Remember the Dark Ages, or at least the era before the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, when trades were made because teams clamored for certain players? Now, given the tighter constraints of the salary cap, deals are made not only to acquire talent but also—perhaps more significantly—to create room for future maneuvering under the cap. Last Thursday, the final day this season on which deals could be swung, nobody did a more masterly job of achieving both aims than the Heat.
And after a more traditional trade, the happiest team may have been the Timberwolves, who shipped an unhappy Christian Laettner out of Minnesota.
With coach and ruler of the franchise Pat Riley at the controls, Miami traded a total of five players to three teams. In return the Heat acquired five players who have one striking quality in common: All will be free agents this summer. Riley insists that his new Heat players—forward Tyrone Corbin and swingman Walt Williams (both from the Kings), center-forward Chris Gatling and point guard Tim Hardaway (formerly of the Warriors) and guard Tony Smith (late of the Suns)—share one other quality: They are players he wants to keep. "A lot of people think these trades were based solely on cap ramifications, but that's not true," says Riley. "It was two-pronged. Some of these guys have been at the top of our list [to acquire]."And during Sunday's 108-101 victory over the 76ers, Gatling (10 points, 10 rebounds), Hardaway (20 points, nine assists) and Williams (12 points on four three-pointers) provided some on-court justification for the moves.
But while Riley might like Hardaway, he also has the option of trying to re-sign him after the season for any salary he chooses, including one smaller than the $3.7 million Hardaway earns now. If Hardaway isn't comfortable with Miami's offer, he's free to walk, and the Heat is free to spend the $3.7 million elsewhere. Applying that principle across the board, Miami has positioned itself to keep the players it wants, for the price it wants. If the remaining free agents walk, there will be cash for the really big fish on the market, such as the Bullets' Juwan Howard and the Sonics' Gary Payton.
With next season's salary cap expected to be about $25 million, league sources estimate Miami's trading-deadline purge gives the Heat a potential $13 million with which to wheel and deal this summer in the free-agent market. And that's assuming they will have re-signed center Alonzo Mourning, who is earning $4.6 million this year and is also a free agent come summer. The Heat has only three players—Keith Askins, Sasha Danilovic and Kurt Thomas—under contract for next season; their combined salaries are just under $3.8 million. Here's a closer look at the Heat's deadline-day dealings.
•Center-forward Kevin Willis and guard Bimbo Coles to Golden State for Hardaway and Gatling. Willis was never in Riley's plans and probably isn't in the Warriors' either, but he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and his salary ($3.65 million) almost matches Hardaway's. In other words, by taking Willis, Golden State preserved the financial freedom it would have had by holding on to Hardaway—and the Warriors were able to unload a malcontent at the same time. Hardaway had been feuding with both coach Rick Adelman and teammate Latrell Sprewell.
Coles is making a little over $1 million this season, with four more years to run, but he wasn't Riley's point guard of choice. In Gatling, Riley gets a big body (6'10", 230 pounds) who makes $1.5 million and whose contract is up this summer. In sum the Heat gives up $4.65 million in salaries and takes on $5.2 million that can be used to sign other players come the start of the free-agent signing period on July 1.
•Guard-forward Kevin Gamble and forward Billy Owens to Sacramento for Corbin and Williams. The Kings were struggling, needed to shake things up and, sources say, were aware it would be next to impossible to re-sign Williams. The Wizard, who has an escape clause after this season, wanted to play in a bigger market and planned on asking for around $6 million a year. He's currently on the books at $2.4 million. So the Kings grabbed Owens, knowing he has no perimeter game but can drive to the hole and work out of the post. Owens is making $3.3 million and has two years left at $3.7 million and $4.2 million.
The Kings felt Williams was an on-again, off-again defender, but Riley says that he thought Williams had the tools to be "a 6'8" Magic Johnson" when he came out of Maryland in 1992. As for the defensive lapses, Riley says, "Walt will get in line defensively, because our system dictates it." Williams's agent, Len Elmore, says that his client will still become a free agent.
Gamble ($845,000 salary) had an automatic 15% raise in his contract if Miami traded him, but the Heat gladly agreed to pay that bonus for the Kings. Gamble has four years remaining on his deal, but he can opt out after this season. Sacramento is hoping he'll provide some occasional perimeter relief.