Lowe: Did the Heat and Rockets trade their way into the title chase?


The Miami Heat have risen so far over the past two-plus years, and came so, so close before Thursday’s trade deadline to building a team that would have really caught the attention of the three juggernauts in Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

A little over three years ago, with the Heat at 11-30, Andy Elisburg, the team’s GM, phoned Pat Riley to deliver a dose of realism: “Math is going to catch us,” Elisburg recalled warning Riley. It was his way of indicating that perhaps it was time to lean into a rebuild — for at least the rest of the 2016-17 season.

Miami won its next 13 games. The Heat finished .500, and missed the playoffs only by virtue of a tiebreaker. Riley doubled down on that team. He spent more than $160 million to retain James Johnson and Dion Waiters, and nab Kelly Olynyk in free agency.

The Heat won 44 and then 39 games over the next two seasons, and just one first-round playoff game. A premiere free agency destination was capped out for several years. They had traded valuable future first-round picks. On a podcast about 14 months ago, I said few teams had bleaker near-term futures. Few within the league disagreed. Even the Heat were worried.

But they kept grinding. The margins were all they had, so they worked them extra hard. The turning point came when Josh Richardson, the 40th pick in the 2015 draft, developed to the point that Philadelphia viewed him as a worthy centerpiece in a sign-and-trade sending Jimmy Butler to Miami last summer.

With Butler, the Heat had a star, but not one so good as to almost by himself represent a championship window. And then, almost all at once, the payoff arrived from the rest of that work on the margins. Players plucked from the G League — Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr. — became rotation mainstays, even starters. The final pick of the 2017 lottery became a 2020 All-Star: Bam Adebayo. Tyler Herro, selected 13th last June, looks like a potential long-term starter.

Riley saw all that — saw 34-16, including 8-3 combined against Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, Toronto, and Indiana — and saw a championship window, the most precious, fleeting thing in basketball.

He went all-in: Justise Winslow and two expendable veterans became Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, who was in the Iguodala trade early — and not a late addition, per league sources. Then the coup de grace: Miami Wednesday and early Thursday was deep into talks on an extend-and-trade transaction that would have landed them Danilo Gallinari from the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Several observers wondered if the Heat were getting ahead of themselves. Adebayo, their most important building block, is only 22. Flinging away every allowable future draft pick now would leave almost nothing with which to build when Adebayo entered his prime. Didn’t we just see with the New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis what happens when you try to rush the process around a young superstar?

But those New Orleans teams had no one like Butler — a star in his prime who ranks as something like the league’s 10th- or 12th-best player, with a bruising two-way game built for the postseason. On the flip side, the Minnesota Timberwolves are already learning the dangers of taking too long to surround a foundational young superstar — the mopey Karl-Anthony Towns — with a winning support cast. They sacrificed a valuable pick to appease Towns with D’Angelo Russell, though they also got off Andrew Wiggins‘ toxic contract and had already netted an extra first-rounder — Brooklyn’s in the coming draft — in Tuesday’s four-team trade. (Malik Beasley, also acquired in that trade, is a good player — and also in prime position to squeeze a big contract from the Wolves, who almost have to re-sign him.)

Miami’s gambit for Iguodala, Crowder, and Gallinari also showed a cool, rational recognition of what kind of team it really has. The Heat pre-deadline were good, but perhaps not as good as their record. They are eighth in point differential, way behind Boston, Toronto, and Milwaukee. Opponents have hit just 33% from deep against Miami, the lowest figure in the league; only Toronto and Milwaukee give up more 3-point attempts. Miami has hit 38% of its own 3s — second overall. Some pain was probably coming.

Robinson, Nunn, and Jones are wonderful stories. They are also young, and untested. They were unlikely to maintain the same level of play in the postseason hothouse. Would Robinson bob and weave into so many open 3s?

