Heat imagining the biggest three
MIAMI -- A question, readers:
What would it be worth to you to have your employer's charter flight touch down on a runway in the tropics 20-25 times per season, to climb down those airplane steps at 3 a.m. and fill your lungs with refreshing 70-degree air as you toss your winter coat into the trunk of your convertible, put the top down and mosey on home?
Seriously, what would you pay for that privilege?
Would you do it if it meant you would realize only 85-90 percent of your earning potential for three straight years, although the chances of you fulfilling your career dreams would increase?
Those are some of the questions the Miami Heat would like a few of the top 2010 free agents to ponder as the NBA counts down to the start of what promises to be the craziest free-agent summer in league history. There's an idea floating around the Heat's front office that they can pull off a monumental rebuilding coup next July if they can convince three max-level free agents -- Dwyane Wade, plus two others -- to take a little less than the maximum salary and sign long-term contracts with opt-out provisions after three years. (After those three years, the thinking goes, those same three guys could opt out and go get longer max deals that would take them into their mid-30s).
For three years, maybe more, South Beach would be the NBA's ultimate destination spot.
There'd be sun, there'd be fun, and there would be a wealth of talent surrounding that Big Three, beginning with Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers, and possibly including the two first-round draft picks Miami will have next June.
And it doesn't necessarily have to be Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Nobody talks about him much, but Yao Ming can be an unrestricted free agent next summer, too, as can Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer -- a player everyone already knows the Heat covet -- and the list goes on and on.
The trick, though, is getting a threesome. Look back on the NBA's dynasties (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman; Magic, Kareem and Worthy; Bird, McHale and Parish; Russell, Cousy and Sam Jones), or look at today's perennial powerhouses (Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in San Antonio; Garnett, Pierce and Allen in Boston; Bryant, Gasol and Odom in Los Angeles), and you always come back to a threesome, not a twosome.
Miami does not have the cap room to retain Wade and bring in two max guys, but it is close to having enough. And if the sales pitch and the circumstances are equally favorable, that $20-25 million in cap room will bring in quite a bounty.
"I think everybody, ideally, would like to play in a tropical place, because there's not too many of those cities in the NBA," Wade told ESPN.com. "I would say that if they haven't played in a tropical city, it's not a big thing, but if they have -- then it's a bigger part because you've gotten used to it, you know how it feels.
"To be in a long NBA season and to pull up in Miami every time you come back home, it's different than pulling up in, say, Milwaukee. It makes you feel different as a person," Wade said. "If you're using it as a selling point, it all depends who you're trying to go after. If you're trying to have a team that's trying to win, you have to still have a team in place to use it as a selling point. So I don't see it as a huge, huge advantage, but it might be a slight one."
As they head into the new season coming off a 2008-09 campaign in which they won a surprising 43 games before being eliminated in seven games by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs, the Heat are little changed.
Both of their second-round draft picks chose to play in Europe (in no small part because the Heat do not want to pay luxury tax on their salaries), Jamario Moon was the only player of any import who did not return (he signed with Cleveland as a free agent), and the biggest change the team made for the upcoming year was deciding to move Beasley from power forward to small forward.
So we're going to stay the course on our philosophy, and to answer your question -- Why didn't I make any moves? -- is because I didn't want to, and I wasn't going to unless I could make the move.” -- Heat president Pat Riley
There has been much hand-wringing locally that not enough was done to surround Wade with championship-caliber players, but those arguments are missing the bigger point. As are the New York Knicks, the Heat are biding their time until next summer, hanging onto their expiring contracts in order to drop far enough below the salary cap to add something major to the nucleus they've already established.
And while one max guy would be nice, two max guys could make the Heat good enough for everyone to be reminded that Pat Riley owns the trademark to the term "three-peat."
"If you were paying attention to all the people who were on top of the fact that we didn't make any moves, they don't know one thing about what our big-picture plan is," Riley told ESPN.com Saturday in a sit-down interview. "And I think anyone that really knows the NBA, knows the cap, knows the tax, knows 2010 and knows what we did since we traded Shaquille [O'Neal] -- that we were in an 18-month window, a very short rebuilding time."
"So we're going to stay the course on our philosophy, and to answer your question -- Why didn't I make any moves? -- is because I didn't want to, and I wasn't going to unless I could make the move. Why would I want to take the assets I have and fast-track the process and trade those assets for contracts that are going to take us out 2-3 years? Lose those assets and have almost the same kind of team we have now? I'm not sure that would work. Keep the assets, keep the infrastructure, keep the picks and the flexibility," Riley said.
Miami, New York and New Jersey are positioned to have the most cap room to spend on next summer's free-agent class. And while the Heat's best-case scenario would have them picking up two additional max players, the doomsday scenario would involve them losing Wade, perhaps as a result of his frustration at not being able to quickly rebuild a championship-caliber team in the years since Miami won the first title in franchise history.
Wade has experienced the highest of highs (winning the Olympic gold medal with Team USA in Beijing in 2008) and lowest of lows (struggling throughout 2007 to return from shoulder and knee injuries, watching his team win 15 games just two seasons after being the champion, going through a bitter divorce from his former high school sweetheart) since that June night in 2006 when he was soaked with Champagne after winning the title over the Dallas Mavericks.
Wade is 27 now, the age considered an NBA athlete's prime, and lists "wisdom" as the one character trait he has developed the most during his career.
But when he speaks of free agency and says "it's kind of the unknown," he really is speaking only half the truth.
He knows what the Heat's big-picture plans are, because he and Riley have spoken about them. He knows this season will be sacrificed to a certain degree to take the next step toward fulfilling those plans. And his wisdom is telling him to wait and see what kind of wizardry Riley can engineer next summer, which makes the non-events of this past summer that much easier to swallow.
"I've got two heads: As a player you always want to not only see yourself get better, but see your team and teammates get better, so of course I want to see that," Wade said. "But it's a business, and on the business end I understand that we've put ourselves in position to be in a good position next summer. So it's kind of a catch-22."
And so it will remain until next July. After that, Wade can stay or go.
But if Wade stays, there's a big-picture plan that would create a beast.
"To me, when it gets to these kinds of players, they have the pick of the litter and they will pick the best cities," Riley said. "The top players who want to move will say, 'I'm going to go here.'
"The other teams that will have room but might not be in the most favorable place to play, that money will bring a lot of them there, too. But if the top players want to leave, and the perceived top cities have the room, you've got to show them the room.
"It's like 'If you build it, they will come.' And if they want to leave, and you show them the room and they like the organization and they take a look at the opportunity to win -- all those things being equal, I think we've got a great opportunity to sign some of these guys," Riley said.
We'll know whether that scheme was successful in the middle of a night two winters from now.
If Wade and two other studs are sauntering off those team charter flights, stepping into the warm, fresh air of a late Miami night and putting their car roofs down, the plan will have been more than a dream -- and Wade will be secure in the wisdom that when June comes around, be it in 2011, 2012 and/or 2013, the Miami Heat will most likely still be playing ball.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
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