The Miami Heat are 2-1 favorites to win the NBA title. And when you've got a team that good, it stands to reason that guys looking for new homes in the NBA will want to come knock on your door.
Still more than a week from the Dec. 9 post-lockout start of the NBA free-agency period, the Heat already have words of interest from Samuel Dalembert, expressions of interest from Shane Battier, and an open dialogue with Caron Butler, three of the more intriguing free-agent prospects in the Heat's spending range.
Dalembert, the native of Haiti who has a home in Boca Raton, told Fox Sports Florida that he would be intrigued to line up in the middle of a lineup that features LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Dalembert said it "would be fantastic" to play for the Heat, but there certainly would be hurdles to clear. Foremost, Dalembert earned $13.4 million last season from the Sacramento Kings, with the Heat's bidding power limited to the $5 million mid-level exception.
And herein lies the problem for the Miami Heat. With more than $60 million committed to the 2012 team, the Heat have very little wiggle room when it comes to free agency. Even an amnesty move with Mike Miller will only serve as luxury tax protection.
So what will the Heat do with their $5 million MLE? Here are four different options.
1) Keep Miller, use the MLE on a Big like Dalembert.
Ok, the Miller thing didn't work out last season. But you COULD make the argument that he never got on track because of the thumb injury, which was on his shooting hand. The Heat could keep the amnesty clause in their back pockets, suck it up for one more season (or part of one more season) with Miller to see if he gets it together, and use the MLE on Dalembert as a defensive center that will make Miami almost impossible to score on.
Best case scenario: Miller finds his stroke and becomes the floor-spacing deep threat Miami needs. Miami's defense was already stifling last season. With Dalembert in the back protecting the rim and an effective Mike Miller, the Heat would be unstoppable.
Worst case scenario: Miller never finds his stroke and the Heat cut their losses mid-season. From there the shooter's role becomes a patch-work quilt made up of whomever is hot at the time. Still, Dalembert's defensive presence could make up for the shortcoming and still fill a hole Miami had last season.
2) Amnesty Miller, Use the MLE on a swing man like Battier or Butler
The Heat could just cut ties with Miller because they still owe him $24 million and they'd rather just get out of that deal than drag this out any longer. They could go with Caron Butler or Shane Battier as potential replacements and hope they could provide what Miller couldn't.
Best case scenario: A swing-man comes in and is enough of a threat from deep to spread the floor and let Dwyane Wade and LeBron James impose their wills late in games. Additionally, that swing-man bolsters the Miami bench to a point where leads are more secure and the Big 3 can feel more at ease about how much they have to do. The low-post defense was good enough last season, and it will be better with a full season from Udonis Haslem. Minimum wage deals for serviceable bigs could help bolster the front line as well.
Worst case scenario: Whomever you bring in is no more effective than Miller. And since you'll probably have to use the full MLE to bring either of those two guys in, you've basically wasted your amnesty clause and found yourself in pretty much the same position you were in last year. Of course, that still got you to the Finals, but it's still a total waste of the two most valuable tools at your disposal for improving your team.
3) Split the MLE among multiple free agents
You can keep Miller or cut him in this scenario, using either of the arguments laid out above. But instead of blowing the $5 million on one guy, you try to find cheaper role players who can help shore up just enough of your weaknesses to let your three stars carry the load. You'll get better players than the minimum wage guys out there, but you won't necessarily get the name recognition some fans may want.
Best case scenario: You get a decent big and a spot-up shooter that can play 20 minutes a game or so, fill some gaps, and be just good enough to take enough pressure off the stars and let them really do their thing.
Worst case scenario: They don't live up to their roles, and now you've got a bunch of guys around LeBron, Wade and Bosh that can't really do what you need them to do. Then you've got to hope one or two of them get hot come playoff time, but that's more wishful thinking than anything.
4) Pocket some or all of the MLE for now and save it for a guy in China
J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, and Kenyon Martin are all in China right now, and they're probably not getting back here until March. You could roll the dice with what you have, save the MLE, and then have at least some ammunition for the bidding war when these guys are available once the Chinese season is over.
Best case scenario: The Heat are good enough to be a top seed with what they have. Chandler and Smith are restricted free agents, but Martin is unrestricted. The appeal of a championship contender, and more money than other contenders have stashed away, could be the key to getting Martin to bolster that front line. Meanwhile, another shooter (maybe Miller, who knows?) steps up enough and the Martin signing gives the Heat a huge spark.
Worst case scenario: Doing little-to-nothing with the MLE early means Miami is putting most or all of its eggs in one basket. The pieces don't jell as you'd hoped over three months and then you get none of the guys from China. Which means you were saving your only bullet for a moment that never came.
In the end, the Heat will still be really good because they have perhaps the top two players in the league along with another All-Star caliber guy. But the margin for error with the MLE is slim. And even though every free agent in the world might say "yeah, I'd love to play for Miami," the reality is that you might only get one of them. Miami has options, but they're all risks. Pat Riley just has to hope the risk he takes pays off with the ultimate reward.
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