Free-agent fits for the Heat

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NBA free agency is here. And all eyes are on Miami.

With $55 million in cap room, the Heat will have the most space at their disposal in NBA history. That's what happens when the roster has been nearly completely vacated. Three stars -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- have opted out of their contracts, along with Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen. Technically, cap holds on those players will lock up the Heat's practical cap space until they renounce their Bird rights.

Amazingly enough, outside of Norris Cole, who is set to earn $2.04 million next season, the rest of the Heat's 2013-14 supporting cast were all on expiring deals. There is Justin Hamilton's 2014-15 contract worth $816,482, but it is nonguaranteed and isn't expected to be picked up. Everyone else? Off the books.

But worried Heat fans shouldn't fret just yet; all signs point to the stars aligning in Miami again. If you've kept up with the news lately, the Heat's stars don't seem to be all that stressed by the start of free agency. After sitting in on the meetings during his 2010 free agency, James has reportedly left the initial talks up to his agent, Rich Paul, who is stationed in Cleveland for the time being. Meanwhile, Bosh has taken his family on vacation.

With the expectation that the Heat's Big Three will return to 601 Biscayne Blvd., how much real cap space will the team have? Who are the best fits for the supporting cast? And how can Pat Riley successfully retool his roster to improve upon last season's creaky bench?

Let's go to work.


How much real cap space?

James, Wade and Bosh have not made any public indications since the Finals about pay-cut specifics or their desire for max contracts. But word is, according to reports from ESPN's Brian Windhorst, James may be angling for the highest salary of the Big Three, which would all but guarantee he will be the highest-paid player on his team for the first time in his career. Seems like a fair request for the game's best player, especially when the max salary restriction has cost him about $250 million over his career.

But such a demand, no matter how reasonable it may be, won't make Riley's job any easier filling out the roster. Bottom line: The Heat need James, Wade and Bosh to collectively take a big pay cut in order to enjoy any meaningful cap space to chase free agents.

That may have happened already. According to a report by Windhorst, the Heat are informing free agents that the Heat expect to have as much as $12 million in salary-cap space to offer a player once James, Wade and Bosh re-up with the team. If that's the case, and James nets a max deal that starts at $20.7 million, it would mean Wade and Bosh would have to sign for pay cuts far lower than most expected, starting in the Marcin Gortat range ( a reported $12 million).

A $12 million cap-space number would jibe with the reported figure from the Oregonian that Wade would re-sign with the Heat on a four-year deal starting at $12 million with Bosh re-upping at $11 million. Agent Henry Thomas, who represents Wade, Bosh and Haslem, has denied the Oregonian report to ESPN, but the cap number makes sense given the high-profile names whom the Heat are linked to on opening day of free agency. To be precise, with the cap holds on the rest of the roster, including Andersen's veteran minimum cap hold and a reduced salary for Haslem, the Heat's available cap space in this scenario would be $11,825,213 (see more below).

What can $12 million in cap space get Miami in 2014 free agency? 


The incumbents

Let's get these role players out of the way before we get to a fresh new batch of players. It's a fair bet that Ray Allen, James Jones, Andersen and Haslem will all be back next season as the Heat continue to hunt for titles and try to maintain the chemistry in the locker room. For these purposes, I'm assuming that the Heat have already moved on, for various reasons, from Rashard Lewis, Mario Chalmers, Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Toney Douglas. Indeed, Allen and Andersen could fetch more money elsewhere, but the guess here is that the two vets will latch onto James if he returns. 

But Haslem is a tricky situation. On the court, he was essentially a nonfactor for the Heat in the playoffs outside of some early spot duty against Roy Hibbert in the Eastern Conference finals. Despite the fact that he probably won't net big money elsewhere, he turned down his $4.6 million player option next season. Why? Presumably to help the Heat create some flexibility. His $8 million cap hold still hangs on the books, but the Heat can wipe that away by renouncing his Bird rights and signing him with cap room for the veteran minimum.

Plenty of veterans have swallowed big pay cuts to play with the Heat in the Big Three era, so Haslem probably won't hold out for a contract higher than $2 million. For these purposes, we'll assume Haslem inks a two-year deal around $1.7 million with a handshake deal that he'll join the front office when his playing days are over ( as suggested by Grantland's Zach Lowe). The thinking goes if James, Wade and Bosh take pay cuts to open up some cash for a championship hunt, so will Allen, Andersen and Haslem.

