Let’s just get it out there before it’s too obvious later on: I hate LeBron James. All my friends know it, and most of the time that colors me an uber-Laker fan that would pick Kobe as the better player even when the Black Mamba is long retired, confined to a wheelchair, and barely able to move around anymore. I don’t like LeBron’s ‘swagger’, the way he handled The Decision, how he’s been called King James since BEFORE he stepped on the court, how he’s statistically head-and-shoulders above most of the NBA yet shies away from taking charge in big moments… just about damn near everything annoys me about the guy. It’s clearly not all logical, and it makes me look like a nut who doesn’t appreciate one of the finest NBA players of this generation, but it is what it is. I respect Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh a bit… but not too much more than that.
With that said, I think the Big 3 situation Miami HEAT President Pat Riley (with a little help from Wade himself) was able to put together has been quite a fascinating experiment. In this day and age where the best players want to earn the biggest contracts, play in the largest markets, and be the undisputed leader of a team, the HEAT were able to get 3 of those guys to take (somewhat) less money in the short term to win together in the long term. So far it’s played out well enough to result in a Finals appearance in their first year together, and pending a possible 2nd appearance in back-to-back years soon (IF they can beat Boston… update coming soon). But for all the glitz and glamour Miami’s been showing off with their trio of superstars LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Chris Bosh there are some deeply troubling financial repercussions the team has been turning a blind eye to for the past two years… dangerous circumstances coming about soon because of the more restrictive language of the latest collective bargaining agreement signed in late 2011.
As mentioned in my previous posts detailing potential trades for the Lakers, the HEAT are also coming closer to dealing with some pretty harsh financial realities leading up to the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, when the new tiered luxury tax penalties and additional repeater tax penalties will take effect in each season respectively. All LeBron hate (and Bosh ostrich/dinosaur joking) aside, getting Dwayne Wade paired up with LBJ and Toronto’s only star ever has been a huge boost for the HEAT, in wins, merchandise sales, and digital media rights. But over the next few years these net gains might be overshadowed by much bigger tax penalties. Let’s take a look at what the Miami HEAT have on the books through the next few seasons:
This past season the team managed to make some smart moves in scraping up some cheap veterans (Howard, Ilgauskas, House, and Curry) to bolster the bench while avoiding overpaying for them. While it’s been a mix of effectiveness, getting these players at different times didn’t cut harshly into the team’s total salary. While other role players including Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, and Shane Battier were arguably overpaid ($12 million for those 3 average players this season alone!) their presence was less than the individual earnings of just one of the Big 3. For 2011-12 LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh earned a combined $47.6 million, which amounted to 59.2% of the team’s total commitments for the season.
While the notion of paying the bulk of your money to your team’s stars has generally worked in the past, in the coming years this is going to get even more difficult for Miami to handle. Already the Big 3’s salaries are going to balloon to a combined $52.1 million in 2012-13 and then $56.7 million in 2013-14, which leaves the HEAT with little to no room for picking up anything beyond more cheap veteran players. Accounting for the contracts of some of the less-than-productive players like Miller, Joel Anthony, and Shane Battier makes trading them for cheap talent nearly impossible, especially with only Battier for sure done in 2013-14. Anthony and Miller have player options in 2014-15 totaling $10.4 million which they would be insane if they didn’t exercise… which just happens to be the first year of the dreaded repeater taxes (ouch!). Having a few good-to-great players still on relatively cheap contracts given their productivity helps ease the pain a bit (I’m looking at you Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem), but the ‘savings’ on their contracts doesn’t overshadow the big rigs that are LeBron, Wade, and Bosh’s mega-contracts.
