The Miami Heat might be the most intriguing irrelevant team in the NBA right now. The stars who made South Beach the center of basketball's universe not so long ago are all gone, and the future is murky at best. The Heat are 7-13, three games back of a playoff spot with three teams in their way. They have the NBA's fifth-worst offense; according to Synergy Sports, no team is less efficient out of time outs.
They've been unlucky, too, but even when healthy, Miami's roster is nothing to write home about. Hassan Whiteside is a monster, but with suitably outsized flaws; he still leans hard on unbelievable physical gifts and is already 27 years old. Goran Dragic is now below average at his position and steadily declining—the percentage of his points that are owed to fast breaks is nearly half what it was two years ago. Justise Winslow's jump shot looked broken earlier in the season, and that was before getting sidelined for weeks with an ailing left wrist. Every other long-term contributor is either hurt or struggling; Chris Bosh, the 11-time All-Star, continues to be listed as inactive while Miami doctors maintain he's unfit to play after dealing with blood clots in recent seasons.
Hold on, it gets worse! Miami will forfeit seven draft picks over the next four years, including a top-seven protected first-round pick in 2018 that becomes unprotected in 2019, and an unprotected first-round pick in 2021. Despite unprecedented success in free agency over the last half decade, the draft is still the simplest way for Miami to add and develop superstar talent. Picks have value, whether utilized on draft night or in a trade; the Heat are at an extreme disadvantage without them. All of which is to say that this franchise—and its president, Pat Riley—is desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. If the Heat want a realistic shot at the Finals in 2019, they should shore up the future by punting on today. In other words, they should tank.
Aggressive and outright "tanking" has become sacrilegious in the post-Sam Hinkie NBA. No team, not even those with a clear incentive to bottom out—including the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks—will intentionally decapitate their short-term bottom line for a better chance to eventually become a championship contender. It's not because it doesn't work, because it can work. It's just considered tacky.
But a full-on rebuild makes so much sense in Miami, a team that is already in a perfect position to be really bad. (According to FiveThirtyEight, they only have a 22 percent chance of making the postseason.) To crash into rock bottom, they can deal away talented veterans that don't line up with a rebuilding organization's timeline. That means shedding Dragic and Whiteside's long-term contracts for draft picks, even more cap space, and the opportunity to increase their odds at a top pick in this year's draft and work down the road to keep next year's pick. If the season ended today, seven teams would have a higher chance to land a top-three pick in this year's draft. Miami needs to climb that list.
The other path is more conventional and easier to swallow: Do nothing, play out the season with everybody on board, scratch and claw to barely miss (or make) the playoffs, wind up with a mediocre first-round pick, and then try and convince a high-profile free agent or two that South Beach is still the place to be come July 1st. It's also a bit less safe, because that pitch is entirely dependent on Bosh's health.
Miami would need to waive the 32-year-old Bosh before the trade deadline and hope he doesn't play again in order to have enough cap space to absorb bad contracts (and juicy assets) from teams that desire a bit more flexibility. Do that and this summer Miami will have more cap space than anyone else to shop around for pieces to stack around Whiteside, Dragic, and Winslow. However, if Bosh gets a sufficiently clean bill of health, somehow latches onto another team, and plays in 25 games at any point in the future, his contract is back on Riley's lap—a nightmare for Mickey Arison, the Heat's notoriously frugal owner, who will avoid the luxury tax at all cost while Miami isn't an elite team.
It's a gamble that could land the Heat on the treadmill of mediocrity, just barely scraping by for years on end without any hope of moving beyond that. That would be lame. Less lame would be to pivot away from what everybody else is doing and intentionally step backwards for the sake of more clarity moving forward.
Not that tanking is necessarily simple, either. Finding a trade partner for either Dragic or Whiteside won't be easy considering how many teams are set at point guard and center. Nor should the Heat get rid of Whiteside—a borderline All-Star big man who just signed a four-year, $98.4 million contract—for the sole sake of shedding salary; shopping him around to gauge interest couldn't hurt, but he's too good to ditch for flexibility's sake. Whiteside has plenty of downside as a big man: his post moves will make you uncomfortable; he isn't good enough down low to command a double team; he never passes, doesn't have much of a left hand, and still sags back in the paint defending pick-and-rolls, which puts a ton of stress on Miami's perimeter defenders at the point of attack.But he is also averaging 17.8 points and a league-leading 14.9 rebounds per game, albeit with a lower True Shooting percentage under the weight of his increased usage rate. Few bigs are more dangerous rumbling through the paint after setting a high screen, and keeping him off the offensive glass can be a two-man job. Even though Miami is (once again) better on defense when Whiteside isn't on the floor, his arms are barbed wire around the rim.
Who might take him? The Portland Trail Blazers are an obvious suitor, but it's unclear what they have to offer, aside from C.J. McCollum, various questionable long-term contracts, and some mid-to-late first-round picks. That's not enough.
The Washington Wizards, another thirsty franchise, would love to add Whiteside's talent, but they already have 19 centers under contract. The Golden State Warriors could use a shot-blocking rebounder who doesn't need the ball to impact games, but it's unlikely they'd give up what it takes to get Whiteside (which is Klay Thompson), or risk the volatile influence Whiteside might have in that locker room. The Mavericks would love to add Whiteside but would need to fork over their 2017 draft pick to get him, and to do so would be highly reckless.
The sun won't stop rising in South Florida if Whiteside and Dragic are still on the roster in March. In a conference that could be up for grabs in a couple years, the Heat could semi-realistically position themselves for a Finals run by 2019—but it would be unlikely. Even if they do turn into a scrappy competitor that intermittently moonlights as a pseudo-contender, the NBA is still filled with teams that boast max cap space and promising situations. That's why, at this point, the Heat's organizational philosophy should be "losing is winning." If Riley wants to find a building block for the future of his franchise, he needs to forget about free agency and focus on the draft—and that means aiming for the bottom.
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