The Jimmy Butler trade highlights the lack of whales washing up on South Beach

While Pat Riley has been in South Beach, the Miami Heat have been one of the more exciting teams in the NBA. His infamous ‘whale hunting’ saw the first super-team of the modern era formed when he combined Chris Bosh and LeBron James with the already contending team led by Dwyane Wade. This team ruled the Eastern Conference and came away with two rings.

Since those days, said hunting activity hasn’t really gone as planned for Miami. Riley managed to get a meeting with Kevin Durant in 2016, but I don’t think anything could have tempted him away from joining the Warriors. They had a play at Gordon Hayward in 2017 also, but were quickly demoted to his third choice behind the Jazz and the Celtics. There were whispers linking Miami with other big free agents, such as Blake Griffin. Yet again though, nothing really surfaced. Riley’s infamous whale hunting has quickly turned into a bog-standard family fishing trip.

On Saturday evening, it was announced by the Athletic that Jimmy Butler had been traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers had made a strange start to the season and their new General Manager Elton Brand felt that they needed to make a big splash. The move was met with relief from Minnesota Timberwolves fans and excitement from Sixers fans, but the Heat fanbase felt a sense of déjà vu. Once again, Miami had struck out on landing a big player that this team has desperately needed since LeBron James left. Goran Dragic is solid, but he is no superstar, and the Heat are stacked with gritty players with serviceable outside shots, but they don’t have the right player to maximise this group and allow them to be off-ball threats.

Missing out on Butler is not only a blow for the franchise in terms of winning games, but it also leaves them at a difficult crossroads. The Miami Heat have the highest payroll in the NBA per Basketball Reference, and it’s not particularly close either. Owner Micky Arison is generous with his funding, but this Heat roster is not exactly what you would expect a mammoth total just south of $160 million to fetch you. There are some solid players on this team and there is reason to be excited about the ‘point Justise’ experiment, alongside the potential development of Josh Richardson into more of a volume scorer. But it still won’t be enough to justify an enormous payroll that won’t be shrinking until 2020 at the earliest.

The question we have to ask ourselves, is where do Pat Riley and the Miami Heat go from here? They will not be major players in the next free agency unless they offload some of their monstrous contracts, and it is difficult to see any teams taking them on.

Of all of their bad contracts, Kelly Olynyk might be the most movable one. A stretch center with acceptable defense is extremely valuable to most NBA teams. The Heat were 10 points per 100 possessions better off when Olynyk was on the court last year: the gravity he creates on the perimeter creates more driving angles and a more smooth offense. Several other players are on bad contracts, and less movable and less attractive in a trade to other teams.

For the Heat, we should probably consider the following contracts ‘bad’.

James Johnson: Two-year $30 million with a player option

Hassan Whiteside: One-year $25 million with a player option

Tyler Johnson: One-year $19.2 million with a player option

Kelly Olynyk: Two-year $23 million with a player option

Dion Waiters: Three-year $35 million

On the surface, Olynyk is the only one who looks tradeable in the slightest. The player options are simply killers for the Heat moving forward. The others are all good players being paid as pieces on a championship team. This leaves the Miami Heat trapped in many ways.

Sure, the Heat could have a firesale and dump many of these players so they have cap room to go big in free agency, but realistically, free agents have few reasons to join this team. This is a roster that is more than one piece away from being very good, and the absence of a Jimmy Butler or John Wall-type player means that the Heat cannot banana boat their way back to relevance via free agency.

With free agency off the table, Miami has to go after players in trades. The issue the Heat will always have is that they will have to clear at least one of their bad contracts in the trade. But teams are simply not going to accept two bad contracts of average players being paid like they are major pieces on a good team. This is perhaps the main reason that Josh Richardson’s name always came up in the Jimmy Butler rumours, because he is on a good contract and is one of their better players.

In other words, the Heat will need to always attach one of their best pieces to a bad contract, because otherwise teams are not going to budge. The Timberwolves were in cap hell before the Jimmy Butler trade and arguably still are even after it.

What made the Sixers’ offer so attractive was that the Wolves did not receive anything bad in return. Covington’s $10 million per year is a steal, and the team has control over Dario Saric for the next two years. In addition, Jerryd Bayless is an expiring contract who will likely play elsewhere next year. Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson are likely the most attractive options for any teams who are looking to make a big trade with the Heat, but their departures would make the Heat noticeably weaker. The only hope for Miami is that the presence of a star would tempt others towards joining the team in free agency, but it is a risky tactic that recent history suggests will not pay off. The Heat have several solid players who could play alongside a star, but the difficult conundrum is that they’d likely have to part with a fair few of them in order to land a big player. This team needs sweeping changes in order to be competitive, and the nature of their payroll will make these changes hard to make quickly.

Riley decided to commit to mediocrity after the 2016-2017 season with the hope that this roster full of heart and intensity would attract a whale to South Beach. The reality for the Miami Heat moving forwards is that they are going to be stuck with this roster for a long time – Jimmy Butler’s move to Philadelphia only emphasises this further.


Featured photo – via Getty Images / AP Photo (Lynne Sladky) / Double Clutch illustration