On a day of rumors about possible future trades, one semi-important news item got lost: Miami shooting guard Mike Miller underwent hernia surgery recently and will be out at least a month, and possibly two. The Heat, in need of outside shooting and uniquely structured to use Miller’s positional versatility, now have an even thornier decision to make on whether to use the new amnesty rule on him.
As Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com noted earlier this week, the amnesty decision on Miller was going to be tough before news of Miller’s surgery. The difficulty surrounds a clause in the new proposed collective bargaining agreement prohibiting any team that uses the full mid-level exception from exceeding the luxury-tax line by more than $4 million. As Windhorst notes, the league has basically created a hard cap for teams that want to use the full mid-level, which allows clubs over the salary cap to offer a free agent a starting salary of $5 million over four-year contract.
Here’s how this works in Miami’s case:
• The Heat’s payroll, once they sign rookie Norris Cole, will be somewhere between $66 million and $67 million, placing them well over the salary cap.
• The luxury-tax line for the 2011-12 season will be right around $70.3 million, where it fell last season.
• The Heat, with nearly $50 million (which will rise fast in future years) committed to three star players, will lean heavily on the mid-level exception to attract quality veterans around their star core.
• At $67 million, they are permitted to use the full mid-level, since it would take their payroll to $72 million — just short of that $74.3 million hard cap sitting $4 million above the tax line.
The problem, of course, is that by using the full mid-level on one quality player, the Heat would leave themselves with just $2 million or so to fill at least four roster spots. You could accomplish that (barely) by signing four rookies to minimum-salary deals, but doing so would cost you Mario Chalmers — sort of an important thing, considering the Heat have zero true NBA point guards on their roster right now. You could argue this team, with two of the league’s great pick-and-roll ball-handlers, doesn’t need a point guard, but those stars have to rest occasionally, and even if you stagger their rest so that one is on the court at all times, they need occasional breaks from running things.
The Heat have two solutions — one easy, one hard:
1. Forget about using the full mid-level exception and just use the “mini” mid-level available to teams that pay the luxury tax. That deal is worth $3 million per year for a maximum of three seasons. This would allow the Heat to keep Miller and spend as much as they’d like.
2. Use the amnesty clause on Miller, slicing away his $5.4 million salary and giving Miami just enough flexibility to use the full $5 million mid-level, sign Chalmers and fill out the roster without crashing through that hard wall built $4 million past the tax line.
What Miami does here will be both a test of the new spending restrictions in the new CBA and of how it values Miller. The NBA in the name of competitive balance pushed hard to prevent tax-paying teams — the big spenders — from having any access at all to the mid-level exception, but eventually compromised with this system. The new rules bank on at least some mid-level veterans passing on the three-year, $9 million mid-level tax teams can offer in favor of the four-year, $20 million deal non-tax teams can provide.
If the Heat fear the gap between the offers will cost them a player they really want more than Miller, then the system will have worked (as the NBA envisions it) and the Heat will have to either cut Miller or sign a lesser player. If they Heat feel they can get the player they really want with the mini mid-level, then they can keep Miller and we will have again witnessed the power of attractive markets. (The dream is to convince an established in-his-prime star, such as Nene, to take the full mid-level, something that would be basically unprecedented and very bad for the rest of the league.)
The clamor is for the Heat to sign a fourth big man, ideally a true center, to go along with Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony in the rotation; Zydrunas Ilgauskas retired and Dexter Pittman is a question mark. Thus the non-stop reports about Samuel Dalembert’s potential fit in Miami. The Heat do need a fourth usable big, even if the Bosh/Anthony/Haslem trio is going to play the bulk of the minutes in a league that isn’t exactly full of legit centers anymore. Four bigs gives you flexibility and rest options, and two teams with old-school NBA size — the Mavs and Bulls — punished Miami on the offensive glass during the playoffs.
But the Heat also need perimeter shooting. Badly. Bosh is fantastic for his position, but his range stops at 20 feet. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are average three-point shooters (Wade is actually below average), and though LeBron improved his accuracy on long twos dramatically last season, the Mavericks reminded us again that a great defensive team with the right personnel can go under all those screens, squeeze the paint and dare Miami’s ball-handlers to shoot. Having guys who can stretch a defense and take advantage of double teams is crucial, and Miller, with two healthy thumbs, is about as good a three-pointer shooter as exists. Chalmers and Eddie House might be able to fill that role; House is a dead-eye shooter, but he’s a liability on defense and cannot handle point guard duties against tough defenders. Chalmers is a career 36 percent shooter from deep, and he’ll get better if he keeps practicing those corner threes.
But Miller’s height, rebounding (among the very best at his position) and ability to guard multiple positions offers the Heat a kind of versatility those point guards cannot. The James/Bosh/Wade/Haslem/Miller lineup, without a point guard or a center, was supposed to be where this Miami team flummoxed everyone with crazy matchups and out-of-the-box plays. Miller’s presence also helped coach Erik Spoelstra build lineups in which James played power forward — small-ball groups that sliced up the Sixers and Celtics in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
There are some free-agent wings in Miami’s range that could approximate what Miller might contribute in peak form. Grant Hill comes to mind, but he made just 45 threes last season. Caron Butler and Jason Richardson might work, but both could command more than the full mid-level, and each comes with questions about shooting (was Butler’s three-point accuracy last season a blip?) and positional versatility. Shane Battier might be perfect, but he’ll have suitors, and doesn’t quite have Miller’s ability to pump fake and create off the dribble.
Miami needs shooting and size, and limited methods through which they can get both. Miller’s hernia throws an extra complication into things. Amnesty is a one-time-only deal. Is now the time to use it?