The best part of the NBA playoffs is that the focus is singular: Win four games against an opponent and move on. It pushes everything else to the side.
Unless. Unless the numbers get in the way.
In essence, that's what happened at the start of this postseason, and in a good way for the Miami Heat, when word came out that business has been particularly good in the NBA this season, with the salary cap expected to rise 7.7 percent next season.
Actually, that part of the equation is secondary to the Heat, with it likely requiring an exodus by two of the Big Three to again begin working with cap space, something the team last did in the eventful 2010 offseason. What matters for the Heat is a commensurate rise in the luxury-tax threshold, the mechanism that cost the team Mike Miller last summer and threatened even more potential damage this coming offseason.
This past season, the tax threshold was set at $71.7 million. The tax line for next season now is expected to fall at $77 million. The Heat's 2013-14 payroll was $83.5 million.
Should the Heat again operate above the tax threshold, they would move into the onerous "repeater" tax, with any payroll above the tax threshold taxed at least $2.50 for each $1 spent. (As a matter of perspective, re-signing impending free agent point guard Mario Chalmers for next season at his current $4 million would cost at least $14 million in actual cash outlay if into the "repeater" tax).
Even at $77 million, the increased tax threshold offers no easy answers, when factoring in that by bypassing their June 30 early-termination deadlines, the combined salaries for LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are $61 million for 2014-15.
Beyond that, Udonis Haslem has a player option for $4.6 million, Norris Cole is due $2 million and Chris Andersen has an option for $1.5 million.
By that math, $69 million is accounted for by six players. By rule, teams must account for 13 salary slots. Filling in with minimum salaries, the Heat could barely stay below the tax. And while there annually have been quality players looking for championship shots even at the minimum, it hardly is the best way to replace the likes of Chalmers, Ray Allen and Shane Battier.
So what instead? A few thoughts:
It's only money: There is absolutely nothing prohibiting the Heat to again spend deep into the tax. In fact, if the Brooklyn Nets should push past the Heat in a potential second-round matchup, the ludicrous dollars spent by Mikhail Prokhorov might not seem so ludicrous to LeBron.
Wade's annuity: While there is little reason for Wade to do anything more than bypass opt-outs and collect the $42 million he is due over the next two seasons, he essentially can spread out his money and alleviate some of the Heat's tax concern by utilizing his early-termination option by June 30 and then re-sign for something along the lines of four years at $60 million (the league's over-36 rule otherwise would limit the Heat's tax savings with a deal longer than four years).
Keeping up with Jones: Then there is Haslem, who stands where James Jones has stood before, with a one-year hit that exceeds his contribution. By having Haslem opt out and then take multiple years, it would spread out salary in a more tax-friendly manner.
Reassess Cole: With the composition of the Heat, anything beyond the minimum might be too much for a backup. So is Cole a potential starter?
Seed the Bird: Should Andersen not pick up his option and instead return at the veteran minimum, it essentially would leave him with the same salary while effectively halving his tax burden.
LeBron's choice: Instead of evoking James' ire, sit him down with the upcoming free-agent list and let him circle his choice of players who might be available at minimal salaries (at his coaxing), and there could be plenty of suitable such prospects, including James Jones, Michael Beasley, Greg Oden, Toney Douglas, Shawn Marion, Ramon Sessions, Caron Butler, Jason Smith, Marvin Williams, Garrett Temple, Steve Blake, Earl Watson, Big Baby Davis, Wes Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Vince Carter, Jerryd Bayless, Andrei Kirilenko, Kirk Hinrich, Devin Harris, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva.
Summary: Can the Heat operate below the tax in 2014-15 or not that deep into it? There now at least is a chance. Pat Riley has proven efficient at recruiting. Now we'll see how he is with numbers.
DISCOUNT DOUBLE-CHECKING: For those who see Phil Jackson attempting a Pat Riley-like overhaul with the New York Knicks, they might be on to something, at least when it comes to discount pricing. Just as the Heat did with their July 2010 haul of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Jackson appreciates how salary sacrifice can ease the process, something impending Knicks free-agent forward Carmelo Anthony has said he would consider. "The group down in Miami agreed to take less money to play together so that's, I think, a precedent that's been set," Jackson said during a media session this past week. "Because the way things have been structured now financially for teams is that it's really hard to have one or two top stars or max players and to put together a team with enough talent you've got to have people making sacrifices financially. So we hope that Carmelo is true to his word."
STRAIGHT SHOOTER: In accepting his third NBA Coach of the Year award, Gregg Popovich spoke of his inspiration for the season in a similar vein to how he did during the San Antonio Spurs' first visit of the season back to AmericanAirlines Arena. "The way we lost in the Finals wasn't an ordinary loss. It was pretty devastating," he said of Ray Allen's 3-point dagger in Game 6 and then the Heat's victory in Game 7. "And we decided that we would just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way -- don't blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that's that, and you move on."
FOUNDED FEAR: As the Heat suspected, even amid scant playing time, Joel Anthony decided it was better to be locked into a $3.8 million 2014-15 salary than test the free agent market via his opt-out clause. That has Anthony back on the Boston Celtics' books for next season. The price for the Heat of unloading that salary was the Philadelphia 76ers' lottery-protected 2015 first-round pick (which otherwise will turn into a pair of 76ers' second-round selections).
OTHER RECOGNITION: There was a point when DeAndre Liggins thought he would be along for the Heat's championship defense. Instead, he was replaced before the conclusion of his second 10-day contract by Justin Hamilton. The consolation prize for the athletic forward was being named NBA Development League Defensive Player of the Year for his work with the Heat's affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Liggins, who was selected by a vote of D-League coaches, lead the D-League with 2.6 steals per game. He remains a candidate for a Heat summer-league invitation. Whether the award translates into a place in the NBA is debatable, with Stefhon Hannah winning the award the previous two years.
INTERIM STOP: Puerto Rico's Baloncesto Superior Nacional essentially is an interim spring league for players to bide time between overseas leagues and potential NBA offseason summer-league tryouts. Among those presently playing there are former Heat center Dexter Pittman, former Heat forward Antoine Walker, as well as former University of Miami guard Guillermo Diaz and former Florida State forward Al Thornton.
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