Reporting Tim Kephart
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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – As the Miami Heat stand on the verge of elimination from the Eastern Conference Finals, many are starting to ask is this the swan song for the Big Three if a championship can’t be won this year?
Due to restructuring and new rules instituted in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement put together last year, any team that violates the luxury tax could wind up paying big penalties to the rest of the league.
Previously, teams that had salary exceeding the luxury tax line paid a dollar-for-dollar penalty. So if Miami wanted to have a $90 million payroll, it would owe $20 million in luxury taxes. But starting next season, the amount begins to rise and teams do not want to get into that territory.
According to the CBA, teams will pay an incremental tax that increases every $5 million over the luxury tax line. If a team is a repeat offender, the incremental taxes get even worse.
Plus, if you’re over the luxury tax, it limits the amount you can pay a player with the midlevel exception. Teams over the luxury tax line are limited to contracts for three years with a base salary of $3 million. Non-taxpaying teams can offer four-year deals starting at $5 million for the mid-level exception.
So where does that leave the Heat if they want to make moves in the offseason? It’s not a pretty picture.
The luxury tax line for the current season was set at $70.3 million. The Heat were at $80 million for this season and have $78 million committed to next season’s salary cap. So, unless the luxury tax increases, the Heat are $8 million over the limit to start the offseason.
The Heat has $52 million in salary committed on the books next season for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Another roughly $14 million is committed to Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and Udonis Haslem.
So, the Heat have $66 million committed against the cap for just six players.
The Heat’s options are limited as to what they want to do with the roster. They could try to trade either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, but the return in a trade for a superstar is not going to be enough to necessarily justify the trade.
The Heat still have the ability to amnesty a player, meaning they can release the player to free agency and erase his salary off the Heat’s books. For example, the Heat could amnesty Mike Miller and save $5.8 million next season and $6.2 million the year after that against the cap.
Still, that would leave the Heat at approximately $72.72 million, assuming power forward Ronny Turiaf exercises his player option for $1.2 million. That will put the Heat either at or just above the luxury tax for next season.
The Heat could try to move another player somehow, but the market for Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, and Shane Battier doesn’t give the Heat much to bargain with.
Heat president Pat Riley also knows that technically, the Big Three are only under contract for the next two seasons. After that, they all have player options which means any could opt out of their contract and become free agents, ala 2010.
So how does Miami match up cap wise with the other teams in the conference finals? The short answer is not very well.
The San Antonio Spurs has roughly $48 million committed against the salary cap next season, but will have to re-sign future Hall of Fame power forward/center Tim Duncan. That’s a formality as Duncan has already said he will return to San Antonio next season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder has $47 million against the cap for next season, but will have to pony up big money to re-sign point guard Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are fully expected to retain Westbrook which will send them towards the luxury tax line.
Finally, Boston has just $34 million in salary already committed for next season. But, the Celtics will have to make a decision on re-signing center Kevin Garnett and shooting guard Ray Allen. The Celtics will make a big push for KG, but may let Allen walk if his contract demands are too high.
So the Heat are either at or above the luxury tax line, meaning they can’t offer much in the form of contracts to more players to sign with the squad.
One of the biggest names hitting free agency this summer will be point guard Steve Nash. He’ll be wanted by nearly every team, despite his age. The Heat will need Riley, LeBron, Wade, and Bosh to put on a full-court press to convince Nash to sign for the minimum or close to it to join the Heat.
If Nash chose to come to Miami to finally get a championship ring, it would make the Heat a deadly team for opponents. A true point guard could set the offense better and allow James and Wade to move without the ball, which is sometimes non-existent if one of them has to run the point.
But, New York can offer more money, as can other teams, and will likely pursue Nash hard. It will come down to whether Nash is looking for the money or the ring.
The Heat could try to convince Chris Kaman to play for the minimum to pursue a ring. A legit center could really help the Heat in the playoffs. Roy Hibbert and Kevin Garnett have abused the under-sized Heat in the playoffs this season.
But again, the Heat will have to try to convince any player to give up a bigger payday to come and join the Heat to try to win a championship.
The Heat could try to trade either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. It was assumed at the start that Bosh may be the most at risk player for a trade down the road. However, as Wade’s play has declined this season and his injuries pile up, he may be the player that could be moved.
However, Riley is not known as a coach or executive who typically gives up on a plan in just two seasons. Still, as the rest of the NBA continues to improve, the Heat will need to make some changes to get to the promised land of an NBA Finals victory.
The Heat also have the NBA Draft coming up where they’ll pick near the end of the first round. The Heat would likely love to see Syracuse center Fab Melo fall to them at pick 27. Melo is a 7’ defensive-minded center who could provide great inside defense for the team.
But, Melo is very limited offensively and would need time to develop. The Heat may also look at center Festus Ezeli, who is 6’11” and weighs 255 pounds. He averaged 10 points and 6 rebounds in the SEC last season while shooting 54 percent from the field.
The Heat could also try to trade their first-round pick along with someone like Udonis Haslem for a veteran and then amnesty Mike Miller, which would likely bring Miami below the luxury tax line for next season.
There are possibilities, but all of them require some major work and will require a lot of Heat president Pat Riley. But never underestimate Riley’s influence of power, he did what no one else could do and joined the Big Three together. Now he just has to finish the job with a supporting cast.
Still, one final plan the Heat could take would be to replace head coach Erik Spoelstra. Some big name coaches like Jerry Sloan are waiting from calls from teams and one might be ready to help the Heat if Riley made the call.