Retooling around Big Three begins


With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still not re-signed, Heat president Pat Riley finally made his first splash of free agency.

Apparently, the first step to luring the Big Three back to Miami is remaking the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers. That sound you hear is the agents for James Posey and T.J. Ford frantically dialing Riley's cellphone.

In all seriousness, the Heat's two moves Monday gave us some insight into their plans for retooling around James, Wade and Bosh. With little spending power, the Heat were never going to strike a blockbuster deal. But from their agreements to sign Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger with their cap exceptions, we can learn a few things about the Heat's thinking as we head into Riley's planned meeting with James on Tuesday.

Here are three takeaways:

1. The Heat wave good-bye to cap space

By using the non-taxpayer's midlevel exception and biannual exception, the Heat have effectively announced that they will not be operating as a team with cap space this free-agency period. Those two tools are made available only to teams that are above the projected cap of $63.2 million. How can the Heat be over the cap if they haven't signed any players yet?

Good question. Though the Heat have not reached a deal with anyone in free agency up until this point, cap holds from James, Wade, Bosh and Udonis Haslem alone take them up to an effective cap number of about $68 million. Over the cap.

All that talk about the Heat's cap space? They have chosen the other door.

The Heat could have carved out some cap space by getting rid of the cap holds, but that would require renouncing the Bird rights to James, Wade, Bosh and Haslem (among others). Going that route would have been risky without commitments, and it's unclear how much cap space the Heat could clear without pay-cut assurances from James, Wade and Bosh. Bird rights are important for title chasers like the Heat. They allow teams to re-sign their own players over the cap. The Heat will retain those, which may come in handy pretty soon.

By going over the cap, the Heat will also cut ties with their room midlevel exception. That would have been a tool to have a starting salary of $2.7 million to throw at a free agent, but that disappears once a team operates above the cap. That's not a huge deal. The Heat still played another card -- their biannual exception -- which goes for $2.1 million in the first year and can be used to sign a player (or be split among multiple players) for up to two years. The biannual exception isn't a game-changer, but some solid veteran players have been signed using it. C.J. Watson, Jermaine O'Neal and Nate Robinson were all recipients last season.

2. The Heat are hard-capped at $81 million

Another capology note: By using these two exceptions, the Heat, by league rule, have to stay underneath the apron, an effective hard cap $4 million above the luxury tax line, which is set at $77 million. There's no gray area here. Under no circumstances can the Heat's payroll go above $81 million this season.

This could make owner Micky Arison a happy camper, as it limits the Heat's tax exposure at $4 million above the luxury tax threshold. They can still dip into the tax again, but they will need to be extra careful. Since the Heat were taxpayers in 2012-13 and last season, another foray past the luxury tax line will put them in the repeater bucket this upcoming season, a new dark corner of the NBA left for those that paid the luxury tax in the previous three seasons, and three of the previous four seasons in 2015-16.

The Heat could have, in theory, dipped into the tax again if they brought back their roster at or near their cap hold prices, which would have brought their payroll to $92.8 million. But that was highly unlikely to happen. Now it's impossible to bring payroll that high because of the apron.

Avoiding the tax guillotine is no small thing. A normal taxpaying team is charged $1.50 for every dollar it goes over the luxury tax line up to $5 million. The tax rate jumps incrementally for every $5 million tier after that. However, the repeater tax rate is much more punitive; teams have to pay an additional dollar -- $2.50 per dollar over the tax line for the first $5 million -- and the tax rate rises with every $5 million tier they cross. By ducking the tax line this season, the Heat could save Arison tens of millions of dollars down the road. So expect the Heat to keep their payroll below $77 million next season.

Other than saving Arison some dough later on, facing the hard cap and avoiding the tax won't prevent the Heat from fielding a championship-level roster. For instance, the San Antonio Spurs were a hard-capped team last season, as were the Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors. Elsewhere, the Heat have a $2.2 million trade exception resulting from the Joel Anthony trade last season for Toney Douglas, but they can't trade for a player, nor can they execute a sign-and-trade, that takes them over the apron. They are hard-capped at $81 million.

3. '14-15 Heat want to be younger, more dynamic version of '13-14 Heat

As I outlined last week, the Heat should be investing in versatile shooters who don't have one foot out of the league. A supporting cast built around Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen inevitably lost steam as the Heat made their fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals. Channing Frye and C.J. Miles made sense if they had the cap space to pull it off, but Frye and Miles both soared out of their price range, netting four-year deals at $32 million and $18 million, respectively.

But if you're looking for a substitute for Frye as a stretch 4, McRoberts is a good find. Talk about a redemption story. McRoberts' NBA career was on life support less than 20 months ago. He could barely get off the bench for a 20-win Orlando Magic squad that dumped him off to Charlotte for Hakim Warrick at the trade deadline. Warrick hasn't played in the NBA since, and McRoberts just landed a $23 million deal to potentially play next to James, Wade and Bosh. Quite a turnaround.

