. The Heat will have full Bird rights on Goran Dragic and Leonard if they decline their options, meaning they could offer either anything up to the max in order to retain them. However, as a trade would cost them those Bird rights, they have the right to veto any deal. Iguodala would have Early Bird rights, meaning the Heat could pay him up to 175 percent of his 2020-21 salary in order to retain him. Bradley and Silva would have Non-Bird rights, meaning the Heat could offer either up to 120 percent of their 2020-21 salaries in order to retain them before dipping into exceptions or cap space. The Heat are expected to decline all five options in order to maximize cap space. 
  • Olynyk and Udonis Haslem will be unrestricted free agents with full Bird rights. The Heat can offer either anything up to the max in order to retain them. 
  • Kendrick Nunn and Robinson will be restricted free agents with full Bird rights. The Heat can offer either anything up to the max in order to retain them, and they can match any offer given to either by another team. 
  • Harkless is an unrestricted free agent with Non-Bird rights. The Heat can offer him up to 120 percent of his 2020-21 salary before dipping into cap space or exceptions. 

Possible trade targets

  • Low-end — Trevor Ariza: Plenty of teams are hoping to sign Ariza through a buyout, but if all else fails, the Heat can skip the Ariza line with their expiring contracts and nab him for a second-round pick. They should probably aim a bit higher at the deadline if they plan to return to the Finals, but if other additions prove too costly, this should be a baseline consideration for Miami. 
  • Medium-end — P.J. Tucker: The Heat would love to get in on players like Harrison Barnes, Aaron Gordon or Jerami Grant, but they probably don’t have the chips to do so at this point without offering Herro or Robinson, which they won’t. Tucker is their best realistic chance at replacing Crowder, and if the Heat don’t plan to address their backup center issues, he is the available forward best equipped to play the five for stretches in the playoffs. 
  • High-end — Kyle Lowry: Sub in Victor Oladipo if you like, though given his performance in Houston, he isn’t nearly Lowry’s equal at this point. Making a major expenditure like this now, rather than in the offseason, would require some finagling on Miami’s part. The Heat could make their 2025 and 2027 first-round picks tradable by removing the protections on their 2023 pick owed to the Thunder, for example. Something like that would probably be necessary to add an expensive two-way guard, unless the Heat are willing to give up young players who do not currently seem to be available. Both would solve Miami’s backcourt defensive issues and provide the talent infusion necessary to make a serious title push, but Lowry is the superior offensive fit given his shooting and comfort both on and off of the ball. 

Possible buyout targets

  • Guard — David NwabaThere simply aren’t that many defensive-minded guards who could be bought out, but Nwaba, given his place on a floundering Rockets team, is one of them. The Heat probably won’t add a guard on the buyout market, though. 
  • Forward — Otto Porter Jr.: Three-and-D forwards are a true rarity on the buyout market, but a healthy Porter could be an exception. It is unclear where the Bulls will be in the standings when the deadline passes or how much they care about reaching the playoffs, but with free agency looming, Porter would be wise to consider Miami’s track record in rehabilitating declining players if he does hit the open market. 
  • Center — DeMarcus Cousins: So far, no team has had the stomach to bring in Cousins, but he’s likely the biggest upside play on the midseason free-agent market. The Heat prioritize upside more than most, they’ve pursued Cousins in the past, and there’s a clear need at backup center. It’s not likely considering how little Erik Spoelstra trusted the existing backup big men defensively in the playoffs last year, but it’s the sort of move the Heat typically look into. 



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