Moves that didn’t happen before last Thursday’s trade deadline have front-office executives talking just as much as the ones that did. Kyle Lowry is still with the Raptors, while the Pelicans and Hawks kept their respective upcoming restricted free agents, Lonzo Ball and John Collins. But the reported discussions about those players and more should be kept in mind, because what happens during the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs could reignite trade discussions during the offseason.
The Heat, one of the most active teams at the deadline, opened up all sorts of new possibilities. People around the league are closely monitoring Miami after Pat Riley decided to not deal some of his best young talent to the Raptors for Lowry, instead acquiring Victor Oladipo from the Rockets for a low price of a 2022 first-round pick swap, plus Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley. To replace Olynyk’s stretch shooting, they also acquired Nemanja Bjelica from the Kings. Miami did all this while keeping Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Precious Achiuwa.
The Heat increased their 2021 NBA Finals odds while retaining the youth necessary to sustain success and the assets to make bigger moves this offseason and beyond. A similar line of thinking dictated decisions made by other teams, as seen with the Sixers trading for George Hill instead of paying a premium for Lowry. As for the Heat, it’s no secret in NBA circles that Riley wanted to pursue Giannis Antetokounmpo, but now that Giannis is signed long term with the Bucks, the Heat have turned their attention elsewhere.
First up? A test drive with Oladipo, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Oladipo, who turns 29 in May, hasn’t fully regained his All-Star form after rupturing a quad tendon in his right knee in early 2019. But he’s shown flashes this season of the Oladipo of old, averaging 21 points on just 52 percent true shooting with five assists and five rebounds. Those are solid numbers, but it’s not quite his peak of 23 points on 58 percent true shooting in 2017-18, his breakout All-NBA season with the Pacers. Playing a less demanding role in Miami alongside the best talent he’s ever played with in his career could create easier scoring chances and boost his efficiency. At the least, Oladipo’s downhill driving and slashing should help create shots for Miami’s sputtering offense, which ranks 24th in offensive rating this season.
If it doesn’t work out with Oladipo, the Heat could pivot back to Lowry. League sources said if Lowry had been traded, his preference was the Heat because of his close friendship with Jimmy Butler. The Heat can realistically create about $26 million in space while retaining the restricted free-agent rights to Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, if the salary cap is $112 million as currently projected. That number falls short of all max contracts for next season—which range from $28 million for players coming off rookie deals to $39 million for players with 10-plus years of experience—but it could be more than enough to entice Lowry.
The Lakers and Sixers, two other teams that were in on Lowry, won’t have cap space. Most teams with Finals hopes and a need for a point guard won’t either. Other than the Heat, only eight teams are projected to have cap space: the Bulls, Cavaliers, Hornets, Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors, Spurs, and Thunder. The Heat likely wouldn’t have all that much competition other than the Raptors.
Pursuing a restricted free agent—such as Ball or Collins—could also be an option, though it would be risky considering the steps necessary to create cap space. The Heat would need to decline team options for veterans and rescind free-agent rights, only to make an offer sheet that could be matched. New Orleans and Atlanta could end up keeping their respective players long term, but more teams could express interest in them this offseason than there were before the deadline. There are no whispers that Miami would have interest in Ball or Collins, but either of them would make for excellent fits with the current core—Ball with his low-usage playmaking and Collins with his rim running and shooting in the frontcourt.
Miami could also work a sign-and-trade for whichever player it targets, like it did in the summer of 2019 to acquire Butler. Theoretically, the Heat could re-sign Oladipo and still use expiring contracts and assets to acquire a separate player.
The Heat will have options, but there aren’t many elite players with a Hail Mary of becoming available before the 2021-22 season. Two names to ponder: Kawhi Leonard and Bradley Beal.
It’s highly improbable Leonard would leave the Clippers. Going home was one of the reasons he signed there, and he often commutes from San Diego to Los Angeles. He’ll also be eligible to sign a five-year extension worth a projected $228 million with the Clippers, versus only $169 million over four seasons with any other team. Leonard handpicked Paul George to be his costar, and despite frustrating ups and downs this season, the Clippers are undoubtedly a contender.
