Back in 2015, when Miami Heat President Pat Riley was a young, impetuous 69-year-old, still living on the edge, he tossed an unprotected first-round pick the Phoenix Suns’ way as part of a package to acquire Goran Dragic.
The gamble with that 2021 selection ultimately came at only a nominal cost, with the Heat securing a playoff berth this season, the No. 6 seed, and falling into the second half of the first-round order at No. 18, where selections are as likely to disappear as emerge.
Something ventured, something gained.
Now 76, perhaps a bit wiser and less spontaneous, there is another opportunity for Riley roulette when it comes to another Heat first-round pick, namely the 2023 selection sent out in the 2019 offseason as part of the cost of acquiring Jimmy Butler.
Prudence was practiced with that one, a selection that eventually made its way to the Oklahoma City Thunder. If the selection is Nos. 1-14 (the lottery selections) in 2023, it remains with the Heat. The same protections also are in place for 2024 and 2025. If it goes unclaimed by then (which would mean three successive Heat seasons out of the playoffs, something that only has happened in the franchise’s first three seasons at its 1988 inception), it would be unprotected in 2026.
But here’s the rub: A team is not allowed to trade future first-round picks for successive years. In other words, because the Heat do not have their first-round pick in this year’s draft, they are precluded from trading their 2022 first-round pick.
The problem with protections on the 2023 pick is that the Heat now cannot trade any of their first-round picks through 2027 because of the unknown nature of when that pick due to the Thunder will be exercised.
There is one way for Riley to unlock the team’s first-round future, and that would be to unlock the protections on the 2023 pick.
The Thunder, knowing that it would ease the Heat’s draft future, likely would seek to extract a price, even while the removal of such protection ultimately could yield a lottery selection, perhaps even No. 1.
“Anytime you negotiate with anybody that has an asset of yours,” Riley said at his season-ending media session, “you’ve got to find out what the cost would be. So we haven’t had those kind of discussions.”
When it comes to available assets, the Heat, at the moment, are draft-pick poor, with no unencumbered second-round picks available to send out. (Another irony: The Thunder own the Heat’s 2027 second-round pick as the result of this season’s Heat acquisition of Trevor Ariza from Oklahoma City in March.)
But the other side of setting the 2023 first-round pick free is that the 2022-23 season, at least at the moment, stands as one of uncertainty for the Heat. For one, Butler has the right to opt out of his contract in the 2022 offseason. For another, the only other Heat player under guaranteed contract for 2022-23 at the moment is Bam Adebayo.
In other words, the ’22-23 Heat is nothing more than an abstract for Riley, even as he has stated no desire to move on from his work.
“We don’t have any kind of understanding on anything,” Riley said. “OKC has that pick. It’s protected. So we’ll see what happens.”
The last two times the Heat were in the lottery, it was by a razor’s edge, in 2017 with Adebayo at No. 14, and in 2019 with Tyler Herro at No. 13. So there is something to be said about hedging such bets, even at the cost of future first-round flexibility.
From Riley’s perspective, his draft cup practically runneth over, taking a half-full outlook considering that after this draft, the Heat owe only one future first-round pick.
So even with all the picks first spent to secure the Big Three with LeBron James and Chris Bosh (albeit for extra seasons they did not stay), and then Dragic, Riley said he is not looking back.
But he also is not yet looking at giving away the insurance written into the 2023 pick (or at least hurting a potential negotiating stance with the Thunder).
“I think we’ve done really well in this decade,” he said. “We’ve given up a lot of picks. And then, if you go back and you think about who you gave those picks up for, when we had the Big Three here, we’d do that over again. I’d do the same thing for Goran.
“So now we’ve got seven picks out of our next eight years. We don’t have any second-round picks. So there’s no understanding on the ’23 pick.”
Actually, there is plenty of understanding, including the potential costs of setting it free.