Winderman: Heat either will find rapid reward in NBA free agency or potentially an enduring headache | Commentary

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Sometimes you have ample salary-cap space and wind up with Dion Waiters. And sometimes you have no cap space and land Jimmy Butler.

So the only predictable element for the Miami Heat entering Monday’s 6 p.m. start of the free-agency negotiating period is the unpredictability of the process.

That, of course, doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan. With Pat Riley, Andy Elisburg, Adam Simon and the team’s front office there always is a plan, one polished well in advance.

And this time around, there also appears to be a starting point, one the Heat stand poised to circle back to, with Toronto Raptors free-agent point guard Kyle Lowry a name that has been linked to the Heat since well before the March 25 NBA trading deadline.

At that juncture, Riley acknowledged trepidation about putting 2019 first-round pick Tyler Herro into play, stressing, “I think you have to be very conscious about what you do with your asset base and your youth.”

So the Heat stood pat, were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, and Lowry turned 35.

Now the market for Lowry has increased, with the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers linked to significant interest in the champion point guard.

What hasn’t changed is the Heat need for a playmaker to alleviate such pressures on Butler and Bam Adebayo, the desire for a backcourt defender who can deter dribble penetration, the hunger for a late-game shot maker to make it something less than Butler-or-bust.

So even with Lowry seeking a three-year contract that will pay him through his 38th birthday, the Heat stand at a free-agency tipping point.

Since the Heat’s Big Three era of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the free-agency recruitment process has remained aggressive, with the results uneven. There was facetime with Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, but, ultimately, rejection. There was finality at first sight with Butler.

So if it’s as simple as Lowry, either through an outright signing into cap space or a sign-and-trade with the Raptors, then it becomes a matter of rounding out the roster, as was the case in the wake the Butler addition in the 2019 offseason.

If not? Then potentially a look at what could remain on the market at point guard, from Lonzo Ball to Spencer Dinwiddie to trade options of those already under contract elsewhere, with an awareness that the spot alongside Adebayo in the power rotation also has to be addressed with quality of a higher pedigree than what was in place last season.

Unlike when the Big Three were in place, there no longer is a single-addition solution. A core of Butler, Adebayo and Lowry would be an upgrade, but seemingly likely not enough to compete in the postseason with the Brooklyn Nets’ Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, or the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, as well as the emerging, Trae Young-led youth of the Atlanta Hawks.

It is the Hawks, in fact, who stand as an example that mid-tier teams need more than a singular boost, with Atlanta having elevated into the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with the 2020 offseason signings of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo (who was flipped for Lou Williams).

During previous moments when quantity also mattered for the Heat, the haul evaporated into the likes of Waiters, James Johnson, an overpay for the return of Tyler Herro.

Monday, if the commitment does not come as quickly for the Heat with Lowry as it did two summers ago with Butler, or does not come at all, an offseason of simple math will become something far more a complex.

IN THE LANE

QUALIFYING TIME: The Heat do not necessarily have an extended history with restricted free agency, but there have been several twists and turns to the process that now, for them, includes Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. Basically you extend a one-year qualifying offer for a nominal raise to a restricted free agent, and he then re-signs or takes an offer sheet from another team, which you can either match or relinquish rights to the player. The team’s first foray into restricted free agency was in the 1990 offseason, when the Heat signed John “Hot Rod” Williams to an offer sheet that was matched by the Cleveland Cavaliers. A year later, the Heat matched an offer sheet for Sherman Douglas from the Los Angeles Lakers. In 2003, the Heat extended an offer sheet to current assistant coach Malik Allen that Allen accepted, while bypassing offer sheets to Eddie House and Mike James. Later that offseason, the Heat extended an offer sheet to Elton Brand that was matched by the Los Angeles Clippers and then one to Lamar Odom that the Clippers did not match.

QUALIFYING TIME, TOO: From there, in the 2004 offseason, the Heat kept Rasual Butler with a qualifying offer and a year later obtained Jason Kapono from the Charlotte Bobcats with an offer sheet. In 2007, the Heat extended an offer sheet to Charlie Bell that the Milwaukee Bucks matched. Then, in 2009, the Heat kept Joel Anthony with a qualifying offer but lost Jamario Moon to the Cavaliers on an offer sheet. The Heat also kept Anthony the following year with a qualifying offer. In 2011, Mario Chalmers was retained with a qualifying offer. Then came the oft-lamented move in 2016 of matching the Brooklyn Nets’ offer sheet to Tyler Johnson. Last offseason the Heat extended a two-way offer sheet to Gabe Vincent that he accepted.

SUMMER SCHEDULE: Because the NBA seemingly never actually stops, keep in mind that the Heat open summer-league play Tuesday at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center in the California Classic, with an 8 p.m. Eastern matchup against a similar team of draft picks, rookies and young free agents from the Lakers (ESPN2) and an 8 p.m. Wednesday game in Sacramento against the summer roster of the Golden State Warriors (ESPNU). The team then moves on to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, which features all 30 teams. The schedule there: Aug. 8, 10 p.m. vs. Denver Nuggets (NBA TV); Aug. 11, 5 p.m. vs. Memphis Grizzlies (NBA TV); Aug. 13, 5 p.m. vs. Utah Jazz (ESPNU); Aug. 14, 4 p.m. vs. Atlanta Hawks (ESPN2); plus one additional game TBA based on the results of those first four games.

TRUE LOVE: There was a point when the notion of taking on Cleveland’s Kevin Love as a plus-one in a Heat trade with the Cavaliers, perhaps for Collin Sexton, appeared to at least be palatable, even with a contract that calls for $31.2 million this coming season and then $28.9 million in 2022-23. Then came Love’s no-show at Olympic tryout camp and his subsequent release from the program. Now even USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo admits an error in judgment. “He reached out to us and said he was in shape and said he felt he owed us,” Colangelo explained of the declining forward who turns 33 in September. “Well, it didn’t work out. He wasn’t in shape. And he was way behind, as it turned out. So you move on. Call it a mistake.”

NUMBER

$58 million. Combined salaries of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2013-14 during final season of Heat’s Big Three. By comparison, the newly minted Lakers’ Big Three of James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook is on the books for a combined $120.8 million this coming season.

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