Gallinari was the perfect player to round out Miami’s closing lineup — the stretch power forward they don’t have. A finishing five of Goran Dragic, Butler, Iguodala, Gallinari, and Adebayo has a fighting chance against Milwaukee and the Los Angeles teams. (Adebayo is the prototype defender to at least give Giannis Antetokounmpo some trouble, though he might not be quite ready for that assignment in a playoff series today.) A bundle of good players with varying strengths would be waiting in reserve if Miami needed more shooting, defense, or ballhandling.

That team — the one with Gallinari — was worth mortgaging a big chunk of the future. If you always play for tomorrow, you never win today. Toronto striking with Kawhi Leonard a year ago reinforced the primacy of now.

Every team searches out the balance between today and tomorrow in its own way. Market realities matter. Miami and Oklahoma City were perfect foils. Miami can afford to play for today because it has a solution to tomorrow that is off-limits to Oklahoma City: superstar free agency. The Thunder would never risk being out so many future first-round picks. The Heat also have faith in their ability dig out from mistakes; they just did with a brilliant streak of front-office work and player development.

Talks between the Heat and Thunder focused on draft compensation, sources say. Oklahoma City already owns Miami’s 2021 and 2023 first-round picks, with some protections on the latter. If the Thunder coaxed Miami into lifting those protections, the Heat would have been free to trade Oklahoma City another future first-rounder.

It appears Miami would not push enough chips into the middle of the table unless Gallinari, a free agent this summer, agreed to an extension as part of the trade. As they telegraphed in their extension talks with Iguodala, the Heat are wary of committing any extra money to 2021-22 — and mucking up their cap space for the summer of 2021, when Antetokounmpo leads a starry free-agent class that could also include Leonard, Paul George, and Victor Oladipo. (The Pacers and Oladipo very briefly broached the subject of a contract extension before the season, but the sides concluded it was best to revisit later, sources say.)

Given Miami was really negotiating two connected transactions with two different parties, it’s hard to know precisely what sort of endgame scenarios were in play. But I feel confident saying this: It was probably possible for Miami to acquire Gallinari on an extension that ran through at least 2022 without surrendering any of Nunn, Robinson, Herro, and Jones. It would have cost the Heat draft compensation outlined above.

Again: It’s hard to reconstruct these things precisely. Without an extension done for Gallinari, it’s possible the Thunder and Heat never got down to final negotiations. But this scenario appears to have been feasible, and sources have indicated the same to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.

And boy, would that have been a masterpiece in threading the needle of playing for today without butchering tomorrow. Losing another pick would have hurt, sure. Losing Winslow stings a little considering the bounty in picks Miami turned down to select him. But Winslow’s health is a concern. Adebayo has also displaced him as the team’s bigger-than-usual point-whatever on offense.

Regardless, retaining four good young players would have left enough in the cupboard. Those guys are contributing today. They will remain as potential trade assets, though fatter contracts coming down the pike complicate that.

But those four — plus Adebayo — is enough youth to soften the blow of lost picks. Gallinari would have been worth it.

It didn’t happen. The Heat have to wonder now if they were too protective of that summer 2021 space. If they needed some in a pinch — if they needed to move Gallinari’s money — surely this front office could have found some way of doing so.

That said, those kinds of trades tend to cost a lot. When everyone knows you need space, you have no leverage.

For whatever reason, the agreement with Gallinari fell away, leaving Miami with Crowder and Iguodala.

The Heat are better today. They have cap flexibility this summer, and the opportunity to get into trade conversations should a star become available then. For now, I’m not sure they moved the needle enough to get into the championship conversation — to rise above the Toronto/Boston/Indiana/Philadelphia group. Miami is still in the thick of that jumble.

Miami with Crowder and Iguodala is more experienced and cohesive. The Heat are going to play crunch-time minutes with Adebayo as the only traditional big man on the floor. Before Thursday, those lineups were either too small — with Butler at power forward — or a little light on shooting, with Jones or Johnson in that spot. The trio of Butler, Iguodala, and Crowder provides a little more heft and two-way balance, and thanks to Iguodala, more playmaking. Miami can juice its shooting by playing one of Robinson and Herro in place of Crowder or Iguodala. They have a lot of options.

