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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 08:   Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets goes for a loose ball against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 08, 2019 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 08: Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets goes for a loose ball against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 08, 2019 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images/TNS)

So where do the Miami Heat stand with Chris Paul? As casual spectators, while waiting to see what might come their way.

Unlike the team's pursuit of Russell Westbrook, when Pat Riley and his front-office staff negotiated with a proactive approach, the Heat have taken a more reserved methodology with the Oklahoma City Thunder's potential desire to move off Paul's contract, an NBA source told the Sun Sentinel.

With Westbrook traded from the Thunder to the Houston Rockets for Paul, the Thunder find themselves on a different trade track. This time, moving off such an extensive contract seemingly will require concessions of their own.

At this point, just as the Thunder wanted more in terms of prospects from the Heat for Westbrook, the Heat are seeking more than Oklahoma City is offering to offload a Paul contract that will pay the 34-year-old point guard $38.5 million this coming season, $41.4 million in 2020-21, with a player option of $44.2 million in 2021-22.

ESPN's Brian Windhorst addressed the subject on a SportsCenter appearance.

"When you talk about him potentially going to the Miami Heat, which is his preference, one thing I've been told in the talks: the fact that the Thunder hold the two of the Heat's first-round picks in the future - unprotected 2021, protected 2023 - makes this a difficult conversation because the Heat want those picks back," he said.

"The Thunder have expressed an interest in giving one of those picks back, but they would want another pick farther off into the future. So I do think that these teams have a lot to talk about."

The factors at play:

2021 free agency: An acquisition of Paul in addition to the free-agent contract given earlier this month to Jimmy Butler that pays $36 million in 2021-22 effectively would put the Heat out of play for a max-level 2021 free agent.

Greater clarity on the Heat's approach to 2021 could come into focus next week, when Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal will become eligible for a three-year, $111 million extension that would carry him past his 2021 free agency.

Should Beal bypass such a Wizards offer, it makes it more likely that Riley and the Heat would preserve ample space for a Beal play of their own in 2021.

Draft picks: A source familiar with the Heat approach to Paul stressed that not only aren't the Heat looking at any sort of pick swap, they likely would want multiple first-round picks to take on the 2021-22 season on Paul's contract.

While the Thunder only secured two outright first-rounders from the Rockets in the Westbrook trade (the other two were potential picks swaps), they also got out of the $47 million 2022-23 salary on Westbrook's deal.

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Therefore, by swapping out Paul for contracts that expire in 2021 (the Heat have an ample amount), the Thunder essentially would realize a $91 million savings from Westbrook's contract.

Because the Thunder hold those Heat 2021 and '23 picks, it is allowable to for the teams to re-work the protections on the selections, perhaps returning earlier picks for the Heat to maximize during Butler's tenure in exchange for later considerations.

Salary math: This is where, as with the bid for Westbrook, it gets a bit dicey.

Because of the sign-and-trade transaction for Butler, the Heat cannot, under any circumstance, exceed their hard cap of $138.9 million this season.

With the Heat currently operating just under $1 million from that total, it basically means the Heat cannot take back more in salary than is sent out.

The Thunder, by contrast, are operating at about $4 million above the luxury tax, seeking to get below the tax threshold for a season that appears unlikely to produce a playoff berth.

As with the Heat-Thunder machinations for Westbrook, this is another permutation that could require the importing of a third team into the equation, to absorb salary and possibly come away with a contributing roster component.

The possibilities: With Paul due that $38.5 million this coming season, among Heat contracts that could come into play that run two or fewer additional seasons (to afford the Thunder full cap relief for 2021-22) include the 2019-20 expiring contracts of Goran Dragic ($19.2 million), Meyers Leonard ($11.3 million) and Derrick Jones Jr. ($1.6 million), as well as the contracts with two years left of James Johnson ($15.3 million in 2019-20), Kelly Olynyk ($12.7 million) and Dion Waiters ($12.1 million).

The fit: Paul played at an elite level during his minutes away from James Harden last season, but also has missed at least 21 games each of the past three seasons.

The ultimate question could come down to whether the Heat view Justise Winslow as their point guard of the future, since an acquisition of Paul would effectively move Winslow off the ball for the balance of his contract.

Ultimately, what figures to matter most is how willing the Thunder are (or are not) to move off their trove of first-round picks, if at all.

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

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