Apr 13, 2010, 12:15 PM EST
Based on the standings, it is understandable that the Heat is paying attention to the Bucks, Hawks and Celtics over the close of the regular season.
With Milwaukee, there is the matter of the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
With Atlanta and Boston, there is the matter of determining its opening-round playoff opponent.
Yet the Heat also is keeping tabs on Toronto and Chicago, and it has nothing to do with which will wind up as first-round playoff fodder for Cleveland.
As impressive as the Heat’s closing run has been, the long view long has trumped the 2010 playoffs.
Instead, it is about the next generation Heat, the one that Pat Riley plans to build around a re-signed Dwyane Wade and Free Agent X (with Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire the prime targets).
The problem is if that plan comes to fruition, there will be precious little remaining cap space and resources to round out the roster.
Enter the Raptors.
As part of the trade that last season sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to Toronto for Jamario Moon and Jermaine O’Neal, the Heat acquired a lottery-protected first-round pick from the Raptors.
The pick goes to the Heat the next season that Toronto qualifies for the playoffs. Otherwise, an unprotected pick will go to the Heat in 2015.
All along, the assumption was that the Heat would be getting that first-round pick this June from Toronto, especially after the Raptors acquired Hedo Turkoglu in the offseason.
As the season dragged along, it became almost assured that the selection would be at No. 15, the highest pick available outside of the lottery.
And then Turkoglu turned into a sloth. Bosh caught an Antawn Jamison elbow. And the Raptors reeled.
Now, unless Toronto can sneak back into the playoff picture, that first-round pick will be staying with the Raptors, with Bryan Colangelo reduced to lottery duty (ah, Secaucus in May).
Instead, as per terms of the trade, the Heat will receive Toronto’s second-round pick this June, as it waits for the Raptors’ first-rounder to arrive in a future season.
On one hand, this could turn into the lottery bonanza the Jazz is about to realize with the unprotected first-rounder Utah holds from the Knicks.
But for the Heat, 2015 is an abstract, when Riley surely will be retired to his Malibu beach estate.
It needs the pick now, either as a trade chip, or as cheap labor after Wade and Free Agent X eat up much of the 2010 cap space.
And so, while the rest of the league focuses on the top of the standings, evaluates the championship pedigrees of the Lakers and Cavaliers, the Heat’s attention is focused on the bottom of the scramble.
The Raptors have done just enough losing to maximize the value of that first-rounder to the Heat.
But now Toronto has no bigger fan than Pat Riley.
Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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