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Options & optics: Why Heat salary slash would be bad idea

Mario Chalmers has played 18 minutes in each of Miami's first two games.

Chris Andersen hasn't played at all, and wasn't even active for Friday's loss in Cleveland.

Some local and national observers have characterized each former Heat champion -- Chalmers twice, Andersen once -- as an unnecessary accessory on  the current squad, with youngsters Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson showing promise as combo guards, while Amare Stoudemire and Josh McRoberts have pushed Andersen aside in the frontcourt rotation. The Heat must have seen it that way too, because league sources say that both players were available in the offseason.

I've viewed it a little differently.

Now, after the start of this season, I'm more convinced that the Heat, if truly committed to contend, needs to keep as many of these useful players as possible. I'm more convinced as it's become clearer that Miami, without a current in-prime superstar, only has a shot to compete with the teams who employ one or two of those if it can overwhelm opponents with a great quantity of decent quality. 

I'm more convinced even though I entirely understand why Miami has explored paring down. The salaries of Chalmers ($4.3 million) and Andersen ($5 million) were based on prior roles, not current ones. Further, those two salaries push the Heat not over the luxury tax line (making Miami a "repeater" team subject to the corresponding financial penalties) and apron. Thus, the Heat's current salary load is not only expensive, coming with a luxury tax bill of roughly $20 million, but also restrictive, eliminating acquisition vehicles including sign-and-trades and the biannual exception. Dealing both Chalmers and Andersen -- and receiving nothing of current value in return -- would be the cleanest way to get under the tax line, unless Miami moves Luol Deng's $10.1 million salary somewhere. Since the league does its luxury tax accounting at season's end, the Heat could do this up until the February trade deadline. 

Still, all of those options strike me as unwise, because Erik Spoelstra will need an abundance of options in order to take this team toward the top of the East. 

Start with Chalmers. While he lacks Johnson's springy legs, his experience and familiarity with the Heat system, and particularly Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is helpful, especially until Wade and Bosh start to click with Goran Dragic. Chalmers is also a willing spot-up shooter, something the second unit needs, with Josh McRoberts and Justise Winslow shy to launch. He tends to play better with better players, which Miami currently has as compared to last season, so a bounceback season wouldn't surprise. 

Andersen? Well, this is really about Stoudemire, whose cheap signing was hailed by fans as great value, a point hard to dispute, but also downplayed by many league insiders who were concerned about his physical and defensive liabilities. If his Heat debut was an indicator -- slow feet, little lift, losing his man -- Spoelstra will be turning to Andersen and/or Udonis Haslem in no time. For rim protection, behind Hassan Whiteside, he'll need Andersen. You can never have enough playable bigs, not when Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are bringing Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, and Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, off their benches. And certainly not when Stoudemire is in the mix. 

But it's not just about the options.

It's also about the optics.

The Heat shouldn't be seen as skimping, not while also talking about contending. It certainly won't be pleasing or motivating to the players who remain around. Many on the team at the time weren't pleased when Mike Miller was amnestied after the 2013 championship, followed by the dumping of Joel Anthony during the 2013-14 season; the latter prompted shutdown mode against Washington that night. Fans won't like it either, even though most correctly view the Arison ownership experience as a huge net positive, by far the best in South Florida sports, with 16 playoff seasons in the past 20 and a remarkable record of stability. But for those South Floridians eager to promptly buy back in after LeBron James' departure and last season's disappointment, trading talent for tax relief may be a deterrent.

At the very least, it would be deflating. 

That's especially true in light of what's occurring in Cleveland, home of the team the Heat now chases. For Heat faithful, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is among the foremost NBA villains, and with valid reason. After losing James to the Heat in 2010 -- and demeaning James in a letter that qualified as one of sports' all-time temper tantrums -- Gilbert was one of the most outspoken advocates among owners for policies that would penalize teams for spending, in what Heat officials, among plenty of others, viewed as an attempt to eventually break up Miami's Big Three. 

Gilbert also objected strongly to the Lakers' acquisition of Chris Paul from New Orleans, when then-commissioner David Stern was running the latter franchise during its search for new ownership. We know because he registered that objection in an e-mail that leaked to the media. In fact, he called the trade a "travesty," rooted in a general belief that the league was becoming unbalanced in favor of premium markets. (The trade was ultimately nullified, though Paul ended up in Los Angeles anyway, just with the Clippers instead of the Lakers.)

But now, after James stunningly returned for many reasons unrelated to Cavaliers ownership, Gilbert is squarely on the other side of the NBA's power dynamic, already with one of the highest payrolls in NBA history -- one that will trigger a $65 luxury tax penalty -- and with a trade exception available that could escalate his spending over the $200 million annual mark. This, to some, may reek of hypocrisy -- again, with valid reason. Gilbert spoke Friday, during a scheduled press availability prior to the game, of how the television money has made markets more equal, allowing all to compete. And, thus, his spending is not only being celebrated in Cleveland, but also getting praised around the NBA, for giving Cleveland every possible opportunity to end its title drought, an opportunity he characterized as his "obligation." He has gone, as the team slogan says and he said again Friday, "all in." Pressured by James? Sure. Still, the endgame's the same: Gilbert comes off to the public as passionate and purposeful. This summer alone, he committed nearly $300 million in long-term cash.

Friday, Gilbert said his spending would be determined "year by year," wanting to maintain some future maneuverability. The Heat has that desire in common. Most teams do. But something else Gilbert said should be heeded by his archenemies in South Florida, even if that's not what he intended. 

"When you invest in something like a sports franchise, and you're in for so much....," Gilbert said. "I've sort of said this in the past, if you all of a sudden at the margins start pulling back, I think that may be foolish on a lot of fronts." 

Words can be wise, even if some consider the source suspect. 

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