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The Olympics will make for an intriguing Miami Heat viewing experience, and for more than what Bam Adebayo achieves alongside an All-Star cast with Team USA.
Rarely ahead of the NBA’s most active personnel period of the calendar comes an opportunity for team to put on display two of its primary potential trade chips.
Based on what Precious Achiuwa achieved during his rookie season or what KZ Okpala did during his second, the two Heat draft picks exited 2020-21 largely as non-descript components who had fallen out of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation, with Okpala never quite there in the first place.
But then came signs of something more promising under Mike Brown with the Nigerian Olympic team in advance of the Games, raw athleticism finding its place during a series of exhibitions on the international stage.
No, NBA scouts won’t be rewriting scouting reports on Achiuwa on Okpala based on performance in the group stage at the Tokyo Olympics, but there is something to be said about a most recent impression creating a lasting impression.
Already, The Athletic’s John Hollinger, the former Memphis Grizzlies executive, has posited a potential Heat sign-and-trade with Achiuwa and Okpala that lands Toronto Raptors free-agent point guard Kyle Lowry.
And then, shortly thereafter, The Undefeated offered an interview with Brown that had the former Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers coach practically gushing about Achiuwa.
“He’s a unique talent from the standpoint that he’s a gifted, skilled player,” Brown said. “He can handle the ball, he can pass the ball and he’s got great size. But because of his quickness, his strength, his athleticism and his feel, and then he can be a $200 million player by playing the 5 because he can guard 1 through 5, and especially in today’s NBA game.”
Granted, Brown previously called Okpala a potential future NBA Defensive Player of the Year, so we’re clearly deep into Nigerian national hyperbole season.
But, still, at least someone already has taken notice of two of only five players the Heat currently have under guaranteed contract for next season. And if more take notice ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft or the Aug. 2 start of NBA free agency, then all the better for Pat Riley’s front office.
The counter could be that with the Heat lacking a pick in Thursday’s draft because of previous deals, and already with their 2023 first-round pick tied up, Achiuwa and Okpala represent the very type of youth that Riley needs to keep in the Heat pipeline.
But if Riley isn’t moving Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo, and if Tyler Herro is as off limits as Riley has stressed, then there has to be something of consequence to put into play.
At season’s end, save for the meaningless regular-season finale against the Detroit Pistons, Achiuwa and Okpala hardly were components of consequence.
Then came a second chance at NBA notice with a Nigeria roster that has legitimate medal possibilities.
Depending on how it plays out in Japan, the Olympic run could be brief enough to leave the duo with ample opportunity to rejoin the Heat for at least part of summer league, as anonymous in that backdrop as they were at the close of the 2020-21 season.
Or perhaps all that glitters will be enough to attract an inquiring eye, a team able to offer a talent more in chronological line with Butler’s impending 32nd birthday on Sept. 14.
What happens with Adebayo in Tokyo could leave the Heat center further polished for a run back toward something closer to the Heat’s march to the 2020 NBA Finals.
But what happens with Achiuwa and Okpala at the Games could prove transformative for the Heat when it comes to the NBA’s personnel frenzy that is about to move center stage stateside.
PIERCE-D PERSPECTIVE: Appreciating that the Heat tend to hold the perspective of Paul Pierce in minimal regard, the former Boston Celtics forward and ex-ESPN commentator nonetheless views the Heat as well positioned if the Portland Trail Blazers consider trading Damian Lillard. “There’s two teams off the top, that if you land Dame Lillard, you put yourself into championship contention,” Pierce said on the All the Smoke podcast. “There’s a lot of teams, but I’m saying best fit. I think of the 76ers because I believe they got the pieces that they can make a trade. Maybe Ben Simmons, who knows? There’s a lot of things grumbling over there, who knows? And Miami, the Miami Heat. I think they got a lot of young pieces. If you don’t get rid of Jimmy Butler, and you can just find a way to keep Bam [Adebayo], try to dangle some of them other little pieces, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and you can bring Dame in there, I think those two are realistic. I would really look into that.”
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DEPT. OF EX-HEAT: With the NBA in the midst of another abbreviated offseason, several former Heat players have lined up deals overseas. Former Heat first-round acquisition Shabazz Napier has signed with Zenit Saint Petersburg in Russia, with his most recent action having come with the Washington Wizards in 2019-20. Okaro White, the former Florida State forward who had his moments during the Heat’s 2017-18 revival, has signed with KAE Panathinaikos OPAP in Greece, after spending last season in Russia. And Daryl Macon, the former Heat summer-league guard who began the 2019-20 season with the Heat on a two-way contract, has also signed with Panathinaikos. Macon has split the past two seasons between Turkey and Greece.
SHOULD HAVE KNOWN?: With Giannis Antetokounmpo now an NBA champion, worth considering is how the Heat protected 2021 cap space last fall in case he decided to not extend his contract. In celebrating his title, the Milwaukee Bucks forward insisted leaving never was a consideration. “I just couldn’t leave. There was a job that had to be finished,” Antetokounmpo said. “I was like, this is my city. They trust me. They believe in me. They believe in us. . . . I wanted to get the job done. But that’s my stubborn side. It’s easy to go somewhere and go win a championship with somebody else. It’s easy. I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it and this is the way to do it.” Had the Heat known then what Antetokounmpo said now, the Heat’s 2020 offseason likely would have been decidedly different.
GIANNIS, TOO: Then there was Antetokounmpo comparing this season’s Bucks’ success to last season’s second-round 4-1 ouster at the hands of the Heat. “The bubble did not pay us justice,” he said. “Give credit to the Miami Heat. They played great. But they did not pay us justice. Everybody was feeling homesick. We are a family-oriented team and we wanted to see our families.” Or, it could have been that the Heat dominated the Bucks in the 2020 playoffs and were dominated by the Bucks in the 2021 playoffs.
AS FOR JAE: Because of the Heat’s uncertainty about Antetokounmpo’s potential availability, Jae Crowder was allowed to walk in free agency last offseason, signing on with the Phoenix Suns. That left him a 4-2 loser in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. “I’m just disappointed, obviously, I’m hurt,” Crowder said of again coming up two wins shy of a first championship. The difference this time is Crowder has two more seasons left on his contract. “Obviously, you can use this as a stepping stone,” he said, “especially for our organization to get back on the right path, our players to experience this early in their careers, it’s great for them, obviously, and I’m happy for them.”
15. Years since a team with an 0-2 deficit took the next four games to win the NBA Finals, which the Bucks just did for the first time since the Heat did it against the Dallas Mavericks in 2006. The only other team to do it was the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, against the 76ers.