Heat on an expiring clock with two-way players, a countdown that stands at 27 (we explain)

WASHINGTON – Having eased their position against the luxury tax with last week’s trade that sent Kyle Lowry and a first-round pick to the Charlotte Hornets for Terry Rozier, the Miami Heat nonetheless still find themselves in a numbers game.

In this case, a numbers game that comes with a ticking clock.

As part of the NBA’s new collective-bargaining agreement that allows teams to carry up to three players on two-way contracts instead of the previous two, a provision was included pertaining to teams that elect to carry 14 players under standard contract instead of the 15-player limit.

The Heat are one of those teams.

Because of that, instead of each player on a two-way contract being limited to 50 games on the active NBA roster out of the 82 during the regular season, that number, while a team is at 14 players under standard deals, is 90 total.

For the Heat, that 90-game allotment is the maximum combined the team can currently activate Jamal Cain, RJ Hampton and Cole Swider (once a team goes to 15 under standard contact, the limit reverts to 50 games per player).

That bad the Heat going into Friday night’s game against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena with 27 remaining games to split between their three two-way players.

Out of the 90-game allotment, Cain has been active for 26 Heat games this season, Swider for 20 and Hampton for 17.

That total includes games the three were active, not the games they played. Entering the weekend, Cain had appeared in 14 games, Swider nine and Hampton eight.

Much of that action came when the Heat were going through a series of injuries, with the need for the three likely to lessen. Because of injuries and absences elsewhere on the roster, Hampton has started twice and Cain once this season.

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One of the toughest aspects of the limit of 90 active-list games are the games when the Heat’s two-way players are active but do not see action, as was the case with Swider with Wednesday night’s victory over the Sacramento Kings at Kaseya Center.

“It’s tough, because you mentally prepare like you’re ready to play,” Cain said of being active on a game night and not playing, as the two-way meter continues to run. “When your number is not called, of course it’s going to take a mental, emotional toll on you.

“But that’s the beauty of the game, because you’re still getting those mental reps on those games when you’re active, as part of it.”

The Heat have been here before, including during the 2021-22 season, when Caleb Martin, then on a two-way contract, was approaching his allotment of NBA days. With Martin by then a rotation player, the Heat cleared a spot on the standard roster for Martin by trading KZ Okpala to the Sacramento Kings in a salary dump.

The Heat do not even need to make a similar move to open space on the standard roster for Cain, Hampton or Swider, with a standard roster spot remaining vacant. There also could be multiple spots on the standard roster available should the Heat elect to trade away Dru Smith, who is out for the season with a knee injury, a move that would have to be made by Thursday’s NBA trading deadline.

The most likely approach to consider options with Cain, Hampton and Swider is for the Heat to wait until after the trading deadline to better gain an appreciation for their luxury tax and position under the NBA’s new luxury-tax aprons.

The Heat then could add a 15th player on a standard contract, essentially unlocking the balance of the two-way days for Cain, Hampton and Swider to the 50-game limit.

Typically, the Heat take such players and try to convert them to long-term, minimum-scale contracts with limited guarantees, to further guarantee the ability to continue such long-term developmental projects.

Once a player on a two-way contact reaches his limit on NBA days, or once a team operating with a 14-player standard roster runs out of NBA days for two-way players, such players are allowed to continue to work with the team at practice or move on to a team’s G League affiliate, which in the Heat’s case is the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Skyforce.

Cain, Hampton and Swider all have spent time with the Skyforce this season, with Hampton currently on such assignment.

Players on two-way contracts are not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

As for the ticking clock, Cain said you control what you can control.

“I don’t really pay attention to it too much,” he said of the game limit. “I’m just trying to get on the floor and make an impact. But if that day comes (to be converted to a standard deal), I’m praying for it, I’m hoping for it. But right now I’m just trying to focus on Ws.”