MIAMI, Fla. — There is one $3 million golden ticket available. Depending on the perspective, it either is one with limited riches or one with the potential for the ultimate payoff.
In coming days, with NBA free agency opening Sunday, the Miami Heat will find out whether they are operating from a position of power in the process, or whether this still is a league where money ultimately talks.
There will be ample time for the process to play out, with the moratorium period needed to compute the 2012-13 salary cap and luxury tax to preclude actual free-agent signings until July 11.
For now, it's all about the courtship, and learning how far a contract starting at $3 million for 2012-13 goes on today's market, and how much of a discount free agents will offer in exchange for the opportunity to play for a championship.
Operating well above the luxury tax as well as the salary cap, the Heat enter free agency with only a single chip to offer beyond minimum-scale contracts, the $3 million taxpayer's "mini" mid-level exception. Should forward Mike Miller's back prove to be so problematic that he is deemed sidelined by the league for the upcoming season, there also is the possibility of gaining a $2.9 million, one-year injured-player exception.
For the Heat, there are plenty of options, but there can only be a solitary offer beyond the veteran minimum contracts that otherwise will fill out the roster.
Heat President Pat Riley said the Heat already have pared their wish list to a select few. While there will be several teams with considerable cap space or larger cap exceptions, only one enters free agency as a champion.
"There's a lot of room out there this year, but there aren't many teams that have a chance, really, to win a title," he said. "And I think a lot of teams, a lot of veteran players, might be interested in something like that. We've got five or six guys earmarked that we will talk to and then we'll see where it goes."
Most significant in the early stages of free agency is learning exactly what $3 million gets you these days.
It certainly isn't enough for top-of-the-market free agent such as Deron Williams, Eric Gordon, JaVale McGee and Roy Hibbert. But it is the next tier that intrigues, veterans such as Steve Nash, Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Chris Kaman and Ray Allen, veterans who already have cashed in and might be willing to offer that aforementioned discount in exchange for an instant title shot.
Then there are the likes of Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Antawn Jamison, Boris Diaw Kirk Hinrich, Marcus Camby and O.J. Mayo, players who might learn the new going rate for journeymen free agents in the NBA's impending move to a far more punitive luxury tax.
To Riley, it's all about the right fit, something he felt he accomplished with the addition of Shane Battier as this past season's lone prime free-agent addition.
Foremost, Riley said, it's about finding someone who complements LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, which essentially has been the Heat job description these past two seasons for anyone not named James, Wade or Bosh.
"It depends on the name, whether it's a big or a shooter or a versatile 3-point shooter/defender that's long," Riley said. "Whatever the name is will determine, and his experience and his talent level. It isn't any one player that can help us.
"I think if we could add a shooter, that would help us, because we are that kind of a team. If we could get a real big that had to be guarded and had some versatility, then we might try to go in that direction. If there's a 3-pointer shooter that's long and can defend, then you might go in that direction. So, there's a lot of areas you can go.
"There isn't any one specific thing. I just know that we want to find as much space as we can on the floor for Dwyane and for LeBron, for Chris to be able to operate."
Riley cautioned not to solely consider free agency as a means of upgrading the roster, particularly now that the Heat added a future first-round pick from the Philadelphia 76ers at Thursday's NBA Draft.
"Also, now we've got a couple of other assets that are tradable, the first-round picks and second-round picks," he said. "If, in fact, some kind of trade that was there that could really help us, we would be open to that. We're not looking, we're not exploring, but it isn't just the mini mid-level."