LeBron James is heading home with a 3-1 series lead that he damn near built by himself, and three things are clear.
1. The Heat will beat the Nets.
2. The Heat will then beat the Pacers (if they beat the Wizards) or the Wizards (if they beat the Pacers) or nobody (if the Pacers and Wizards run into each other at full speed and knock each other out, which seems entirely possible) to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year.
3. LeBron will be back in Miami next season.
He can't leave now, can he? Who leaves a title contender, let alone a team mid-dynasty, for no apparent reason? The only logical move is to stay in Miami. The question is how -- and for how long.
In one sense, James seems like he is a million miles from the Decision summer of 2010. He is no longer perceived as selfish, or clueless, or lacking the mental fortitude of a true winner. Even when Kevin Durant wrested the MVP award from James this year, people seemed to understand that said more about Durant than about James. We now agree: LeBron James is a champion, an all-time great, an outstanding teammate and a much warmer, kinder, thoughtful guy than he seemed like in 2010.
But in another sense, James is right back where he was. Free agency is on the horizon again -- he has two player options left on his original Miami deal, but he can decline them this summer. If he wants to go on another free-agency tour and tease a dozen NBA cities, he can do that. Most interesting, though, is this: Cleveland still wants him desperately. And James still hangs over the Cavaliers, even though it is commonly accepted that James will not sign with the Cavs this summer.
We will get to Cleveland in a minute. First, the LeBron question. Most players with an opt-out looming would make a simple financial decision. If they think they can get a bigger deal by opting out, they do it. And if they can't, they don't. But James is in a different and more luxurious boat. He has already made an absurd amount of money, from both salary and endorsements, and he will make more money from endorsements for the rest of his life than from basketball salaries. You could make a strong argument that James' total future earnings hinge more on how many championships he wins for the rest of his career than on his actual salaries.
James can leave Miami in less than two months, but there is really no place to go. It's doubtful that he wants to go to Chicago and answer questions about Michael Jordan every day. The Lakers have money, but that's still Kobe's franchise, and it's hard to imagine James making that leap. The Rockets could theoretically clear enough money to put him on the floor with James Harden and Dwight Howard, but I don't know anybody who thinks he will end up in Houston. James has finally buried the criticism from 2010, and you have to imagine he is wary of bringing it all back again by bolting for another team ... unless, of course, that team is Cleveland. America would love that.
There was speculation a year or two ago about this, and the Cavs seemed to buy into it, clearing a bunch of cap space this summer. Unfortunately, the Cavs still stink, and they just fired James' old coach, Mike Brown, yet again -- and immediately denied that they did it to appease a star, yet again. They have built quite a hamster wheel in Cleveland. The Cavs had four years to build a team that might appeal to James, or anybody else, and they failed comically. It's hard to come up with reasons why LeBron might go back this summer.
So let's say he stays in Miami. James can opt out and re-sign for five years (with another opt-out after three). That would give him security and show that he has complete faith in the Pat Riley/Erik Spoelstra/Micky Arison/Andy Elisburg quartet. It makes sense, except for this: Dwyane Wade will turn 33 next January, and his knees already go on strike on a regular basis. Wade will not be an All-Star in five years, and he might not be an All-Star in two. Does James really want to commit to three more years in Miami?
It would be smarter for James to simply pick up his player option for 2014-15. That way, he gets his best shot at winning a title next year, with Miami; he doesn't get grief from anybody for being a serial franchise-jumper; and he keeps his options open for the future. He can become a free agent in the summer of 2015 (and possibly join Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony in New York), or he can sign a long-term deal with the Heat then, or he can pick up his 2015-16 option in Miami and become a free agent in 2016.
There really isn't much risk to picking up his option, even though he would effectively be turning down a five-year, maximum-salary deal. James is not a typical player. Even if he tears his anterior cruciate ligament and misses a whole year, somebody would probably still offer him a max contract the following summer. The potential reward is that great.
But picking up his option would have another benefit: He could try to persuade Wade and Chris Bosh to do the same. Let's go year-by-year, fellas, OK? That way, Miami does not feel obligated to give Wade a long-term extension to match James', which would cripple the team down the road, and everybody avoids the awkward situation of James signing a long-term deal with Miami while Wade doesn't get one.
That might not work -- Wade and Bosh might want to go for one last big contract now, while they still can. But if they do, then it makes even more sense for James to just pick up his option. Why commit to Miami through 2019, when James will be 34, Bosh will be 35 and Wade will be 37? It would be much smarter to take it year by year while Wade and Bosh age. If the Heat fade from contention and are cap-strapped, he can bolt.
So that's a simple (and I think sensible) plan for LeBron James. But his old team is also heading into a critical summer, and the answer is not so simple.
Cleveland fired Brown and gave interim general manager David Griffin the full-time job this week, and the timing was at least curious. The season ended a month ago, and everybody assumed Brown was gone. It is likely that owner Dan Gilbert wanted to settle on a GM before giving that GM the authority to fire the coach, but Griffin spent his first press conference dismissing the theory that the Cavs fired Brown to satisfy Cleveland star Kyrie Irving.
Irving, see, is eligible to sign a long-term extension this summer. If you go back a few years, the root of the Cavs' failure with James came down to two things: They did not build a true championship-quality roster around him (he carried otherwise mediocre teams), and they catered to his every whim, instead of doing what was right for the team, because they were terrified of losing him.
Well, the Cavs have bungled almost every part of the building process around Irving, who landed in their laps. And now there is at least the perception that they will accede to Irving's wishes. Even the delay in hiring Griffin, the interim general manager since February, seems Irving-related. You get the sense that Gilbert might hire a big-name general manager if he could, to impress his star. It may be an unfair perception, but it's out there, and at some point Gilbert will have a decision to make.
Irving is eligible to sign a long-term extension this summer. Is Gilbert willing to walk the plank with another star, knowing he might lose him for almost nothing, like he lost James? The chances of Irving turning down a max extension of his rookie contract are slim -- players tend to say yes to that kind of money, even if they are unhappy. But Irving can also insist on an opt-out after three years. Gilbert already seems petrified of losing Irving.
Did Gilbert fire Brown to placate Irving? Maybe not. But Gilbert did give Brown a four-year contract last year, and firing him after one is the kind of rash decision an owner makes when he is worried about losing a star.
So the shadow of 2010 LeBron hangs over Cleveland's Irving dilemma (if he doesn't re-sign). But so do the shadows of 2015 LeBron and 2016 LeBron.
If James simply picks up his option, rather than sign an extension, that means he can be a free agent in 2015, and then he can pick up another option and be a free agent in 2016. That gives Cleveland at least one more year to create a team that can lure him back. It's a long shot, certainly. But James would know who the coach is, and as bad as the Cavs look right now, fortunes can change fast in the NBA. What if Cleveland makes one or two good trades, hires the right coach, uses its lottery pick wisely and earns the No. 5 seed in the East next year? Wouldn't that be enticing to James?
In order to do that, though, Cleveland needs to keep Irving, keep him happy and build a team around him that makes sense -- and, just as importantly, keep cap space open for next summer, or the summer after that, which obviously would impede the rebuilding process. At some point, the Cavs probably need to move on and run the team without worrying about why James left or whether he will ever come back. But some relationships linger long after they end.