The capped-out Heat are in an interesting position entering free agency, forced to decide rather quickly whether the small-ball lineups that they relied on full time by the end of the postseason — and to spectacular effect — now represent the basic foundation of the team. Miami had long used LeBron James at power forward for stretches of each game, but that alignment became its de facto set-up only after power Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury during the second-round series against Indiana forced a wholesale on-the-fly adjustment of the team’s philosophy. By Games 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals, the Heat were playing only one big man for basically every second of each game — something they could manage in part because of James’ ability to play big on both sides of the floor.
If the Heat view that as their style going forward, that kind of philosophical shift may guide them toward different kinds of players in free agency than they might otherwise have pursued — guards, wings and shooters over that much-pursued “true center,” perhaps. Within this context, the Heat’s interest in Ray Allen makes a lot of sense — despite huge luxury tax issues looming over everything Miami does. Whether accepting the Heat’s mini mid-level exception, worth $3 million per year, makes any sense to Allen is a different story; Miami will not be able to offer any more than that to free agents, even if it uses the amnesty clause on swingman Mike Miller. Allen will have suitors, including perhaps Boston, a place that can no longer offer him a starting spot but would still bring decent minutes.
Miami already has big men Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony on the roster for next season, plus what amounts to a team option on Dexter Pittman (who started Game 3 of the Indiana series, let us never forget) and the possibility that Ronny Turiaf exercises his player option to stick around and make faces on the bench. Bosh might be the only reliable two-way contributor among that motley crew, but the regular season is a slog, and all five would figure to get minutes if they’re around. Miami isn’t going to just do away with lineups featuring two big men; the MVP needs to rest sometimes, and even beyond those stretches with him on the bench, preserving James’ body and health will be a pressing issue.
With all these bigs and the Heat;s facing massive luxury tax issues and thinking small-ball, might they be better off stocking the wing with shooters? That might be especially so given Miller’s precarious place on this roster and James Jones’ failure to win a consistent rotation role — factors that occasionally forced coach Erik Spoelstra to play point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole together in lieu of an actual backup shooting guard.
Then again, this team has rendered traditional positions like “shooting guard” nearly irrelevant. The luxury tax, though, is very much relevant. The Heat will pay the old dollar-for-dollar tax for both the 2011-12 campaign and next season, and they are on pace to pay the the tax every season going forward — including in 2013-14, when the harsh new rates (starting at $1.50-per-dollar and escalating) kick in. As a bonus, starting in 2014-15, the Heat, as three-time taxpayers at that point, will be subject to the extra-harsh repeater penalty, which begins at $2.50-per-dollar and goes up from there as teams spend more over the tax line. At that point, a $3 million contract becomes a $7.5 million deal. Ouch.
The Heat could reduce their exposure for the 2013-14 season by using the amnesty provision on Miller and declining an option for that season on Chalmers, but that would still leave them with $69.8 million committed to just seven players. Assuming decent revenue growth between now and then, the tax line for that season should be around the $73 million range, meaning the Heat would vault past it just filling out the empty half of the roster. The same basic scenario holds for the 2014-15 season, only with $69.8 million committed to just five players as salaries for the three stars jump incrementally.
Miami’s owner, Mickey Arison, is among the NBA’s richest, but he has said pretty explicitly he is not super-interested in running a loss every season, per ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. The Heat’s new TV deal, still in negotiations, will help, but paying into the league’s new revenue-sharing system will hurt. It will be interesting to watch Miami’s spending levels as the new system kicks in. When you begin to run the numbers, though, cutting Miller via amnesty before the expiration of his deal in 2015 begins to look like a certainty — barring any sort of medical retirement that offers Miami more savings.
All of this might make Allen, about to turn 37 and coming off ankle surgery, a more attractive candidate; he’s unlikely to receive any offer with more than two years of guaranteed money, and he might be amenable to a one-year deal from a title contender. He’d feast on open looks out of James’ post-ups and Miami’s traditional corner sets, and his ability to catch-and-shoot on the move is something Miami’s stand-still shooters just don’t bring. He’d provide more versatility for small-ball lineups, including those with no traditional point guard.
Still, I wonder if Miami’s ideal free-agent signing might be a cheap wing player more capable than Allen of defending multiple positions. A huge chunk of Shane Battier’s value comes from his ability and willingness to defend power forwards, sparing James the burden of doing so full time. That, in turn, places a strain on Battier, who is late in his own career.
There aren’t a huge number of affordable free agent wing players who can regularly guard that position, though Grant Hill does come to mind as someone Phoenix has pressed into that role now and then over the last two seasons. Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus could handle it for stretches against smaller teams or those whose big men aren’t threats to do damage on the block.
Allen is pretty limited on defense at this point. He has issues defending his own position against better-than-average head-to-head competition, so swinging to any other spot — from point guard to power forward — isn’t realistic. Allen would surely help this team’s offense and fill a traditional positional hole as backup shooting guard, but is that the hole most in need of an affordable solution?