However, before recruiting George to L.A., Leonard first chased Butler, who was also a free agent at the time. If the Clippers were to implode again in the playoffs and enter another summer with no assets to make needle-moving decisions with a Leonard-George core, Leonard has a $36 million player option for the 2021-22 season and could test the market if he so desires. The Heat would have the cap space and trade assets to make an enticing pitch to him; if this unrealistic scenario were to happen, many other teams would also put themselves in the running.
Beal is a more realistic target. The Wizards are closer to last in the East (4.5 games up) than they are the sixth seed (6 games back), despite the fact that Beal is leading the NBA with 31 points per game on a super-efficient 60 percent true shooting. Beal is admittedly “loyal to a fault,” and he hasn’t expressed a desire to leave Washington, the franchise that drafted him in 2012. But he can walk in free agency as soon as the summer of 2022. League sources say his decision to play through this season without making a trade request is as much a commitment to see things through this season with Russell Westbrook as it is about waiting until the worst of the coronavirus pandemic passes in the United States before making a life-altering decision.
There’s still a real chance Beal stays in Washington for years to come, but as the Wizards rack up losses, teams like the Heat are waiting to pounce. In addition to Miami, multiple league sources say the Celtics, Knicks, and Pelicans are among the teams with interest in pursuing a deal for Beal.
One league source told me the sleeper team to watch in a Beal bidding war is the Raptors. This source said Toronto president Masai Ujiri was reluctant to deal Lowry because he believes the team can contend again as soon as next season. At that point, the Raptors will likely be back in a normal rhythm and playing in Canada after spending all of this season in Tampa.
Ujiri himself will be a free agent this offseason. Recently, when asked about his future in Toronto, he said the Raptors are “in the blood.”
The Raptors are still in the East playoff hunt, but they also currently have the seventh-best lottery odds. The 2021 draft class is stacked with potential franchise-changing talent. With all of their future first-round picks and a bevy of young talent on their team—including newly acquired 22-year-old Gary Trent Jr., a soon-to-be restricted free agent—the Raptors could also put themselves in the running for a deal for Beal.
The Raptors are one of the many teams that have more draft capital than the Heat, which is why holding on to talented young players was critical for the Miami front office. The Heat’s draft pick cupboard is bare because it owes a first-round pick to Oklahoma City that’s lottery-protected in 2023, 2024, and 2025, and then becomes unprotected in 2026. The NBA’s Stepien Rule prevents the Heat from dealing a future first-round pick, but they could negotiate with the Thunder to remove protections from the pick and open up the ability to trade first-rounders in 2025 and 2027, plus swap picks in 2024 and 2026. This complicated step would be necessary to have any hope of acquiring a star of Beal’s caliber.
But executives around the league also wonder whether we’re entering a phase in which few stars will be on the move. Most All-NBA-caliber players are signed long term in winning situations, in the places they wanted to be, or still on rookie deals. There aren’t even many great players in losing situations: Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota is an exception, and even then, the development of rookie Anthony Edwards, another potential top draft prospect on the way if the team keeps its 2021 draft pick, and the hiring of an innovative head coach in Chris Finch are reasons for optimism.
The reality is that teams sitting on a pile of draft picks like the Pelicans and Thunder may need to wait a few years to cash in on the next wave of disgruntled superstars trying to push their way out to new situations. The Heat realize this too. Never mind the fact that they got Oladipo for cheap, giving up Herro, who just turned 21, for Lowry, who turned 35 on deadline day, would have been a short-sighted decision. The ideal time to move Herro would be in a few years if he’s more developed and superior players are available to target. Right now, the state of the star trade market is dull.
In the meantime, the Heat will attempt to compete with what they have while investing minutes into their younger players. Maybe they’ll exceed expectations in the postseason again, just like they did in the bubble. Or maybe they won’t and the need for a seismic move will be more apparent. Either way, now wasn’t the time to strike for anyone other than Oladipo.
“There always is what’s next,” Riley told reporters the night Miami traded for Oladipo. “This is the next thing and then we’ll just see what happens at the end of the season. Then what you always do is you try to get better and try to create an asset base, and then then you go from there. Winning in a big way will change that. And it will probably force you to stay the same, which is what you want. If you can stay with the same team and get to the Finals and win championships, that’s what you’re always trying to aspire to do. From that standpoint, we’ll just see what this next thing does for us.”