Wrapped within Pat Riley’s end-of-season press conference were several comments about the importance of the NBA Draft, something that Riley’s Miami Heat haven’t historically prioritized. That, however, seems to be changing.
“The draft is important,” Riley said. “Younger players on rookie-scale contracts that can play.”
Throughout his 35-minute media session, Riley remarked about the league’s new CBA that prohibits the higher payroll teams from using key roster-building tools such as the mid-level exception, picking up buy-out players and aggregating salaries in trades. These restrictions make the draft the best resource to add cheap talent.
When asked what the Heat could be looking for on draft night, Riley said “Wing size and length and multiple position players, especially ball-handling players.”
The Heat will be picking 18th in Thursday night’s draft — an abnormally better pick for a team that just participated in the Finals. The last three times the Heat have come off a Finals run, for example, they chose 20th, 26th and 27th. After last season’s Eastern conference finals run, they selected Nikola Jovic at 27. This will be Miami’s highest pick since taking Tyler Herro at No. 13 in 2019.
“There are a lot of good players there,” Riley said.
There seems to be a shifting perspective among the front office when it comes to the draft. In the past, the Heat were willing to part with picks for veteran players, or even use future draft capital to unload unwanted salary.
In 2015, the Heat traded two future first-round picks for a then-28-year-old Goran Dragic. In 2017, the Heat attached a future second-round pick to shed Josh McRoberts’ contracts, and last season used another second-round pick to move KZ Okpala.
They’ve also flipped rookies they’ve selected on draft night to avoid having to roster and pay them, most recently with No. 44 pick Bol Bol in 2019. From 2011 to 2014, the Heat traded away every one of their draft-night selections.
But when presented with an opportunity to unload the contracts of Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson at February’s trade deadline, Riley and the Heat refused because it would have cost draft capital.
“We’ve done that (traded draft picks) in the past to shed salary,” Riley said when asked about what was available at the trade deadline. “I’m not interested in doing that right now.”
There’s also a shifting perception on what is available in the draft. On the heels of finding high-level contributors Bam Adebayo (No. 14, 2017) and Tyler Herro (No.13, 2019) in recent drafts (Riley called them both franchise “anchors.”), there’s a new appreciation for what young players can accomplish. Nuggets rookie Christian Braun was a factor in the Finals.
“This generation of players is more talented than they’ve ever been. Younger guys are coming in more finished, more polished,” Riley said. “I think our development program has proven that these guys can play if you expose them to big moments.”
There are several prospects that could be available at 18 that fit Miami’s stated need for wing length and versatility: Marquette’s Olivier-Maxence Prosper, Kentucky’s Cason Wallace, UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. and G League Ignite’s Leonard Miller have been mocked to the Heat by various outlets.
None of this is to say that the Heat wouldn’t part with the pick in a trade that could yield a superstar such as Damian Lillard but, as they showed in the Bradley Beal deliberations, it will take a player of Lillard’s caliber to trade what Miami is increasingly viewing as a valuable resource. That means that if Lillard isn’t available, the Heat are less likely to trade picks for even a borderline All-Star is the age, contract and fit isn’t perfect.
The Trail Blazers are reportedly committed to taking the best player available with their third-overall pick, and there is a growing sense that Lillard will part ways with the Trail Blazers, based on conversations with several league sources. The Heat pulled away from Beal negotiations in part to prepare for the possibility that Lillard becomes available. They have prepared a package, per league sources. Any deal would likely have to include Herro and the contract of either Lowry or Robinson, plus picks.
Trading draft picks isn’t off the table for the Heat, but it will take a lot more than in the past to get Riley and his front office to give them up.
With the NBA Draft set for tonight, here are some final lingering thoughts.
- As mentioned before, Prosper, Wallace and Jaquez Jr. are names that have been linked to the Heat in mock drafts. Jaquez Jr. has been mocked by both The Ringer and The Athletic, with The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor writing: “This spot with the Heat is the highest sources have connected him to, so for the purposes of this mock he lands here.”
- Two more names I’d keep an eye on are Michigan’s Jett Howard and Santa Clara’s Brandin Podziemski.
- The history of players selected at No. 18 isn’t inspiring: Dalen Terry, Tre Mann, Josh Green, Goga Bitadze, Lonnie Walker IV, T.J. Leaf, Henry Ellenson, Sam Dekker, Tyler Ennis and Shane Larkin are the last 10. Best-case scenario for the Heat would be someone like Mann or Green, who could be good role players on a contending team. The last All-Star picked at 18 was David West in 2003.
- There remains the possibility that the Heat could trade down from 18, with the Boston Celtics reportedly looking to move up from the 25th overall pick they acquired from Memphis in the Marcus Smart-Kristaps Porzingis deal. One trade that’s been floated out there is Boston’s No. 25 pick and guard Payton Pritchard for 18. Pritchard is making $4 million in the final year of his contract and could be a cheap way to add guard depth.
- What the Heat do on draft night could be an indication of what will happen with Gabe Vincent and Max Strus. Both are unrestricted free agents and are projected to receive offers around $10 million per season. As Riley said, the draft is a way to add cheap, young talent. If they select a shooter, it might mean Strus is gone. If it’s a ball-handler, there’s less of a need to bring back Vincent.
- Other teams that could be looking to move up: Brooklyn (picks 21, 22) and Charlotte (picks 27, 34, 39, 41).