Heat free-agent targets: T.J. Warren? Jae Crowder? The best option might surprise you

Mar 25, 2023; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (21) and guard Terrence Ross (8) grab a defensive rebound during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 25, 2023; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren (21) and guard Terrence Ross (8) grab a defensive rebound during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports /

With the NBA draft over, the Miami Heat will turn their attention to free agency. Teams can begin negotiating with free agents on June 30, and the Heat have plenty left on their to-do list.

First, Miami has to make a decision on seven of it’s own free agents. Gabe Vincent and Max Strus are unrestricted free agents and expected to earn annual salaries in the $10 million range after starting through an NBA Finals run. Midseason additions Kevin Love and Cody Zeller will re-enter free agency, Omer Yurtseven can be a restricted free agent if the Heat extend a qualifying offer (not a guarantee) and two-way contract players Jamal Cain and Orlando Robinson are also free to sign elsewhere.

The Heat do not have any cap space but can bring back Vincent or Strus using their Bird rights. They also have early-Bird rights on Love, and can pay him up to $3.8 million next season. There’s motivation on both sides to get a deal done. But with a payroll already exceeding $173 million (just $6.8 million away from the second tax apron) bringing back any of those three won’t be an easy decision for Miami’s front office.

Beyond their own free agents and trades, the Heat will be limited to veteran minimums to make additions to the roster. Bigger-name players like Kyrie Irving, Fred VanVleet and Draymond Green are off the table. A sign-and-trade for any of them is highly improbable, since the Heat would have to somehow stay under the $172 million hard cap in order to facilitate such a move.

A more plausible scenario is one where Miami makes a money-slashing move (trading a large salary such as Victor Oladipo, Duncan Robinson or Kyle Lowry into another team’s cap space) to stay under the second tax apron and unlock the $6.7 million taxpayer midlevel exception. It’s still difficult, but possible.

So with that, let’s take a look at some of the more gettable free agents available this summer.

T.J. Warren

The 29-year-old lost nearly two full seasons to foot injuries after establishing himself as a 20-point-per-game scorer in Indiana. Warren returned last season but looked rusty in 42 games with the Nets and Suns. His 3-point shooting slumped to 32.8%, struggled to make free throws and was noticeably slow on defense.

But Warren is young enough to bounce back, and the Heat could bet on him being better another year removed from his recovery and sign him to a minimum deal.

At 6-foot-8, Warren could slot in at power forward and offer scoring production and rebounding (he logged a career-best rebounding rate last season). In the two seasons prior to his injuries, he shot 44% on corner 3s. He may not be a starter at this point of his career, but could offer scoring off the bench or play next to Bam Adebayo in smaller lineups.

A one-year, prove-it deal in Miami’s winning environment could be exactly what Warren needs to resuscitate his career.

Mo Wagner

Wagner, the brother of the Orlando Magic’s promising young forward Franz Wagner, managed to carve out a role in Orlando’s crowded frontcourt rotation last season by beating out former lottery pick Mo Bamba for the backup center job. Wagner, 26, was productive last season, packing 10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists into just 19.5 minutes per game.

At 6-foot-11, 245 pounds, Wagner could be type-casted as the kind of forward the Heat have preferred to play next to Adebayo over the years (Meyers Leonard, Kelly Olynyk, Love). He’s not a versatile defender, but the Heat have managed to cover up for those deficiencies. Wagner also led the Magic in charges drawn last season (17), which is an obvious selling point for the Heat.

The Athletic’s John Hollinger predicts that Wagner will return to the Magic on “a longer deal for above the minimum, with some team flexibility in the form of declining money and/or non-guaranteed years.” That seems more likely after Orlando addressed selected perimeter players with all three of their picks in last week’s draft.

But perhaps the Heat can entice Wagner by offering more regular playing time — maybe even a starting role — on a minimum deal with a player option. In Miami, Moritz could be known as more than the “other Wagner” and increase his value. He would also still be playing in the same division and state as his brother, so he wouldn’t be far away.

Jae Crowder

Miami was the most-obvious landing spot for Crowder during his hold out from Phoenix before he was traded to Milwaukee at the deadline. Now a free agent after failing to play a factor in the playoffs, Crowder could reunite with the Heat on a minimum contract.

Crowder will be 33 next month and has seen his production slip since helping the Heat during their 2020 Finals run in the bubble. But he’s still a semi-reliable 3-point shooter (37.4% over the last three seasons) and is well-liked in Miami’s locker room. Though it didn’t work out with the Bucks, there’s reason to believe Crowder can still help a team in the right situation.

Yuta Watanabe

Size and shooting is a premium in this league, and Watanabe offers both. At 6-foot-9, 215 pounds, the 28-year-old broke out with the Nets last season, making 44.4% of his 3s. But with so many forwards now in Brooklyn, Watanabe could be the odd-man out.

The Heat could offer him playing time and the kind of fit that helped him thrive in Brooklyn, where he played off Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to get open 3s. No team generates open 3s better than the Heat, and Watanabe could slot in at either forward spot — potentially even next to Adebayo in the front court (although he’s just a so-so rebounder).

Pat Riley recent said the team is looking for length, versatility and shooting on the perimeter, and Watanabe makes a lot of sense if they could sign him at the minimum.

Damion Lee

If the Heat need to replace Strus or Robinson this offseason, Damion Lee is a dependable option. Lee is a knock-down shooter (44.5% on 3s last season) with championship experience and rarely makes mistakes. The 30-year-old would fit the Heat’s culture like a glove.

Most valuations peg Lee as worth more than the minimum salary, but it was surprising when he signed for the minimum in Phoenix after helping the Warriors to a championship in 2022. The Heat can only offer the minimum this offseason but, if Lee is available and willing to move to the East coast, the fit appears ideal for both sides.

Honorable mentions: Goran Dragic (could Dragic return and help carry the baton of Heat Culture after Udonis Haslem’s retirement?)… Darius Days (the Heat signed Days as an undrafted rookie last season but surprisingly waived him in training camp. Since then, he signed a two-way deal with Houston and was one of the G League’s top performers last season. The Heat could mend the mistake and bring the 3-and-D power forward back.)… Jamaree Bouyea (thrived as a scoring point guard for the Sioux Falls Skyforce last season. Could be added to the roster on a two-way deal.)

Next. Predicting where each of Miami's FAs will land. dark