Haywood Highsmith, Caleb Martin want to return. But Heat faces challenges in bringing them back

The Miami Heat is still reaping the rewards of its development of Duncan Robinson after he went undrafted in 2018. But the Heat’s development program has also produced undrafted success stories who have moved on to new teams after hitting free agency like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.

Strus and Vincent both wanted to return to the Heat last offseason, but the team’s salary-cap crunch led to both finding more lucrative contracts elsewhere and signing with new teams.

The question this offseason is: Will Haywood Highsmith and/or Caleb Martin be more like Robinson and stick around or will the Heat’s tight financial situation leave Highsmith and/or Martin signing elsewhere like Strus and Vincent?

Martin, who went undrafted in 2019 out of Nevada, holds a $7.1 million player option in his contract, but he’s not expected to exercise that option because he will likely get more money and guaranteed years in free agency. This would make Martin an unrestricted free agent this summer after spending the last three seasons with the Heat.

Highsmith, who went undrafted out of Wheeling University in 2018, is also set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer after first joining the Heat in December 2021.

Both Martin, 28, and Highsmith, 27, want to return to the Heat. But they also understand the Heat’s salary-cap situation will make it tough for them to get what they want if the front office remains hesitant to cross the second apron.

“Everybody knows I want to be here. I make that known,” Martin said. “That’s my goal is to be able to stay here, make it work. I want to be here as long as possible and for them to want me to come back. That’s my main goal.”

With the Heat holding exit interviews on Friday following Wednesday’s season-ending loss to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, Highsmith added: “I definitely want to stay in Miami. I love being here. My family lives here, my daughter lives here. So that’s a big priority for me, just to be around my daughter a lot. But I just got to figure it out and just take my time and understand it’s going to work itself out and everything happens for a reason.”

Here’s the issue: Unless the Heat sheds salary in a trade, it’s going to be challenging to bring even one of them back without crossing the second apron.

The only players on the Heat’s season-ending 15-man standard roster with guaranteed salaries for next season are Jimmy Butler ($48.8 million), Bam Adebayo ($34.8 million), Tyler Herro ($29 million), Terry Rozier ($24.9 million), Duncan Robinson ($19.4 million), Jaime Jaquez Jr. ($3.7 million) and Nikola Jovic ($2.5 million).

Assuming Martin doesn’t opt in to his $7.1 million player option for next season while Kevin Love ($4 million), Josh Richardson ($3.1 million) and Thomas Bryant ($2.8 million) all opt in to modest deals to return next season, the Heat has about $173 million in salaries committed to 10 players for next season.

When adding the projected cap hit of $4.2 million for the No. 15 overall pick, Orlando Robinson’s $2.1 million non-guaranteed salary and the $2.5 million in unlikely bonuses for Herro that need to be included for apron calculations, that number grows to about $181.8 million committed in salaries for 12 players for next season.

With the projected salary cap for the 2024-25 season set at $141 million and the projected luxury tax set at $172 million, that means the Heat is already a luxury tax team, above the punitive first apron of $179 million and not far from crossing the ultra-punitive second apron of $190 million with a few roster spots to fill for next season.

Since the Heat stands just about $8.2 million away from the second apron, re-signing both Martin and Highsmith would put Miami over the second apron.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks, an ESPN front office insider and former Nets executive, told the Miami Herald recently that he expects Martin to receive the full projected $12.9 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception. So, just retaining Martin would push the Heat above the second apron.

Marks also told the Miami Herald that he projects Highsmith “in the $8 to 10 million range,” which would also put the Heat right at the second apron.

Among the restrictions the Heat will face as a team above the first apron: Miami can’t take back more money in a trade than it sends out and it won’t be allowed to use a pre-exisiting trade exception. But the Heat will still be able to aggregate salaries in a trade and have a $5.2 million taxpayer mid-level exception available to use this offseason.

But crossing the second apron means the Heat wouldn’t be able to take back more money in a trade than it sends out, aggregate salaries in a trade or send out cash in a trade. The Heat also wouldn’t be able to use a pre-existing trade exception and would no longer have access to the $5.2 million taxpayer mid-level exception in this scenario. The Heat would essentially only have minimum contracts to offer outside free agents as a second-apron team.

“I haven’t thought about it much,” Martin said Friday when asked whether he has thought about the possibility of being too expensive for the Heat to re-sign. “Obviously, this is the time for some of that stuff to be thought about and conversations to be had. But, yeah, I’ll think about that.

“But some things, we’ll just have to see how it goes or they don’t have any answers as of right now. More just still kind of just appreciating the season. It obviously didn’t end the way we wanted it to. But just trying to enjoy that and just enjoy being here with the team and figure that out as it goes.”

The good news for the Heat is it holds full Bird Rights for Highsmith and Martin, which allows Miami to exceed the salary cap to re-sign them up to their maximum salaries. The bad news for the Heat is re-signing Martin and/or Highsmith could come with the second apron’s onerous restrictions.

The Heat is allowed to begin negotiating with Highsmith and Martin (assuming he doesn’t opt in to his current contract) on the day after the last game of the NBA Finals in June since they were both on its season-ending roster. Free-agent negotiations around the league begin on June 30.

“I definitely would say it just feels like family here,” Highsmith said of the Heat on Friday. “It’s all about winning, figuring out ways to win a championship, figuring out ways to compete for a championship. They’re not about tanking or load management, none of that stuff. They’re all about winning and I respect that as a competitor myself. Also, sometimes it’s tough love here. They’re going to tell you how it is, they’re not going to sugarcoat it. ... I love it here. It matches me, who I am and how I got here.”