As NBA teams worked to put together their best trade packages to add Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant, the Miami Heat learned early in free agency that it was losing one of the most important players from last season’s roster.
Forward P.J. Tucker is not returning to the Heat. Instead, Tucker will join an Eastern Conference rival in the Philadelphia 76ers, a league source confirmed to the Miami Herald shortly after free-agent negotiations were allowed to begin Thursday at 6 p.m.
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported the value of Tucker’s new fully guaranteed contract with the 76ers will be $33 million over three years.
The Heat is now left trying to fill the void Tucker, who turned 37 in May, leaves behind as an experienced veteran who started 70 regular-season games and each of the 18 playoff games as its small-ball power forward.
Durant, who requested a trade from the Nets on Thursday just hours before free agency opened, could definitely help fill that void. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Durant has the Phoenix Suns and Heat as two of his preferred trade destinations, but it remains to be seen if Miami has enough assets to get this type of deal done with so many teams competing for the future Hall of Famer.
The Heat’s free agent options to replace Tucker in the starting lineup are limited. Among the top forwards in this year’s free agent class still available are Otto Porter Jr., T.J. Warren, Cody Martin and its own free agent in Caleb Martin.
Aside from Durant, there are other options the Heat can turn to on the trade market. Small-ball forwards on expiring contracts such as Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes (expiring contract with $18.4 million salary for 2022-23 season) and Phoenix’s Jae Crowder ($10.2 million salary for 2022-23 season) are intriguing possibilities, and Atlanta’s John Collins (entering second season of five-year, $125 million deal) has also been linked to the Heat as a potential trade target.
Like most players, Tucker was looking for the most guaranteed money possible at this late stage of his career and the Heat drew a line as to how far it was willing to go to re-sign him.
According to multiple sources close to the situation, the Heat was willing to offer Tucker a fully guaranteed contract for the maximum-allowable three years using the non-Bird exception. The deal would have included a starting salary of $8.4 million and been worth about $26.5 million over three seasons.
But the Heat was not willing to use the $10.5 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception to re-sign Tucker, according to sources, which would have allowed Miami to offer him a three-year contract worth about $33 million. Instead, Philadelphia used the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to sign Tucker to such a deal.
The Heat’s coaching staff and front office wanted Tucker back and understood his value as an experienced veteran who served as a quality versatile defender who fit right into the team’s switch-heavy defense and also was important to the offense because of his screening, three-point shooting from the corners and playmaking in certain situations.
Heat star Jimmy Butler made it known publicly and behind scenes to the organization how much he respects Tucker, and Heat players lobbied Tucker to return. But it didn’t work, as Tucker took the bigger offer to reunite with former Houston Rockets teammate James Harden in Philadelphia.
Tucker averaged 7.6 points on 41.5 percent shooting from three-point range, 5.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists in his lone season with the Heat.
Tucker put together one of the best seasons of his NBA career as a Heat starter, averaging his most points per game since 2015-16, shooting his highest percentage from the field since his rookie season when he played in just 17 games in 2006-07, shooting a career-best percentage from three-point range, while averaging his most assists and posting his highest usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while on the court) since 2015-16.
Why did the Heat stop short of offering Tucker a fully guaranteed three-year contract using the $10.5 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception?
First, Tucker is 37 and the deal would end in a year that he turns 40.
Second, such a contract would significantly limit what else the Heat can do in free agency this year. Because using the $10.5 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception on Tucker would not only hard cap the Heat at the apron that’s expected to be set around $157 million, but it would also eliminate the biggest offer it could make to re-sign Martin or add an outside free agent.
If the non-taxpayer midlevel exception is used on Tucker, the most lucrative offer the Heat could make to Martin or any outside free agent would be using the $4.1 million biannual exception. But the biggest factor could be the Heat’s reluctance to trigger the hard cap because of how much it would limit the organization’s flexibility in the trade market in the coming months.
While Tucker is gone, the Heat is bringing back guard Victor Oladipo. Taking advantage of Oladipo’s Bird rights, Charania reported that Miami will sign him to a one-year, $11 million deal.
The Heat also used early Bird rights to retain veteran center Dewayne Dedmon on a two-year, $9 million deal, a league source confirmed to the Miami Herald.
With Tucker committing to the 76ers and Dedmon and Oladipo returning, only three players from the Heat’s season-ending roster remain available in free agency: Udonis Haslem and Markieff Morris are unrestricted free agents, and Martin is a restricted free agent.
The Heat’s current salary-cap breakdown for next season includes 12 players: Butler ($37.7 million), Bam Adebayo ($30.4 million), Kyle Lowry ($28.3 million), Duncan Robinson ($16.9 million), Oladipo ($11 million), Tyler Herro ($5.7 million), Dedmon ($4.3 million), Nikola Jovic (projected $2.2 million), Max Strus ($1.8 million), Gabe Vincent ($1.8 million), Omer Yurtseven ($1.8 million) and Haywood Highsmith (non-guaranteed $1.8 million).
Not including cap holds, the Heat has about $143.7 million committed to salaries for next season with the NBA setting the 2022-23 salary cap at $123.7 million, luxury-tax threshold at $150.3 million and potential hard-cap apron at $157 million.
The Heat is operating as an over-the-cap team in free agency this offseason since it does not hold cap space. That means Miami needs to add free agents by using either the power of Bird rights, one of the two midlevel exceptions, the bi-annual exception, a minimum contract or a sign-and-trade transaction.
NBA teams are allowed to carry up to 20 players under contract in the offseason and preseason, a total that does not include those on summer league contracts. Rosters must be cut to a maximum total of 17 players (15 on standard contracts and two on two-way contracts) by the start of the regular season.
While negotiations were allowed to begin Thursday evening, free agents can’t formally sign their new contracts until Wednesday at 12:01 p.m.