Miami will enter the July free agency period without a single major salary standing in the way of its roster-building process.
Heat president Pat Riley announced on Saturday that All-Star guard Dwyane Wade, All-Star forward Chris Bosh and forward Udonis Haslem have all decided to become unrestricted free agents this summer. The three players join All-Star forward LeBron James, who decided to exercise the early termination option of his contract and become a free agent earlier this week.
Wade will be exercising the early termination option of his contract, thereby leaving $41.8 million over two years on the the table. Bosh will be exercising the early termination option of his contract, leaving $42.7 million on the table. Haslem will be declining his $4.6 million player option for next season.
“Today we were notified of Dwyane’s intention to opt-out of his contract and Udonis’ intention to not opt into his contract, making both players free agents," Riley said in a statement on Saturday. "Dwyane has been the cornerstone of our organization for over a decade, and we hope he remains a part of the Heat family for life. Udonis has been the heartbeat of this team for 11 years. He has sacrificed countless times to make this organization successful, and he is the epitome of what this organization stands for. We look forward to meeting with Dwyane and Udonis and their agent in the coming days to discuss our future together.”
On Sunday, Riley added in a second statement: "Today we were notified of Chris’ intentions to opt-out of his contract. Chris is one of the most versatile and dynamic big men in this league, and he has been an instrumental key to our championship success over the last four seasons. We look forward to meeting with Chris and his agent in the coming days to discuss keeping him in Miami for many years to come.”
The announcements come a few days after James, Wade and Bosh reportedly had lunch together in Miami.
Although the joint decisions do not guarantee James' return to Miami, they do maximize Riley's options in retooling the roster. First, it should be noted that all four players would remain on Miami's books as cap holds until they sign new contracts. The opt-out decisions do not translate to pure cap space for the Heat to spend on other players before re-signing the "Big 3" and Haslem. That said, Miami's only current salary obligations for next year would be point guard Norris Cole, who is on the books for $2 million and first-round pick Shabazz Napier. That would leave the Heat with well over $50 million of space under the salary cap with which to re-sign the "Big 3" and, if there is money left over, to chase a fourth impact player before turning to its exceptions to fill out the remainder of the roster.
The mass opt-out decision is ideal from the perspective of Heat management. Wade was set to be paid $20.2 million in 2014-15; although the 32-year-old shooting guard is still one of the best players in the league at his position when healthy, he played just 54 games last year and struggled in Miami's loss to San Antonio during the Finals. His prime earning years are behind him, and he will likely be looking at a pay cut if the "Big 3" do return together next season. Similarly, Bosh was set to make $20.6 million in 2014-15; although he remains one of the best power forwards in the league, it would have been next to impossible for the Heat to add roster pieces of significance if Bosh and/or Wade continue to receive those major, per-year commitments.
Haslem is facing a similar reality, albeit on a much smaller scale. The 34-year-old power forward played in just 46 games last year and was a non-factor in the Finals. In almost any other situation, a player in Haslem's situation -- at his age and with his dwindling numbers -- would have opted in to the player option known he would be unable to command anything close to $4.6 million next season.
The logical compromise here is for Wade, Bosh and Haslem to be rewarded with long-term deals that are worth more in aggregate than they are leaving on the table but that possess lower per-year totals. As a hypothetical example, Wade might trade in his $41.8 million over two years for a new four-year, $65 million deal, thereby increasing his total contract earnings but lessening his individual hit on next year's cap. Such a move would give Wade, Bosh and Haslem financial security and the ability to compete for a championship with James leading the way, while it would free up valuable cap dollars that could be spent retaining James and/or pursuing other free agents.
Here's a quick comparison to illustrate the impact of the opt out decisions.
Option 1: James, Bosh, Wade and Haslem all opt in. Miami is already over the salary cap and can only fill out its roster with exceptions and minimum-salary players. Riley's ability to add impact players is severely limited.
Option 2: James opts out; Bosh Wade and Haslem all opt in. Miami's payroll is already approaching $50 million, without James, making it incredibly difficult for Riley to re-sign the four-time MVP and build a roster around his core group. Re-signing James to a max deal would actually bring the Heat fairly close to the anticipated luxury tax line.
Option 3: James and Bosh opt out; Wade and Haslem opt in. If Wade and Haslem had decided to put their own short-term earning power ahead of the Heat's flexibility, whether because of injury or age concerns, Miami would have had roughly $30-35 million to use to re-sign James and Bosh while also building its bench. In that scenario, it's possible that Riley might have had to sacrifice Bosh so that his salary slot could be split up and used on multiple players.
Option 4: James, Bosh, Haslem opt out; Wade opts in. Many had wondered in recent weeks whether a rough conclusion to the 2013-14 season would lead Wade, as Miami's long-time franchise face, to opt in and take his money while he can get it. Such a decision, again, would have put Riley in a tighter position, leaving him between $35-40 million to appease James, Bosh and Haslem while also filling out the roster. Again, it's possible that Bosh would have been the odd man out in that scenario.
Option 5: James, Bosh, Wade and Haslem all opt out. In this scenario, as it has reportedly played out, Riley now has the largest possible pie to divvy up between his players. Hypothetically speaking, if Bosh and Wade are willing to re-sign multi-year deals that pay them in the neighborhood of $15 million each next season, and Haslem will take $3 million, that leaves $20+ million for James, with some room left over for chasing free agents. If James was also willing to concede some salary, Miami could even find itself with enough open cap space to add an impact free agent before turning to its exceptions.
There's clearly still plenty of haggling to be done on how the slices should be divided, and it remain an open question whether Bosh and Wade are willing to make serious financial concessions. The point, at least for now, is that all options are on the table for Riley. His hands won't be tied by any of his stars' current contracts, which is good news for Heat fans who are hoping for a fifth straight Finals appearance and the third title of the "Big 3" era.