While not terribly startling in its development, the latest bit of NBA news is still striking to see in formality: LeBron James, according to reports, has informed the Heat that he will exercise his early termination option to become a free agent. The best player in basketball will soon become officially unattached, free to take meetings and discuss plans with the teams of his choosing.
In taking this course, James has claimed a position of power and assigned the Heat front office the burden of proof. To ensure LeBron's return, Pat Riley and his staff will have to make moves. They'll need to sketch out the framework of a more capable roster than the one beaten in this this year's Finals -- one in which James isn't the lone load-bearing pillar. Dwyane Wade's impact and role have diminished relative to 2010. Chris Bosh has evolved in such a way that shot creation is no longer his priority. The supporting cast has aged out of sufficiency, and in the case of Shane Battier into retirement. Miami, even as it stands as the definitive best team in the Eastern Conference, is in need of reinvention.
James' free agency simply spurs that process along. In fact, any roster growth would have been almost impossible without it; had James, Wade and Bosh all remained on course with their previous deals, Miami would have been over the salary cap with their three contracts and the guaranteed salary of Norris Cole alone. Odd though it may seem, this is the way to Miami's improvement. There is some danger in LeBron shaking loose just as a handful of other contenders (the Bulls and Rockets chief among them) could make an offer deserving of his attention, but the alternative left no room for the Heat to move forward.
Already we've seen the possibility floated that Miami could land Carmelo Anthony if all four stars manage to fit their salaries just so, though there are countless alternatives involving a variety of free agents. Even without any single addition as talented as Anthony, the Heat could sign some other combination of quality players (including Kyle Lowry, Trevor Ariza, MarcinGortat, LuolDeng, etc.) to construct a more stable arrangement. Miami had its star, after all, along with a secondary ball handler and a unique, floor-stretching big. What is missing is a supporting cast that can hit all the right notes: the high-level shooting, the athleticism and the individual defense above all.
This opt-out provides the means for the Heat to address those deficiencies. Complicating matters, however, are the concurrent options of Wade and Bosh. If both follow James' lead into free agency (and into salary cap clearance), there will likely be no issue. If either star decides to stick out their current deal, though, James' decision to opt out will do little for the Heat's financial flexibility.
This is where things get genuinely interesting for a trio of stars that has put up a unified front over the past four years. During that time they shared a common goal, with two titles and four Finals appearances to show for it. Now, empowered by their respective options, they have no choice but to think of themselves. James is at the top of his profession with the freedom to essentially join any team he likes. Wade is staring down $20.2 million in salary next season and $21.7 million the season after, knowing full well that if he opts out he'll likely never draw that kind of lump sum again. Bosh is in a good place both personally and professionally, and of the three has been the most openly committed to staying in Miami.
What happens if Wade decides to take the money? What would James decide if neither star opts out? What if all three become free agents but Riley is unable to build a convincing supporting cast? James may be leaning heavily towards returning as it stands today, but for the first time since their union the Heat's core stars are being pulled in different directions. No longer are they the "Big Three" or "The Heatles" or even the Miami Heat. They are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- very much distinct in their station and interests. That may not prevent Riley from bringing all three back and then some, though that he now faces pressure to do so puts Miami at the center of the offseason stage.