Ira Winderman: For Heat, it’s not personal with Dragic, strictly business

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In the 2020 offseason, the Miami Heat were emphatic when it came to Goran Dragic’s free agency.

A month after helping push the Heat to the NBA Finals and then trying to push through injury in a season that ended two victories short of a title, Dragic was greeted in his native Ljubljana with Heat billboards in Slovenian that translated into, “Your second family is always with you.”

A two-year, $37 million free-agent contract quickly followed, with teammate Jimmy Butler jokingly threatening violence if Dragic did not sign on the dotted line.

But that was then, when the Heat were basking in the euphoria of an unexpected run to the championship series.

Now it soon will be decision time again for the Heat, with the second year of that two-year deal a team option of $19.4 million for next season.

This time there is no playoff-success hangover. This time Dragic is coming off a season when he missed 22 games and turned 35 last month.

This time . . . well, it’s business.

And that makes this a decision that has to come as much from the head as the heart for Pat Riley’s front office.

For all that has been as familial for the Heat as that billboard last November in Slovenia, as well as the placards placed at Dragic’s Ljubljana home celebrating his 2020 return, there also have been cold personnel calculations by Riley along the way over the years.

When the Heat couldn’t get over the playoff hump toward the end of Riley’s first coaching tenure with the team, P.J. Brown was dealt to Charlotte in the 2000 offseason. A year later, Tim Hardaway, with his game in decline, was cast aide to Dallas. And two years after that, the Heat drew a salary line with Alonzo Mourning, and he took from the Nets what the Heat would not offer. Then, of course, came the ugliness of the 2016 offseason with Dwyane Wade.

Brown stood as nothing short of the essence of culture imbued by Riley upon his arrival. As for Hardaway, Mourning and Wade, all three jerseys hang above the Heat’s court.

And make no mistake, Dragic’s jersey deservedly eventually should be displayed there, as well. In his seven seasons with the Heat (one more than Hardaway; as many as during Mourning’s initial tenure), Dragic stands third in franchise history in assists, eighth in points and fifth in 3-pointers.

But now the question is whether the next time Dragic’s No. 7 Heat jersey is seen at FTX Arena will be on the court or in rafters.

Because unlike the Heat’s capped-out 2020 offseason, there is cold, hard cash to be considered this time around.

Bypass Dragic’s team option and there could be as much as $27 million in cap space that could be put into play on this summer’s market.

But even if the Heat, as expected, bypass cap space and retool through trades and cap exceptions, Dragic’s 2021-22 salary also could be what is needed to balance a trade (Dragic’s $19.4 million, if picked up in advance of that Aug. 1 deadline, and, say, Tyler Herro’s $4 million get you in the ballpark of a deal for an elite talent).

As it is, the Dragic decision might not primarily be about Dragic, at all.

With cap space, the Heat potentially could move in the direction of Raptors free agent Kyle Lowry as a replacement at point guard.

If the medical reports come back favorable from Victor Oladipo’s recovery from quadriceps surgery, than Dragic might be asked to take a little less so Oladipo can get a little more, amid a balancing act with the luxury tax.

Even the free agency of Kendrick Nunn could factor into the equation, since there is a limit on eight-figure salaries a team can dole out to smallish guards.

With the impending free-agent market limited in top-tier talent at point guard beyond Lowry and perhaps Dennis Schroder, it is possible the Heat buy another year of time with Dragic. And, if nothing else, the play this season of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Mike Conley and Lowry showed there is something to be said about 30-something point guards.

But this time, the Heat’s offseason rush to judgement will not start with Goran Dragic.

Because this time, it’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

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