Can Miami Heat Find Jimmy Butler a Co-Star?

Despite entering the offseason well over the salary cap, the Miami Heat managed to finagle their way into the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes.

The Heat landed the four-time All-Star in a four-team sign-and-trade after complications arose with the original deal’s structure. That move hard-capped Miami for the remainder of the season, which means it cannot go beyond the $138.928 million luxury-tax apron at any point.

Between the hard cap, a lack of future draft picks and an underwhelming free-agent class in 2020, it won’t be easy for the Heat to find a co-star for Butler during the next year.

However, their star-hunting outlook considerably brightens after July 1, 2020.

Since the Heat are less than $1 million away from the apron, they’d have to send out almost as much salary as they take back in any trade this year. Although they have plenty of salary-matching fodder—Goran Dragic ($19.2 million), James Johnson ($15.3 million), Kelly Olynyk ($12.7 million), Dion Waiters ($12.1 million) and Meyers Leonard ($11.3 million) chief among them—they can’t offer relief to any team looking to shed salary.

The Stepien Rule, which prohibits teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive drafts, will also be a roadblock for any possible transaction.

The Heat owe their unprotected 2021 first-round pick and a protected 2023 first-rounder to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which is lottery-protected through 2025 before becoming unprotected in 2026. Because teams can’t trade picks more than seven years into the future, Miami is unable to offer a first-round pick in any trade this season.

Making matters worse, the Heat have already traded away all of their second-round picks through 2026 (aside from a heavily protected 2024 second-rounder) as well. That means they’ll be unable to sweeten any potential trade packages with draft compensation until next summer at the earliest.

Butler signed a four-year, $141 million max deal, so the Heat may not feel immediate pressure to add a second star this season. Then again, Butler turns 30 in mid-September and has played more than 70 games only once in the past six seasons, which could increase Miami’s urgency to go star-hunting.

With Dragic and Leonard both set to come off the books after this season, plus Johnson and Olynyk able to opt out as well, the Heat were originally eyeing the summer of 2020 as their opportunity to make a big splash.

“In 2020, we’ll have a lot of room,” team president Pat Riley told Heat broadcaster Jason Jackson in February, prior to the acquisition of Butler. “We’ll also have the possibility to have enough room to go after two max contracts. And we’re going to do that. So, we’re planning that 2020 will be the room year.”

Feb 17, 2019; Charlotte, NC, USA; Miami Heat general manager Pat Riley during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game at Spectrum Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Butler gobbled up $34.4 million of that 2020 cap space, and Johnson ($16.0 million) and Olynyk ($13.2 million) could further throw a wrench into those plans by picking up their respective player options.

With next year’s free-agent class largely devoid of star talent outside of Anthony Davis—who will presumably re-sign with the Los Angeles Lakers—the Heat may have to turn their attention away from free agency and instead target the trade market next summer.

The Heat will no longer be hard-capped by July 1, 2020, which means they’ll have more financial flexibility in trades. Being able to take back more salary than they send out could help grease the wheels on a deal with a team desperate to cut costs.

Bradley Beal, who is currently weighing whether to sign a three-year, $111 million extension with the Washington Wizards, is reportedly chief among Miami’s targets on the trade front.

On July 1, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported the Heat had “engaged” the Wizards in trade talks for Beal. There is reportedly “sentiment inside the Heat” to absorb John Wall’s four-year, $171.1 million contract “if it would allow Miami to land Beal,” according to Jackson, although the hard cap would make that difficult this season.

Even if Beal refuses to sign the extension before the Oct. 21 deadline, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that he has “no plans to engage in trade talks” involving the two-time All-Star. With Wall likely to miss the entire 2019-20 season as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon, Beal is the lone beacon of hope for an otherwise rudderless Wizards team.

Although Beal has professed his desire to retire in Washington, he wouldn’t be the first star to pull an about-face as he inches closer to free agency. Hell, Kyrie Irving went from pledging he’d re-sign with the Boston Celtics to fleeing for the Brooklyn Nets in the span of nine months.

The Celtics are a well-run organization with plenty of promising young talent. The Wizards are, um, not.

Apr 22, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) talks with Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) against the Toronto Raptors in the second quarter in game four of the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Capital One Arena. The Wizards won 106-98. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In other words: The longer the Wizards wait to trade Beal, the more likely it is that they’ll have an Anthony Davis-esque situation on their hands at some point.

Regardless of whether the Wizards eventually cave and begin shopping Beal or he tests the free-agent market in 2021, the Heat plan to go after him either way.

An associate of Beal’s told Jackson that “he expects the Heat to receive serious consideration” if the University of Florida product does become a free agent in 2021. However, he “would not call the Heat or any specific team the favorite if Beal decides to leave Washington, noting other teams also would be considered,” per Jackson.

Beal isn’t the only star the Heat have eyed this summer.

Before the Oklahoma City Thunder shipped Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets, they discussed a trade with the Heat, according to Wojnarowski. However, talks fell apart for “multiple reasons, including the Heat’s refusal to trade Tyler Herro or two among Herro, Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow,” Jackson reported.

Chris Paul is another potential option, although Miami “does not have strong interest and is not aggressively pursuing a trade for Paul at this time,” Jackson reported in mid-July. To take on the remaining three years and $124.1 million on Paul’s contract, the Heat would need “significant concessions” from the Thunder, such as getting their 2021 and 2023 first-round picks back.

Unless the Heat change their minds on Paul, or the Wizards pull a 180 with Beal, Miami’s best option this season may be bargain-hunting for expiring contracts at the trade deadline. Dragic’s own expiring deal could serve as the salary ballast, although the lack of available draft compensation means the Heat would likely have to dangle at least Derrick Jones Jr. if not one of Herro, Adebayo or Winslow as the centerpiece.

Jan 21, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) dribbles the ball against Miami Heat forward Justise Winslow (20) and center Bam Adebayo (13) in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated Miami 107-99. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Once the summer of 2020 rolls around, the Heat can go big-game hunting on the trade market, whether it’s for Beal or another soon-to-be star free agent. And if they whiff next July, they could turn their attention to the star-studded free-agent class of 2021 instead.

Butler, Winslow, Herro and 2019 second-round pick KZ Okpala are Miami’s only four players under contract in 2021, while Adebayo will be a restricted free agent with a $15.3 million cap hold if he doesn’t sign an extension before then. If the Heat don’t add any more long-term money to their books, they could enter that summer with nearly $50 million in available cap space.

With the likes of Beal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Blake Griffin (among others) all able to hit the market in 2021, the Heat could be in prime position to grab a star free agent that summer if they don’t snag one beforehand. Given Butler’s age and the number of Tom Thibodeau miles on his legs, though, Miami may feel urgency to find him a co-star before then.

Because of their draft-pick and hard-cap restrictions, the Heat may have to bank on the internal development of Winslow, Adebayo and Herro this coming season. Nonetheless, whether it’s in 2020 or 2021, expect Riley to attempt yet another star heist to pair alongside Butler in the near future.