Nevermind you’re paying 3 guys nearly $300 million for 5 years of playing basketball. In short, if the Miami HEAT don’t trade or amnesty at least one of their Big 3 for several solid players (with more manageable and/or expiring contracts) they will be in a world of pain come the 2013-14 and 2014-15 NBA seasons. When looking at the HEAT’s financial commitments in the breakdown above you can see the team was so eager to lure a mega-squad that they promised player options to 7 players! Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, James Jones, and Joel Anthony are sure to snap theirs up in the coming years, promising to lock in mediocre talent the HEAT would be much better off unloading (and with no one wanting to help Miami, they will be completely handcuffed to) while if each of the Big 3 exercise their options in 2014-15 and 2015-16 (two subsequent player options, REALLY Pat Riley??) that will absolutely guarantee some financial squeezes sure to pile major tax penalties on top of each other.
As if that doesn’t sound bad enough, a sharp look at the numbers really hurts the head. The Miami HEAT are set to be over the estimated $70.3 million punitive tax cap almost EVERY YEAR over the next few years even without adding/replacing any existing players. In the current team commitments:
- 2012-13 – $78,522,600 team salary commitments = $8,222,600 over punitive tax cap
- 2013-14 – $75,781,000 team salary commitments = $5,481,000 over punitive tax cap
- 2014-15 – $76,248,000 team salary commitments = $5,948,000 over punitive tax cap
- 2015-16 – $65,785,000 team salary commitments = not over punitive tax cap
But none of that accounts for the key problem: The team doesn’t have enough players signed next year onwards, and adding additional (quality) players is going to push them deeper into tax penalties. Oh and there’s those tier penalties and repeater tax issues coming up soon too, so that will hamstring you even further. In short, the Miami HEAT are looking pretty screwed constructed as is. Assuming the team doesn’t lose any of the players on contracts going forward (if no one will trade for them), adds the MINIMUM number of players for the team to play each year (12) with a mix of small-to-medium sized contracts averaging $3 million each, and opts to keep the Big 3 together, here’s the new financial headache:
Even at these threadbare fantasy standards the share of total salary will continue to creep up for the star trio, making it completely financially unrealistic (and untenable) situation for the HEAT. Oh and let’s not forget the ‘rules’ for dealing with tax penalties in the coming years:
So where would that put the Miami HEAT over the next few seasons if playing by the ‘bare minimum’ rules? Check it out:
That’s right, when combining the total owed salary, the current tax penalties, the ‘new’ tax penalties starting in 2013-14 ($3.25 per $1 when $15 million or more over the tax level), and the ‘new’ repeater tax rates in 2014-15 ($3.25 per $1 when $15 million or more over the tax level in consecutive years)… you’re looking at a $1.2 BILLION price tag to keep LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh together for just 4 MORE SEASONS. Clearly, changes must happen because there is just no way the HEAT’s ownership are willing to spend that much money with little chance of recovering a profit, even with such superstars headlining your team.
So now the real question is what do the Miami HEAT do to cut back on salary while still remaining competitive? The answer might be somewhere in the midst of the Big 3. While the notion of trading one or two of the Big 3 away is pleasing/shocking to most NBA fans (and absolute blasphemy to HEAT fans that have enjoyed just 2 years of them together), it’s truly the only viable option for the team, and one that must be explored sooner rather than later.
The HEAT, having endured the relentless criticism and accusations of player tampering to get him, are not going to even think about putting LeBron James on the trade block, nor should they. Despite frequent criticisms about LeBron’s inability to close out close games, or even take over when needed, he has been one of the most durable and dynamic all-around players in a strong generation of superstars. He has the highest player efficiency rating (PER) of any NBA player, the 3rd highest scorer this season, and in 8 years in the league transformed the title chances of two teams– leading each into the Finals with his other-worldly style of play. I may dislike him personally but I can’t deny how LeBron’s extreme love him/hate him polarity amongst fans is only matched by the on-another-level stats and be a game-changer. Unless James demands otherwise (or he does not opt into either of this player option years) expect him to stay a member of the HEAT for some time.
