As Miami Heat bank on Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021, not making move for Chris Paul could prove costly

The Miami Heat weren’t supposed to be this good this soon. Sure, when the Jimmy Butler trade went down and Pat Riley addressed the media prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, he said what Pat Riley always says, what everyone in the Heat organization always says — that winning championships remains the only standard. Miami’s team president said he believed this roster had what it took to legitimately pursue that goal. 

But he also left the door open. 

“We’re going to show restraint as much as we can, as much discipline as we can with our roster,” Riley told reporters when asked if he would look to add more firepower via trade at some point during the season. “But if something presents itself …”

A couple big-name options had, of course, already presented themselves. Russell Westbrook was available for the Heat to pursue once the Thunder dealt Paul George to the Clippers and were widely believed to be entering rebuild mode, but it likely would have cost Miami either Bam Adebayo or rookie Tyler Herro. 

Westbrook has played some of the best basketball of his career this season for the Rockets, and theoretically Miami’s spacing would’ve provided Westbrook’s basket-attacking ways with a similarly favorable environment. But giving up Herro or Adebayo would’ve been a bridge way too far, even before you consider Westbrook’s contract that has $129 million left on it after this season, including a $46.6 million player option in 2023. 

Chris Paul was different. His contract, though equally rich, ends one year sooner, and he wouldn’t have cost nearly as much in trade compensation. Just taking the money off OKC’s books likely would’ve been enough, and Miami may have gotten a future draft pick for its troubles. The Thunder didn’t know how good they were going to end up being with Paul, and perhaps, despite Riley’s championship ethos, the Heat, deep down, didn’t know how good they were going to be, either. 

A mid-seed team destined to die out in the second round doesn’t want to commit to a salary like Paul’s. But Miami has proven to be potentially  lot more than that. With the season hanging in limbo due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Heat reside in the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 playoff spot. They have spent time as high as No. 2, right there with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors until a couple water-treading months in January and February set them back slightly. 

At the trade deadline, Riley and staff made a move indicating they believed in Miami’s short-term contention prospects, pulling the plug on the Justise Winslow project as part of a package that landed them Andre Iguodala from the Memphis Grizzlies. The Heat tried to do more. Right up until the last minutes approaching the deadline, they were trying to swing a deal for OKC’s Danilo Gallinari. One of the reported hangups was Miami’s inability, or unwillingness, to sign off on a long-term extension for Gallinari, who becomes an unrestricted free agent whenever this season ends. 

Miami’s thinking: It can just sign Gallinari outright this summer, and indeed there is a way to do so without compromising its ability to create max cap space in the summer of 2021, otherwise known as the summer of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not trading for Gallinari at the deadline will obviously look wise if the season is canceled anyway, and Iguodala comes off the books in 2021. 

If the Heat do end up with Gallinari next season, they’re going to be really good. If they get Antetokounmpo in 2021, they’re going to be one of the top-tier title contenders, provided that Jimmy Butler, with those Tom Thibodeau miles always lurking in his legs, doesn’t age in dog years. 

Antetokounmpo isn’t the only big-name player scheduled to hit the market in 2021. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Anthony Davis and Victor Oladipo, as of now, will join him, but the first three names on that list will be 10-year veterans, which carry a higher max salary that would likely stretch beyond Miami’s room. Davis is almost certainly not leaving the Lakers. Oladipo — or Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin or Jrue Holiday for that matter — are not the players Miami has been positioning itself to chase. 

This has been, and will continue to be about Antetokounmpo, and there comes the risk. If the Heat don’t get Giannis, while surely they’ll use that money to improve their already solid team, will they end up being better than they would’ve been with Paul?

Again, if the season gets canceled, the Heat will look wise to have not jumped the gun on a win-now move. But a truncated playoff format could, in theory, gives them a slightly more open championship window in the immediacy, and anyone assuming that Paul’s game is going to go significantly south next season should bear in mind that was also the assumption this season. 

Instead, Paul is on track for an All-NBA nod. The Heat have an alarming minus-10 net rating in clutch situations, and Paul has been the most productive clutch player in the league. Miami’s defense has slipped into mediocrity, and Paul remains a hound on that end. In short, this Heat team, with the star foundation of Butler, the All-Star emergence of Adebayo and what looks to be a home-run draft pick in Herro, would be a legit contender with Paul on board. And the move was there for them to make. 

Their reluctance is understandable. Riley said the Heat would show restraint, and every team looks at these aging stars the same. Kevin Love is wasting away in Cleveland because nobody wants to add that kind of salary at that age. Meanwhile, a team like the Trail Blazers, which would be a contender with Love on board, continue to play it safe when they likely aren’t going to get a free agent better than Love during Damian Lillard’s prime anyway. There is such a thing as missing a real opportunity in the present to plan for a fantasy opportunity in the future. 

Miami is in a great spot however this ends up over the next few years. But in 2021, when Butler will be two years older and Giannis is certainly no sure thing, we have to allow for the possibility that their championship window that was supposed to be just opening might have, in fact, already started closing. 

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