Max Strus did not want to leave the Miami Heat in NBA free agency, but basically played his way out of South Florida with a luctrative 2023 playoff run.
CLEVELAND – It was, Max Strus now says in reflection, an odd dynamic.
As he and Gabe Vincent were helping lift the Miami Heat to last season’s NBA Finals, each realized their elevated play might make it impossible for the Heat to retain them in free agency.
The thought proved prescient, Vincent having moved on to the Los Angeles Lakers, Strus to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“During that process,” Strus said Sunday, “it was fun to play well. But at the same time, it was, ‘This is the end of it here.’ It was fun while it lasted. But unfortunately things had to go the way they did.”
That, as a result, will have Strus as a Heat opponent Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, when his Cavaliers host the Heat, the first meeting since Strus departed in free agency.
It will be a reunion borne out of the realities of the NBA salary cap and luxury tax, with Strus departing for a four-year, $62.3 million contract, after earning $1.8 million in his final season with the Heat.
“Obviously the success we had there and the fun we had and making it as far as we did, you don’t want to leave, you want to run it back with those guys and the team you had, because you were so successful,” he said. “So I think a little bit of me was kind of thinking I was going back, somehow, some way it was going to work out. But when you really get down to the business side of it and look at numbers and things like that, it’s cut and dried that you’re not going to come back.”
With Vincent, the Heat attempted a counteroffer of $34 million over four years to the Lakers’ $33 million over three. With Strus, there was no counteroffer, with Duncan Robinson already in place replicating some of what Strus offered.
“There was nothing really that anybody could do,” Strus said. “The way the money worked, I didn’t take anything personally. I would like to think that if it were possible, that they would have wanted me there, still. I didn’t take anything personal.
“It is what it is, and we moved on. I was able to get what I deserved and be on another playoff team. So I’m very happy how everything worked out.”
So, at 27, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward finds himself amid a new culture. Appreciative of what the Heat and Erik Spoelstra offered after he went undrafted out of DePaul in 2019 and then was unable to kickstart his NBA career with the Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls.
“I’m very grateful and fortunate enough that I had the chance to learn from Spo, to learn from the culture that’s created in Miami,” he said, “because I think it made me a better pro and is going to make me a better pro the rest of my career.”
Now there is the pressure of a significant contract, in a way similar to what Robinson dealt with after signing his five-year, $90 million Heat contract. Now a number is attached to Strus’ name.
“I know that whatever I do is going to be a positive,” he said. “I don’t think that the number of anything determines who you are. I think everybody’s going to have their opinions. But as long as our team is winning and we’re playing well, it’s not all about me.”
And, yet, to a degree, with early-season injuries to Cavaliers teammates Jarrett Allen, Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley and Darius Garland, it has been about Strus. And there have been tangible results, including a 27-point, 12-rebound game on opening night, a 21-point, 11-rebound game three days later, and five games with four or more 3-pointers.
“There definitely was an expectation that they knew what I was capable of,” he said. “They knew the player I am. And they went and got me for that reason. I’m happy with my role right now. With the injuries we’ve had, I’ve had to do a little bit more and things you haven’t seen me do before on a nightly basis, which has been fun for me. And I’m getting more comfortable game by game being put in those situations.
“They’ve definitely asked for more. But you can’t shy away from it. I want more, I want that. It’s been very gratifying being there, and showcasing everything I can do and having the trust.”
And, yet, still, a bit of nostalgia about the place where a career was revived and then lifted to ultimate playoff heights.
“I do miss ’em. Those are my guys,” Strus said. “But I’m in a new place now. We were very close. It’s going to be fun to see them, but weird to compete against them. So reconnect and then flip that switch. It’ll probably be tough to do that, but I’m sure once the game starts my competitive edge will kick in and I’ll be just fine.”