Sometimes you have ample salary-cap space and wind up with Dion Waiters. And sometimes you have no cap space and land Jimmy Butler.
So the only predictable element for the Miami Heat entering Monday’s 6 p.m. start of the free-agency negotiating period is the unpredictability of the process.
That, of course, doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan. With Pat Riley, Andy Elisburg, Adam Simon and the team’s front office there always is a plan, one polished well in advance.
And this time around, there also appears to be a starting point, one the Heat stand poised to circle back to, with Toronto Raptors free-agent point guard Kyle Lowry a name that has been linked to the Heat since well before the March 25 NBA trading deadline.
At that juncture, Riley acknowledged trepidation about putting 2019 first-round pick Tyler Herro into play, stressing, “I think you have to be very conscious about what you do with your asset base and your youth.”
So the Heat stood pat, were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, and Lowry turned 35.
Now the market for Lowry has increased, with the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers linked to significant interest in the champion point guard.
What hasn’t changed is the Heat’s need for a playmaker to alleviate such pressures on Butler and Bam Adebayo, the desire for a backcourt defender who can deter dribble penetration, the hunger for a late-game shot maker to make it something less than Butler-or-bust.
So even with Lowry seeking a three-year contract that will pay him through his 38th birthday, the Heat stand at a free-agency tipping point.
Since the Heat’s Big Three era of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the free-agency recruitment process has remained aggressive, with the results uneven. There was facetime with Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward, but, ultimately, rejection. There was finality at first sight with Butler.
So if it’s as simple as Lowry, either through an outright signing into cap space or a sign-and-trade with the Raptors, then it becomes a matter of rounding out the roster, as was the case in the wake the Butler addition in the 2019 offseason.
If not? Then potentially a look at what could remain on the market at point guard, from Lonzo Ball to Spencer Dinwiddie to trade options of those already under contract elsewhere, with an awareness that the spot alongside Adebayo in the power rotation also has to be addressed with quality of a higher pedigree than what was in place last season.
Unlike when the Big Three were in place, there no longer is a single-addition solution. A core of Butler, Adebayo and Lowry would be an upgrade, but seemingly likely not enough to compete in the postseason with the Brooklyn Nets’ Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, or the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, as well as the emerging, Trae Young-led youth of the Atlanta Hawks.
It is the Hawks, in fact, who stand as an example that mid-tier teams need more than a singular boost, with Atlanta having elevated into the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with the 2020 offseason signings of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo (who was flipped for Lou Williams).
During previous moments when quantity also mattered for the Heat, the haul evaporated into the likes of Waiters, James Johnson, an overpay for the return of Tyler Herro.
Monday, if the commitment does not come as quickly for the Heat with Lowry as it did two summers ago with Butler, or does not come at all, an offseason of simple math will become something far more complex.