Heat could be big players in summer of 2014

Miami has its core intact for next season, but after the summer of 2014 things could look different. Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

In the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure, the Los Angeles Lakers have been looking forward to 2014, when their options could be wide with a deep free-agent class and perhaps as much as $50 million in salary-cap room.

But there could be another huge player in free agency next summer, another destination team with a championship pedigree: The Miami Heat.

That may be hard to fathom at the moment because the Heat currently have a payroll of more than $80 million and a large luxury-tax bill that forced them to waive Mike Miller last week. But as of now, there is a possibility that every player on the Heat roster could be a free agent next summer.

The Heat are an example of the difference between a team with a full cap as opposed to a team that is capped out.

That’s why it would be unwise to disregard the Heat’s options when it comes to looking at next summer. There’s a chance the Heat will have as much cap space as anyone to retrofit their team around the most-prized potential free agent, LeBron James, if he opts out of his contract as expected.

“When 2014 hits, we'll be ready to deal with that,” Heat president Pat Riley said after the season. “We're just going to keep everything very fluid ... we'll be prepared for anything, as we were in 2010."

The two-time champs know they will have 13 players back from this season’s title team for the 2013-14 season and Riley has made it clear he believes the status quo is the way to go as they attempt to establish a dynasty. But a year from now, the shape of the Heat roster is a bit of a mystery. Depending on the health of their core players and their competition for James, that could turn out to be a good thing. The roster is aging, but because of the flexibility of the contracts on the books, it’s not necessarily a roster they are locked into.

First, James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all have opt-out clauses in their contracts. That represents a $61 million portion of the team’s salary cap for 2014-15. It is hard to predict what each player will do because much will depend on health, the success of the team and other variables. But all three very well could opt out to re-do their contracts to assure more guaranteed years.

All three are earning less than the maximum salary and it is possible they could seek raises. However, all three have already shown a willingness to work with the front office to structure their deals in a way that will allow more flexibility.

In addition, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, James Jones and Rashard Lewis all are headed into the final year of their contracts. Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Chris Andersen all have player options. Norris Cole has a team option.

Even if Haslem, Anthony and Andersen bypass free agency next summer and the Heat, as expected, pick up Cole’s option, the team still could have in the neighborhood of $50 million to play with depending on what the Big Three decide.

The Miller amnesty release last week was unpopular with some players and many of the Heat’s fans. But it did more than save luxury-tax money, it also cleared extra cap space for the future. No matter how the Heat ultimately proceed, they will have an opportunity to revamp the roster following this season. If James decides to stay, he can be a drawing card for younger free agents as the Heat may look to replace some of their aging players.

Over the past three years, players have repeatedly taken less money to play with the Heat, often because Riley has been persuasive in contract talks. The team also has assistant general manager Andy Elisburg, who has proven to be a shrewd salary-cap manager during his long tenure with the team that has allowed the Heat to pull off some maneuvers that have shocked the league several times.

While several competitors will plot to poach James and perhaps Bosh, the Heat may be able to convince their stars to restructure their contracts in a way that would allow them to add another big name. Much of that may depend on Wade, who already showed a willingness to take the biggest pay cut to make room for teammates in 2010.

Bottom line, the Heat could end up being one of the most interesting teams in next summer’s already fascinating free-agent game. Not just as a protector of their championship roster but perhaps as a hunter for a player or two who could help them stay on top for the back end of James’ prime years.

Riley has dismissed rivals' transparent attempts to chase James or get into an arms race with the Heat because he’s confident in how the franchise has positioned itself in the short- and long-term.

"What one other team does, I think it doesn't have any bearing on what we're thinking about," Riley said. "We're a three-time finalist. We won back-to-back championships. We've got our entire core back, signed, opted-in, and we're tickled to death with that."