With a 3-2 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals and his team potentially facing two road games in Dallas, Miami Heat head coach Pat Riley told reporters that he packed “one suit, one shirt, and one tie” for the whole trip.
Riley, now the Heat’s president, is clearly not a person in need of confidence, but he has reason to be overflowing with it right now. Stuck in salary cap hell with no stars on the roster entering last offseason, the Heat managed to acquire a no. 1 option in Jimmy Butler, find a late lottery gem in Tyler Herro, and then hit the actual lottery with undrafted guard Kendrick Nunn. Now 18-6 with overtime wins against both Milwaukee and Toronto, Miami suddenly looks like a legitimate Finals contender, while Riley has enough house money to make snow angels next to Huell.
Riley isn’t one to rest on his laurels, and there’s more incentive now than ever before to pull the trigger on a major deal. The oft-rumored deal for exiled Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Chris Paul makes some sense. Miami is one of the only playoff contenders without a star point guard and is loaded with expendable high-dollar contracts (Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard) to take on Paul’s onerous deal without any real cap gymnastics.
But with so much of Miami’s success directly tied to having nontraditional playmakers scattered across the floor, how much of Bam Adebayo’s and Justise Winslow’s effectiveness would get neutered by Paul holding court instead? Perhaps more importantly, would a locker room with Paul and Butler be covered in anything other than eggshells for well-meaning but imperfect young players? Even if Miami only had to offer its small army of expiring (or near-expiring) deals without having to sacrifice any substantial future assets, Paul is no longer the overwhelming force guaranteed to move the needle regardless of fit. And you’d also have to look past his injury history and massive long-term deal.
The trade market is reportedly almost devoid of available stars anywhere near their primes, and the upcoming free agency class may be even more barren, but it would still be surprising to see Riley, 74, with multiple first-round draft picks already routed elsewhere, suddenly preach patience instead of shooting his shot now. The target might just need to change from Chris Paul to Jrue Holiday.
Convincing New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin to move on a player he thought could win MVP before he gets to play a single game next to Zion Williamson would probably be a challenge, but the vultures are circling. New Orleans, losers of nine straight, may already be in too big of a hole at 6-18. Dealing your best player is a more drastic move than sending out a veteran shooter (JJ Redick) or big body (Derrick Favors), even if he’s a guard in his 11th season. A Holiday deal would be waving the white flag on this season, and doing so a few months into Griffin’s tenure might permanently lose a veteran coach like Alvin Gentry. The ramifications of a Holiday trade, in other words, would be massive.
However, the threat of Holiday, 29, declining his player option for the 2021-22 season and hitting free agency in the summer of 2021 for one last long-term deal becomes more real as the date draws closer and the team falls further back in the standings. And you have to admit that there would be something poetic about another rebuilding process in New Orleans kicking off with a surprise deal involving Holiday.
Holiday is by no means blocking young guards Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker; he’s selfless and blends into the flow of an offense as well any star player. But his all-league-caliber defense is much better suited buoying a Finals contender than serving as an example to the next generation. The Pelicans are 27th in defense this season, and Holiday looks mostly powerless to help. Just like a shutdown cornerback on a defense that bleeds yardage everywhere else, teams can more or less avoid Holiday and wait for one of his greener teammates to help from the wrong spot, triggering a chain of closeouts that neutralize what Holiday does best. We know what he can do on the ball with some reliable help behind him—just ask Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum—but it’s not there right now in New Orleans; if the youth movement continues, it might not arrive before Holiday can opt out.
Selling high on Holiday while the trade market is depressed would make sense, especially if the goal in New Orleans is to keep adding pieces that could play and grow alongside Zion for multiple years instead of multiple games. It might be overly simplistic, but give the best slashing big-man prospect in college basketball history a young shooter that you already can’t leave in Herro (39.2 percent from 3) and let the pecking order play out naturally. The Pelicans could expand the deal to include Redick and Dragic (who could be expiring salary for New Orleans or rerouted elsewhere), but a trade of Holiday and Jahlil Okafor for Herro, rookie Kendrick Nunn, and salary filler (let’s say Waiters and Leonard) would work. If you’re going to be bad anyway, you want Zion learning to use the ancillary pieces around him—not the other way around.
For Miami, dreaming on the switchy goodness of Holiday, Butler, and Adebayo together would help ease the pain of losing intriguing and productive prospects. Miami is already tied for eighth in defense despite injuries and some odd frontcourt pairings, and Holiday and Butler would immediately become the scariest defensive backcourt in basketball. A five-man unit of Holiday, Butler, Winslow, Adebayo, and whichever floor-spacing option Erik Spoelstra prefers (likely Duncan Robinson or Kelly Olynyk) would offer the kind of length that all elite defenses tend to have, with enough playmaking juice spread around on the other end to maximize the advantages that Holiday and Butler would create.
Part of the appeal in trading for a player like Holiday, as opposed to Paul, is that Holiday is as low-maintenance as they come. He can play on or off the ball all the same, and despite being seventh in the league in total touches per game, his average time per touch (3.78 seconds) and dribbles per touch (3.3) are both lower than Paul (4.98/4.34) and nearly every other guard in the league. Miami’s snappy ball movement wouldn’t be jeopardized or stalled by adding Holiday, and Spoelstra wouldn’t have to rewire an offense already showing plenty of signs of sustainable health (third in effective field goal percentage, second in free throw rate) despite playing two rookies big minutes.
There are only a few coaches who can be trusted to quickly acclimate big trade pieces on the fly—Spoelstra is one of them. Riley and Spoelstra both know how fickle title windows can be, and this one for Miami can slam shut just as quickly as it opened up. Trading for Holiday would be a heat check, but it’s one worth taking.