With just over a month remaining before the Feb. 7 NBA trading deadline (3 p.m. Eastern, for those counting the hours), Miami Heat President Pat Riley remains in a holding pattern.
In was last April, in the wake of an uneven first-round playoff demise against the Philadelphia 76ers when Riley famously said: “I’m going to tell you one thing about our team that we do have a problem with — we have a logjam. We have too many good-to-great players. We have too many. We have like 11 or 12 guys.”
Actually, make that 13 rotation-worthy players at the moment, when counting the return of Dion Waiters and the eventual return of Goran Dragic around the All-Star break from last month’s knee surgery.
Already, one, Wayne Ellington, has been shuffled to the end of the bench, now seemingly as unlikely to find playing time as 14th (and final) man Udonis Haslem.
That leaves the trading deadline as the last chance to thin out the present roster and perhaps set up more of an intriguing future.
That’s not to say there isn’t already a future in place. In fact, had Riley, General Manager Andy Elisburg and their front-office staff known then about Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr. and even Rodney McGruder what they know now, would they still have signed Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Ellington in the 2017 offseason?
In many ways, especially with the Heat retaining (at least for the moment) their 2019 and ’20 first-round picks, it could be argued that the future is here.
There is something to be said about the ability to build a future lineup of Winslow and Richardson in the backcourt, McGruder and Jones up front, and Adebayo in the middle, plus possible NBA draft reinforcements of Naz Reid (2019) and Coby White (’20). And that’s not even getting into the potential of current two-way players Duncan Robinson and Yante Maten, who are thriving in the G League, with Maten that circuit’s Player of the Month for December.
But such a grouping still doesn’t necessarily project an All-Star, with all due respect to Winslow and Richardson.
It could become as simple as allowing the contracts of Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Dragic to expire after 2019-20, making that the summer to tempt an elite free agent with the emerging youthful core. For arguably the first time of the current Heat incarnation, there actually might be enough to tempt.
Or the work could begin on or before Feb. 7, to perhaps further augment that 2020 cap space or to thin out the current rotation in a manner that allows the current youth to continue to blossom.
One factor playing against the Heat is the timing of Dragic’s return, projected to come two weeks after the trading deadline. Not many teams rush out to deal for a 32-year-old still recovering from knee surgery.
But James Johnson, Waiters and even Olynyk could intrigue a contender living in the moment, even while it also would mean taking back at least a degree of long-term money. There also is the ability to utilize Ellington and his 3-point efficiency as a sweetener.
In a season when .500 looks not only good enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference but perhaps secure a No. 6 seed, stepping back from in-the-moment talent could further enhance the future.
It already has been an interesting week in South Florida, with the Dolphins, for the first time in years, acknowledging the need to reassess and rebuild, an approach seemingly more dramatic than Riley has tolerated.
The Heat, too, are positioned to step back, not from contention or eventual championship aspirations, but for setting up even more promising tomorrows.
What was done during the 2017 offseason can’t be undone. And few saw the kids being this all right. But the trading deadline could allow a reset from the previous plan of two summers ago to something even more promising.
IN THE LANE
TIME AND PLACE: Having been alongside during Dion Waiters’ NBA initiation with the Cleveland Cavaliers, center Tristan Thompson said he is not surprised that the experience has been different for the guard under Pat Riley with the Heat. “There’s peaks and valleys in your career,” Thompson said amid the Heat’s visit to Cleveland. “I think he understood the importance of being a professional and staying in shape and being about the team. I think down in Miami, Pat does a good job with their culture. They tell you to get with the program or get lost, and I think Dion is at a point where he knew he had to buy in. I think that’s important for Dion. If he buys into the system like he’s done there and accepted the culture, it’s good for him.” Thompson added, “He’s the kind of guy that if he gets going early, he can change the whole game. They’re lucky to have him.”
CULTURE CLUB: Speaking of culture, former Heat forward James Jones said he is attempting to emulate Riley’s approach in his role as head of the Phoenix Suns’ personnel wing. “We should be a place where every party, everyone involved, feels invested and feels connected,” Jones recently told The Athletic. “I think we’ve started to do that with some of the moves we’ve made. And the way our guys are developing, I think you see that on the court and on the bench. When Deandre [Ayton] is in the game, Richaun Holmes is his biggest cheerleader. And when Richaun’s in the game, Deandre’s his biggest cheerleader. It just shows a connection that had been missing in the past, but I think we found it.”
TAKING NOTICE: Perhaps Derrick Jones Jr. will make more of an impression Sunday when the Heat play at State Farm Arena, in the wake of the recent conversion in between Atlanta Hawks dunking legend Dominque Wilkins and current Hawks forward Vince Carter. During a recent conversation between the two facilitated by The Athletic, Wilkins, now a Hawks broadcaster, seemed to only give grudging respect to the emerging Heat forward. “That kid in Miami, Jones, Derrick Jones, he can get off the floor,” Wilkins said. “But he hasn’t found out how to use it to his advantage.” Of current dunkers he has taken note of, Carter cited Zach LaVine, Donovan Mitchell and DJ Stephens.
ROOKIE MOMENT: The highlight of Lonnie Walker Jr.’s rookie season, beyond Thursday’s NBA cameo debut against the Boston Celtics, came this past week in the G League, with a putback rebound to seal a victory for the Austin Spurs over the Heat’s affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. As for creating NBA memories, the No. 18 pick in last June’s NBA draft out of the University of Miami appreciates the need for patience. “It’s a horse race. You’ve got to stay in your own lane. Sooner or later, I see that light at the end of the tunnel,” he told San Antonio’s Express News. “Whether it’s now or next year or my third year, it’s only a matter of time until people understand who Lonnie Walker is. So I’m not [in] too much of a rush. Patience is key.”