This offseason is full of unanswered questions for Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard.
Leonard will become an unrestricted free agent this offseason in an uncertain time for NBA economics amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then there’s the NBA calendar that remains a work in progress with league officials and the National Basketball Players Association still working to set a date for the start of free agency and next season. The salary cap and luxury tax line have also not been determined.
One possibility the NBA is pushing for is a Dec. 22 start to a 72-game 2020-21 regular season, a scenario that would have Leonard making a free agent decision and reporting to training camp in preparation for next season all within the next five weeks.
Leonard, 28, might not have to experience that whirlwind with a new team, though. During a phone interview with the Miami Herald on Thursday, Leonard did not rule out a return to the Heat but made clear there are two important things he is looking for as a free agent.
“I personally will just say that what I’m looking for and I’m hopeful for is a significant role, say 20 to 25 minutes per game whether that’s starting or coming off the bench, and I just want to win,” said Leonard, who has turned his love for Coors Light into a cross-country trip in a Coors Light-branded RV that left Miami on Thursday. “Everyone, I guess, you would say has to think about the financial component of a contract and everything like that. But the truth of it is, I want to win and I just want to have a significant role.
“But if I had to take my pick, I do think it makes sense here in Miami. Now, I guess I’d say that I do have to have a very open conversation with [team president] Pat [Riley] and [coach Erik Spoelstra], and say: ‘Look, I want to play and I want to have a role on a team that wins.’ I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I would come back to Miami because I loved it so much that I’m willing to sit on the bench. I won’t do that. Certainly, everything has to be earned. I’m well aware of that, and that’s what I did coming into Miami. There just has to be an open and transparent conversation, but those are conversations that I’m very comfortable having.”
Leonard is one of the Heat’s six impending free agents along with Jae Crowder, Goran Dragic, Udonis Haslem, Solomon Hill and Derrick Jones Jr. Miami holds Bird rights with all six players, which allows NBA teams to exceed the salary cap in order to re-sign their own free agents.
If the salary cap ends up remaining flat with this past season’s numbers ($109 million cap, $132.6 million tax line) also used next season, the Heat will have about $85 million committed to 10 players for next season assuming center Kelly Olynyk opts in to the final season of his contract and Miami keeps the player it drafts this year.
If the Heat’s plan is to re-sign its players, including Leonard, it becomes less about how much cap space Miami has and more about how much room it has below the luxury tax line because of Bird rights.
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In the scenario that the cap remains flat, the Heat stands about $47 million from the projected tax line, which is the amount of money Miami has to bring back its free agents.
If about $33 million goes toward retaining Crowder and Dragic, the Heat still has about $4 million to use on free agents and also a projected $9.3 million midlevel exception it can use all of on one player or split among multiple players.
The Heat should have the space below the luxury tax line to keep Leonard if it wants to bring him back. But any offer would very likely include only one season of guaranteed money because Miami wants to protect max-level cap space for what could be a loaded 2021 free agent class that might be headlined by two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Would Leonard, who was on a salary of $11.3 million this past season, take a one-year deal to remain with the Heat? Leonard is coming off a four-year, $41 million contract he originally signed with the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2016 offseason.
“Just to reiterate, I want to win, and I feel that I helped them do that here in Miami,” Leonard said. “I don’t care about the shine. I don’t need the credit. I don’t care about my box score. I don’t. If you watch film and you understand what I do that doesn’t show up, that’s what matters to me. I know that people like Jimmy [Butler] and Spo see it, and the rest of my teammates and the rest of the people around here and I think people around the league also.”
The other question is what will the market be for the 7-footer in free agency?
“I know that there are other teams interested,” Leonard said. “Obviously, one of them is Miami, I believe. And there are other teams who are interested that are contenders, and that’s what’s exciting me is that I guess I’ve shown the league that I’m capable.”
Leonard, who spent the first seven seasons of his NBA career with the Trail Blazers before he was dealt to the Heat last year as part of the four-team Butler trade, played two very different roles in his first season with Miami.
Before the NBA suspended the season on March 11, Leonard averaged 6.1 points while shooting 52 percent from the field and 42.9 percent on threes, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 20.1 minutes through 49 games (49 starts) as a full-time starter for the Heat.
Then Leonard missed each of the 16 games prior to the league shutdown because of a sprained left ankle, and he was not in the starting lineup or rotation when the Heat’s season resumed in August. Spoelstra opted to use a smaller starting lineup, replacing Leonard with Crowder (6-6) when the season restarted.
Leonard logged just 31 total minutes in three games during the Heat’s 21-game playoff run that ended two wins from an NBA championship. Two of those three playoff games Leonard played in were starts against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, with starting center Bam Adebayo unavailable because of a strained neck.
Leonard finished his first season with the Heat with regular-season averages of 6.1 points while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from three-point range, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 51 games. Among 7-footers who averaged at least one three-point shot attempt and played in at least 10 games, Leonard recorded the NBA’s top three-point shooting percentage.
“I absolutely loved this year in Miami. I really did,” Leonard said. “Coming in, I had no idea what to expect, truly. ... When I got to Miami, I thought I would definitely play. But I didn’t know I was going to start every game prior to getting hurt. I think that I earned that and clearly played well when I was on the floor and starting with that unit. But this year was just a blessing, man. Winning the Eastern Conference finals, going to the Finals. Obviously, we came up short. I wish I could have had a bigger impact on the floor. ... But all in all, I really loved it here and I love winning and I love what the Heat are about. So we’ll see what happens.”
Whether Leonard was playing or not this past season, he was an engaged teammate. Despite spending most of the playoff run outside of the Heat’s rotation, he was one of the more vocal and enthusiastic players on the team’s bench.
“I know that everyone around the Miami Heat organization, and I think a lot of fans appreciated that, and I’m thankful for that,” Leonard said. “... It’s not fake. It’s not rah-rah. This was almost like a video game hack, the fact that I’m able to use my communication and my voice from the sideline and truly impact the game. Why not? It would be selfish for me not to do that.
“I’m glad that Spo wasn’t like, ‘Meyers, relax. Sit down,’ I think he was probably like, ‘Oh, this is helping us. Keep going.’ From a competitive standpoint, I would have loved to have been playing and impacting the game that way and using my voice while playing. But that wasn’t the case and I’m not going to sit here and be a bad teammate and pout and whine and complain. That’s now who I am.”
Leonard has a free agent decision to make, but that won’t be his top priority for the next week. Leonard, his wife Elle, and their Siberian Husky Koko left Miami on Thursday in what’s being called the Coors Light “Chillstream” for a cross-country trip that will leave them in Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 7.
The RV will make some stops along the way, including a detour to Illinois to visit family and a stop at the original home of Coors Light in Golden, Colorado.
“It’s literally a match made in heaven, that’s the way I’ll put it,” Leonard said of his partnership with Coors Light. “I love Coors Light. That’s what we drink where I’m from. Often times, when I’m just relaxing after a game and literally after every bubble win, I would sit in the lobby with Jimmy, Goran [Dragic], [assistant athletic trainer] Armando [Rivas], [assistant athletic trainer] Brandon [Gilliam] and a few of the other guys. I, myself, would be drinking Coors Light. The other guys chose Michelob, which is Jimmy’s thing. But I’m a loyal guy. This is literally a dream come true.”