Under Charlotte coach Steve Clifford last season, McRoberts reinvented himself as a shooting and passing big man who leveraged his athleticism at the rim on both sides of the floor. Ever since he was a McDonald's All American and a Duke prodigy, McRoberts' versatility tantalized NBA scouts, but he never quite put it together until last season, when he became a key part of the Bobcats' surprising 43-39 season. According to ESPN's real plus-minus, McRoberts was an above-average player on both ends last season, checking in at 4.1 WAR, which is in the same range as Nene (4.3), Boris Diaw (4.8) and Patrick Patterson (3.6).

Diaw is an interesting comparison for McRoberts. Speaking to a person familiar with the Heat's thinking, McRoberts will function as the Heat's less doughy, more athletic version of Diaw: a big-man role player who can do a little bit of everything. Last season, Diaw averaged 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes for the Spurs. McRoberts? He posted 10.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists on a per-36-minute basis. The Heat hope moving into a healthier offensive system will make McRoberts' shooting percentages rise, just as Diaw's did after being rescued from Charlotte.

At 27 years old, McRoberts should help the Heat become younger and more rangy. He shot 36.1 percent from downtown on 4.4 attempts every 36 minutes last season, firing up 3-pointers more than twice as often as he did previously in his career. There is certainly a chance that last season was a fluke considering he had shot just 31 percent from deep his entire career and never got the green light.

But open shots will come a lot easier if McRoberts is playing next to James in place of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. After dealing with Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson anchoring the paint, McRoberts will have free rein to move the ball and make plays in space. Coming into his prime at 27, McRoberts may have a little more wiggle room for development.

Generally speaking, the Heat have looked smart making bets that players will become more efficient in the Heat's system. Allen, Lewis, Chris Andersen and Michael Beasley all saw their true shooting percentages skyrocket once they arrived in Miami. The only exception is Battier, who saw his efficiency jump only in 2012-13, but who came up big in the 2012 playoffs, especially against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

But the high-level passing is what made McRoberts a top target from the start of free agency. The Heat lacked a third playmaker outside of James and Wade. McRoberts vastly improves their ability to pass from the perimeter when James and Wade play off the ball. Among bigs, only Joakim Noah had a higher assist rate than McRoberts (21.9 percent). With an ability to finish lobs at the rim, McRoberts can, at his ceiling, be a blend of Diaw and Andersen. But for an average commitment of $5.6 million annually, it's a bit risky to bet on a player with one good season on his résumé.

In this sense, Granger is the complete opposite. He has a lot of good seasons on his résumé -- just not recently. Signed using the biannual exception for $4.2 million over two years with a player option on the second year, Granger will function as another one of Riley and Erik Spoelstra's rejuvenation projects. After the Pacers traded him to Philadelphia for Evan Turner as the clock struck midnight on last season's trade deadline, Granger seemed to get his career back on track in Clipperland after being claimed off waivers, having missed essentially the entire 2012-13 season with left knee problems.

Yes, the days of Granger as a star player are long gone, but he provided some depth for the Clippers right away last season, shooting 35.3 percent from deep and scoring double digits in six of his first nine games in uniform.

And then his body fell apart. He strained his hamstring in late March, and it knocked him out for the last nine games of the Clippers' regular season. He was basically unplayable in the playoffs as he missed 29 of his 40 shots and barely could move on the floor.

Granger is "only" 31 years old, but his flat tires may make his body effectively closer to 40 than 30. The Heat hope they can turn his career around like they did for Lewis, whose knees basically made him unusable during his stint in Washington. It feels like a decade, but Granger is only two seasons removed from averaging close to 20 points per game for Indiana. That's a pipe dream at this point. At a relatively cheap price of $2.1 million, it's hard to argue with the upside here for Granger. But Beasley and Greg Oden are helpful reminders that the allure of upside gets you only so far in Miami.

McRoberts and Granger were not home runs for Riley, but they are solid base hits at the start of free agency. McRoberts is younger and fits in well with the Heat's 3-point, ball-moving system, and Granger can fill the Lewis role off the bench, if his legs are up to the task. The average team has spent $1.4 million per WAR this offseason, so McRoberts checks in right on par with a projected annual salary of $5.7 million. Granger's 2.3 WAR season gives him a higher projected salary than the Heat gave him ($3.2 million projected versus the actual $2.1 million), so the Heat got Granger at a slight bargain.

The Heat are still confident that James, Wade and Bosh will be back. That hasn't changed. McRoberts and Granger won't move the needle much in either direction, but in an aggressive market that saw Jodie Meeks and C.J. Miles get nearly $20 million each, the Heat were forced to temper their expectations with their midlevel and biannual exceptions. Let's see if James, Wade and Bosh see it the same way.