This may be a team-friendly outlook, but it wouldn't make much sense for the Heat's stars to take pay cuts to add a bit player with the midlevel exception. If they're going to take a pay cut, they're going to get something worthy out of it.

So that takes care of eight roster spots and the bulk of the rotation. Who else should round out the roster?


The new faces

Prepare for the Heat to tweak the roster rather than scrapping the plan and starting all over. There simply isn't a need to abandon what yielded their two most recent titles: defend with high energy, spread the floor and attack the basket.

With an aging supporting cast and a worn-down Big Three, the Heat simply ran out of gas against the Spurs -- a team famous for taking extra precautions to prevent its guys from red-lining (even if such precautions generate a hefty fine from the league office). Allen, Shane Battier, Andersen, Lewis and Haslem were all in their mid- to late 30s and stumbled to the finish line after several championship runs.

So, the Heat need to get younger, right? Good luck with that. The Heat were old last season for a reason: Old talent is more available than young talent. Most quality young players are already locked up on rookie contracts or have signed long-term extensions to their respective clubs (see: Kyrie Irving).

And though there are 2014 free agents who are young, most fall into the restricted free-agent bucket, which means teams can pull them back by matching an offer sheet signed by another team. The Heat simply won't have enough cap space to scare away teams with a $12 million offer at restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward or Greg Monroe. Those incumbent teams won't let the Heat pry away a young stud for that kind of money.

But the Heat shouldn't go after one body; they need multiple bodies to help them with their cause. Using up all of their cap space to target a marquee player like Kyle Lowry would only make the team more top-heavy, forcing them to pick from the same dusty bargain bin to fill out the rest of the roster. That would put them right back where they were last season, with a slim margin for error if Lowry, who has not been durable in his career, fell to injury. Heading into his contract season in 2013-14, Lowry had missed 33 games in his previous two seasons. With a team that features Wade, the Heat need as many able bodies as they can find.

The smarter path would be to diversify the risk among a few key rotation players who can help right away and beyond as the miles pile up. Who are some of those names? Let's consult the players on ESPN Insider Amin Elhassan's Free Agent Big Board and figure out who fits in the Heat's cap space as the primary target.


Cap-space signees

Channing Frye | Age: 31 | PF/C | $8 million average annual value
Alan Anderson | Age: 31 | SG/SF | $2 million AAV
Ekpe Udoh | Age: 27 | PF/C | $2 million AAV

Splitting the cap space among these three players may not grab the biggest headlines, but it may yield the most wins for the Heat.

Frye is tailor-made for Erik Spoelstra's system. The Heat's Big Three need floor spacers to thrive offensively, and Frye offers that and more. The 31-year-old made more 3-pointers last season than every big man except for Kevin Love and at a higher clip (37 percent) than Heat stretch 4s Battier (34.8 percent) and Lewis (34.3 percent). And at 6-foot-11, Frye can guard both bigs in the frontcourt interchangeably with Bosh, depending on the matchup. Something of a Bosh-light, Frye can either play alongside Bosh in the starting lineup, or spell Bosh on nights when Spoelstra wants to rest him up for the postseason stretch.

The key here is that Frye is a big man who doesn't play like one offensively. When the Heat went with a traditional big in the postseason next to the Big Three -- namely Andersen or Haslem -- the offense got absolutely strangled to the tune of 84.0 points every 100 possessions. Keep in mind, the last-place  Philadelphia 76ers scored 96.8 points per 100 possessions last season. Yes, 12.8 points better than the Heat did with their Big Three on the floor and a traditional big. Think about that.

The defensive upside of going big wasn't nearly worth the carnage. In fact, the defense got torched when they went big. Even though "go big!" is often the prescription for the Heat when they lose, the truth is that the Heat got blown out when they went big in the postseason. After crunching the NBA StatsCube lineup data, we find that the Heat were outscored by a whopping 30.4 points every 100 possessions when they went big with either Haslem or Andersen on the floor next to the Big Three.

How does that compare with the other lineup configurations next to the Big Three? The Heat outscored playoff opponents by 5.4 points every 100 possessions when they went "medium" (a guard paired with a stretch 4) and a surprising 12.9 points when they went "small" with two guards. The Heat were better as they went smaller.

