Once LeBron James announced to the world that he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the dam that had been holding back high-profile free-agent moves finally broke. But the resulting flood hasn't quite flowed in the direction we figured. Once James' decision was made public, it was all but assumed now-former teammate Chris Bosh would take up the Houston Rockets' max offer to join Dwight Howard and James Harden.
Nope. Bosh surprised many by agreeing to a five-year, $118 million deal to remain in Miami.
The Heat reportedly were moving fast to lock down Dwyane Wade, who for a few fleeting minutes was attached to nonsensical rumors involving the Chicago Bulls. Udonis Haslem is also expected to return. So in essence, the Miami offseason has comprised of adding veteran forwards Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. Oh -- and losing James. That strikes me as a net negative.
You just don't get over losing a player like James easily, as fans in Cleveland circa 2010 can surely attest. Nevertheless, even after agreeing to contracts with McRoberts and Granger, Heat president Pat Riley still has about $15.8 million of cap space with which to work, per my colleague Kevin Pelton. James is joining a young team in Cleveland, while the limbo surrounding Carmelo Anthony means another powerhouse might or might not be forming in Chicago.
So is all lost for Miami?
As for Houston, after reportedly being ruled out of the Anthony chase and seeing its talented young forward Chandler Parsons sign a $46 million offer sheet with Dallas, the summer has gotten a lot more complicated. As Bosh's two leading suitors, let's talk about how the Heat and Rockets might complete their respective puzzles.
Miami: Big shoes to fill
By throwing massive dollars at Bosh and keeping Wade in the only uniform he's known in the NBA, Riley has sent a clear signal that he's not about to downshift into rebuild mode. You do wonder if he's regretting his commitments to McRoberts and Granger, who in theory would have made nice complementary pieces to a James-led roster. Without James, you have to figure Miami will move toward more conventional lineups and on-court style. That means finding a rebound-and-defense big man to pair with Bosh.
McRoberts is a highly skilled player, but he does not fit the bill of rim protector. It's not out of the realm of possibility that McRoberts and Riley mutually decide to back out of their verbal agreement. There is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement against doing so. McRoberts surely would be welcomed back in Charlotte, which wanted to retain him in the first place. It's also possible that Riley is content to pay McRoberts the equivalent of the full midlevel exception to be his third big man. Or maybe Eric Spoelstra will want to maintain a pace-and-space style, and will pair McRoberts and Bosh together. These are things we don't yet know.
We do know that the Heat need a new starting small forward. Luckily, there are several veteran options on the free-agent market, such as Luol Deng, Trevor Ariza and Shawn Marion. Deng and Ariza in particular seem intent on extracting the most of what this crazy marketplace will yield. Now, in terms of need and finances, no one matches up better for those players than Miami.
In terms of RPM, Deng is easily the top-ranked remaining free-agent small forward. His 2013-13 RPM of plus-2.94 easily outpaced that of Ariza (plus-0.91) and Marion (minus-1.04). So let's assume Deng is the target. James' RPM was plus-9.19, so that's what Miami is up against. It's a massive difference in value, as you'd expect. Given a comparable number of minutes to James -- and durability is one area in which Deng can at least hope to match James -- the difference is somewhere in the order of an eight-win hit to the Miami bottom line. Given Nate Silver's projections of various James scenarios, that drops Miami's baseline to about 43 wins. It's still a playoff spot in the East, but the Heat would be hard-pressed to get out of the first round.
It might not be as bleak as that. First, Bosh's numbers as a third wheel might be all but irrelevant now that he's likely to become the top option on the refurbished Heat. If Bosh can at least approach his Toronto production, that would improve the Miami baseline by probably three or four wins. If Riley can find his defensive big man, perhaps Miami wins in the high 40s, which could be a decent seed in the East. Still, that's not championship level, and after the dust settles, it's unclear how the Heat will get from good to great anytime soon.
Houston: Next star up
The Rockets have attempted to form a power trio that began with Harden's acquisition and was buoyed last year by signing Howard. Bosh would have been the perfect piece to complete the set, and by matching Parsons' offer from Dallas, the Rockets would have had as good a top four as any team in the league. Expensive -- $71.4 million for four players -- but darned good. Now what?
Let's assume that Houston is still hunting for that third star, and it's still going to be a forward. A star-level point guard wouldn't make much sense next to Harden, and Howard has a hold in the pivot. The problem is timing. The clock is ticking on Parsons' offer, and the Rockets likely will have to decide whether to match before a Bosh contingency plan can be set in motion. They could throw the same max deal at Anthony, but you have to assume that was already on the table before the Rockets turned their attention to Bosh.
Kevin Love might make sense, but it's hard to see how that works if the pursuit of Minnesota's disgruntled star is as hot as has been reported. Simply put: Love might already be gone. If Parsons is matched, he can't be traded until December and he'd have to approve any trade for a year. If you don't match Parsons' offer sheet, it's hard to see a match between Minnesota and Houston, given the aggressive pitches the Timberwolves are likely to hear, even though Houston could absorb Love with its cap space.
The Rockets' best chance to move the needle is probably a hard-and-fast offer to an unrestricted free agent before the deadline on Parsons is reached. Unfortunately, the top available players are disappearing fast. Greg Monroe would be a possibility, but as a restricted free agent, Houston doesn't have time to wait out an offer sheet. Really, the one player who makes the most sense is Pau Gasol, who has contenders all over the league lighting up his agent's phone. If the Rockets want to go small, then Ariza might fit, as some reports have suggested
Status quo, it should be noted, is not an appealing option. That's because Houston already had cap-clearing deals sending out Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in place, with no on-court assets in return, in an effort to accommodate Bosh. In the end, Houston might have to hope Minnesota hangs on to Love into the season so they can dangle a Parsons-led package. It's a tough position for the Rockets: a product of bad luck, not bad design.