Looking at the pure player statistics alone it looks like Chris Bosh is the most viable candidate between the 3 all-stars. His lower scoring average and PER alone seem to designate him the top trade candidate, but a deeper analysis indicates otherwise. Bosh’s scoring, rebounds, and PER have all dipped slightly since coming over from the Raptors– expected changes when going from being the top player on Toronto to the 2nd/3rd option on a star-studded team. However, his ability for versatile post/elbow play, strong mid-range shooting, and only true inside presence (who else do they have? Eddy Curry or Joel Anthony? PLEASE!) make him a key component for Miami. The HEAT have lost key games in the 2012 playoffs with Bosh playing hurt or sitting out entirely, and without his notable inside presence the team has no way to push back against opponents with several strong post players (Lakers, Celtics, Thunder, Spurs). While LeBron and Wade both need the ball often to be effective, Bosh knows how to play off of it much better, focus on inside and mid-range defense, and can even create more scoring opportunities for his teammates by helping to move the ball around.
Which brings us to Dwayne Wade. In a league where business comes first and team/player loyalty is increasingly looked at second, the HEAT’s longest tenured star (and winner of 1 NBA Championship) might have ultimately brought about the end of his own career in Miami by luring LeBron and Bosh over. Though no aging veteran by any means just quite yet, there is no doubt that several major factors point to Wade as the most likely (and most tradeable) asset the HEAT have to send packing. At 30 years old Dwayne is older than either of the other two players, and as a guard who relies on speed already starting to show some slowdown on the court. A rash of minor leg and back injuries are starting to take their toll on him, with the added nuisance of migraines forcing him to wear special glasses not too long ago– a chronic issue sure to rear it’s ugly head again soon. With a 22.1 scoring average and 26.37 PER this season Dwayne Wade is still an incredibly efficient and explosive player, but one that (as every NBA expert has pointed out) need the ball in his hands to truly be effective. While playing without the ball in his hands for most of the game works for Bosh, in the current Miami system both LeBron and Wade can’t best at their best levels unless they are coordinating the offense, and we’ve already touched upon why LeBron is the smarter horse to hitch your wagon to for the future of the franchise.
Trading Dwayne Wade would be an incredibly painful and ironic decision for Miami to make, but one that is necessary to save on well over a BILLION dollars of the next 5-years’ worth of total team costs. While his stock is still riding high the HEAT could trade him to a team in dire need of a superstar, and has a solid combination of solid veterans, young talent, and expiring contracts to offer in return. The young talent would provide Miami with future contributors with cheap contracts, role playing veterans could fill the inside presence and ‘taking the load off LeBron’s shoulders’ scoring needs, and expiring contracts could wash away unwanted extra money owed over the next few years, making it easier to cut back on luxury and repeater taxes.
While I can’t pretend to know the best team for Miami to work with, putting Wade on the market would definitely draw interest from nearly every team in the league. The greatest mistake would be for the HEAT to pull off a star-for-star deal, as that would simply lock them into another large, long-term contract for singular talent and run counterproductive to getting multiple pieces back. Teams such as the Houston Rockets (with Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola, and Kevin Martin), the Indiana Pacers (with Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Roy Hibbert), and Detroit Pistons (with Will Bynum, Greg Monroe, and Tayshaun Prince), might not sound glamorous but they would have solid players to exchange for superstar Wade– and they can all use a huge name to lure attention to their flagging franchises. The Brooklyn Nets would more than likely be interested in having Dwayne Wade headline their new start in New York, but short of a sign-and-trade including Deron Williams (which would, as mentioned above, run against good sense) just wouldn’t come together.
The Charlotte Bobcats might be an interesting thought, since it would place Wade on the team owned by his idol Michael Jordan, help turn the pathetic franchise around, and bring the HEAT a young piece in Kemba Walker, and the expiring contracts of DeSagana Diop and Matt Carroll (or D.J. Augustin on the cheap). The Golden State Warriors (soon to be San Francisco Warriors in 2017-18) would be another interesting partner if they’d be willing to ship out beloved Stephen Curry, scorer Klay Thompson, and a few draft picks. Again, plenty of options are possible for the Miami HEAT, but keeping the Big 3 together over the next few years simply isn’t one of them.