This trend wasn't just a postseason blip. The Heat saw a similar pattern in the regular season, as well (plus-22.4 going small; plus-8.8 going medium; minus-2.8 going big). For this reason, the Heat would be wise to continue surrounding James, Wade and Bosh with shooters, rather than deploying conventional warfare underneath. After an embarrassing Finals loss, Riley and Spoelstra may feel compelled to switch directions. The evidence points to the contrary.

Frye helps the Heat maintain floor-spacing while also giving Bosh some much-needed relief in the regular season. But they also need help refilling the wing depth behind James and Wade, which is where Anderson comes in. Anderson won't be a defensive stopper for the Nets last season, but he's feisty on the ball with good hands and isn't afraid to shoot the rock. He needs a little work on his accuracy, but he'll carve out plenty of space in the Heat offense. He's a fine 3-and-D option at this price.

The Heat could also get younger with a young reclamation project in Udoh, who has always been a darling of the stats community. In a bit of a surprising move, the lowly Bucks let the 27-year-old walk this offseason by not extending a qualifying offer. The Heat need young bodies with upside, and as a young, 6-foot-10 big with crazy hops, the Heat would be smart to take a flier.


The room-level exception signee

Jameer Nelson | Age: 32 | PG | $2.7 million AAV

At this price, is there a better mentor for Shabazz Napier than Nelson? Though Nelson is much stockier than Napier ever will be, Napier could learn a thing or two about carving out a long NBA career as a shooter and steady playmaker. The Magic didn't see any use for keeping the 32-year-old vet around and waived him, despite a $2 million guarantee for this season. He's a much steadier floor general than Chalmers and can play off the ball, as he was assisted on only 51 percent of his 3-pointers last season. Nelson would be a fine veteran to hold down the fort as Napier and Cole develop.


The veteran-minimum signees

Anthony Tolliver | Age: 28 | SF/PF

Another big man built for Spoelstra's system, Tolliver has bounced around the league as a high-energy floor spacer, which perfectly suits the Heat's needs. Tolliver shot 41.3 percent from downtown last season as the Bobcats' stretch 4 off the bench. His rebounding numbers have suffered as of late as he migrates to the perimeter, but the Heat can consider him a younger and springier version of Lewis, who will likely find bigger offers after a resurgent postseason. Tolliver is the safer bet.

Al-Farouq Aminu | Age: 23 | SF/PF

Meet the Heat's defensive ace in the hole. After getting released by the New Orleans Pelicans within four years of being a lottery pick, Aminu is still very much a work in progress. His shot desperately needs work, and he'll need to ramp up his focus in Miami after his career has derailed. Perhaps the infrastructure in Miami can help Aminu unlock his immense potential. His former coach Monty Williams was critical of Aminu's rebounding and defense, but ironically, those were two statistical strengths. Aminu pulled down 8.7 boards per 36 minutes and was rated the seventh-best small forward defender in the league, according to real plus-minus. Like Udoh, there's too much upside here to pass on.


The roster

This is how the Heat retool, by getting younger and finding shooters who can defend at a high level. No radical changes necessary. In an NBA that places a higher premium on 3-point shooting than ever, those players won't come dirt cheap, but the Heat can find bargains on the market. This batch of free agents offer the Heat youth (Aminu, Udoh), players in their prime (Tolliver, Miles) and veteran shooters with strong leadership (Frye, Nelson).

So, how would they do? I enlisted Pelton to run his projections, and he found that this team wouldn't be just good next season, they'd be great. Even though the Heat wouldn't nab a marquee name such as  Pau Gasol or Lowry, the Heat still churned out a 65-17 record, according to Pelton's projection model. For more, the chart below outlines projected minutes and WARP for each player. (Note: a replacement-level team wins 11 games in this model. Thus, a 54.8 WARP total plus 11 equals 65 wins.)

And this assumes that the Heat keep around Cole, who drags down their win total. The Heat could send his contract into another team's cap space and package him with future picks. That hasn't happened yet, so he'll still be on the books for these purposes. Unloading Cole would be much easier with Nelson around.

Obviously, there are a ton of variables at play. After all, we're still in the dawn of free agency. But there's wisdom in not shredding the model, just sharpening it. Just look at the 2013-14 Spurs after their Finals loss.

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