But the two-way balance isn’t quite what it would have been with Gallinari. Some of those lineups may not have enough shooting to scare elite defenses. Butler is shooting 26% from deep this season, and 33% for his career. Iguodala is unreliable from outside, though he perks up in the playoffs. Crowder has hit about 31% of his 3s since an outlier 2016-17 season, on a lot of wide-open looks. He routinely underperforms his expected effective field goal percentage — based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders — by one of the largest gaps among all players, per Second Spectrum data.

If Miami spent this week trying to pry open a title window, its co-winner in the Most Interesting Deadline Team race — the Houston Rockets — was shoving its fingers underneath its window as the top contenders shoved it down.

The Rockets have been all-in since almost the moment they acquired James Harden. With Clint Capela traded to Atlanta in the four-team megadeal that netted Houston Robert Covington, the Rockets now have none of their own first-round picks remaining on their roster. They have traded every one — and several future picks — in an effort to win now with Harden.

They are still facing an uphill battle. They sold a little low on Capela, and paid a premium for Covington — the perils of coveting a single player. Capela is good, but his role with Houston was already shrinking due to health and skill set.

Swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook changed the very fabric of Houston’s team. Harden’s one-on-one style can accommodate one non-shooter. Add a second, and things get dicey. If the Rockets were wary of overusing the Capela-Westbrook duo, then flipping Capela for a player they will use — one who fits what Houston needs, and how they play — makes sense. Covington is a willing 3-point shooter, and he will get the clearest looks of his life playing next to Westbrook and Harden. This move was less about size — some blasphemous intention to destroy traditional basketball — than skill.

The Rockets are going to play super-small, and launch an ungodly number of 3s. As is, about 44% of their shots are 3s — the league’s highest share. That number jumps to an even 50% with P.J. Tucker at center, per Cleaning The Glass, and it might jump higher now. Mike D’Antoni has often said his regret from his Seven Seconds or Less days in Phoenix is that he did not take the small-ball, 3-point revolution far enough. Now, he gets to oversee its natural endpoint.

Houston is going to try to make the behemoths of the West play on their terms. The Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, and Mavericks all rank among the league’s top eight in offensive rebounding. They will try to bludgeon Houston on the glass. Houston is counting on this: If you chase offensive boards and fail, we will be raining fast-break 3s before you know what hit you. The Rockets will switch and trap and double the post, and junk up the game. Their Tucker-at-center lineups force heaps of turnovers.

The formula has worked lately, including in Covington’s first game on Thursday — a win over the Lakers. Sustaining a defense good enough to get through the West stands as one of the biggest challenges facing any would-be contender.

Houston is 15th in points allowed per possession and 22nd in defensive rebounding. That won’t cut it. Its moves don’t appear to repair those structural issues. Covington is a very good team defender, but a little less effective one-on-one against elite scorers. The Rockets don’t have the size or collective defensive IQ of those classic Golden State switch-everything lineups. The Clippers with Marcus Morris Sr. on board have the versatility to play at Houston’s size, only with better defense.

Covington is under contract (at a better-than-fair rate) through 2021-22, so this move isn’t a full-on win-now gamble. Houston can keep this core together through at least that season, and maybe longer. Like Miami, Houston can count on at least being in the discussion for big-name free agents and disgruntled stars. Houston seems to get into every conversation. Just when you think the Rockets are out of assets, they spin whatever they have into something else.

It is hard to keep that up in perpetuity. The music stops. Core stars age. Too many draft picks go out the window. That is the price of going for it. It’s easy to win trades when you are rebuilding. It’s harder when you are a buyer, and when everyone knows you are a buyer, and when you are at least trying to balance the needs of the present and future.

These are brutal, wrenching decisions in the moment. Houston did what it could. Only Miami officials really know how close they got to getting everything they wanted.

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