You would expect excitement. Or, at the very least, intrigue. A four-time MVP in the prime of his career doesn’t hit the unrestricted free agent market all that often, especially not one with the size, speed and transcendent talent of LeBron James. But the hours following James’ decision -- there’s that word again -- to opt out of his contract was met by some across the league with startling indifference.
“I'd be surprised if he didn't go back to Miami,” said an Eastern Conference executive.
Added another, “Why would he go anywhere? He has everything he wants in Miami.”
Yes, to many James’ impending free agency is little more than a formality, a strategic move from a cerebral player who has little desire to switch jerseys. Of course James was going to opt out. Opting out gives him options. It puts pressure on Miami to submit a plan to retool a flawed team for another few years. No more financially based moves (hello, Mike Miller), James will say to Heat owner Micky Arison. No more salary dumps that come between James and the chase for a third (and fourth and fifth) championship.
Why would James opt in? Think about it: If James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all opted into their contracts, the Heat would have more than $60 million in salary committed to three players-- with a projected salary cap of $63.2 million. They could exceed the cap and cross the luxury tax line (projected to be $77 million) to sign some of their own players, but a) the retiring Shane Battier wouldn’t be among them and b) that group just got creamed by San Antonio in the Finals. An opt-in party by James, Wade and Bosh wouldn't limit Miami’s ability to sign new talent. It would cripple it.
Thus, James opts out. But it hardly indicates a desire to leave South Beach. In fact, according to a source familiar with James’ thinking, returning to Miami remains the strongest option. James has tremendous respect for Pat Riley. He has developed a strong relationship with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. He enjoys playing with Bosh and Wade, and still believes that core can win. It just needs a little help.
Getting that help will depend largely on the decision of one player: Wade. Bosh will most likely opt out. At 30, and coming off his ninth All-Star season, Bosh will have options. He has publicly said he will take less money to come back to Miami. He likes his role as second/third option and would probably prefer to continue in it. But if things in Miami go a different direction, there will be a long line of teams lined up to make Bosh substantial offers.
Wade is a different story. He’s 32 and coming off one of his most difficult seasons. He missed 28 games during the regular season. He didn’t play in many back-to-backs and his knees were monitored almost hourly. Wade still put up solid numbers (19.0 points on 54.5 percent shooting) but the days of Flash are long behind him. Wade is due $20 million next season. On the open market, it’s unlikely he would attract offers half of that.
For Wade, it’s a crossroads. Miami needs him to opt out. It needs him to take a smaller annual salary, to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. It’s a lot to ask. Wade has made $121 million in his playing career and tens of millions more in endorsements. But asking anyone to give away that kind of money is difficult. That’s where Miami can come in. It can offer Wade a smaller annual salary but guarantee him more overall. For example: Wade opts out of the last two years of his deal, worth $42 million. He signs a five-year, $55 million deal with the Heat.
Think about what Miami could do with a little cap flexibility. The free agent market is rich with role players who could help. How would Kyle Lowry look on a team that has struggled to solidify the point guard position? Or how about Trevor Ariza as the solid backup James has been looking for? The lure of playing with James, Wade and Bosh is still strong, as is every NBA player’s desire to live on South Beach.
For Wade, it could come down to this: Does he want to maximize his earnings over the next two years and run the risk James and Bosh go elsewhere? If Wade opts in, all bets are off. James could seek offers from Cleveland, Chicago, Houston or Atlanta. He could enlist Carmelo Anthony -- another member of the vaunted Class of 2003 that is desperate to win -- and join forces somewhere else. Bosh could, too. Or will Wade take less money, chase championships and enhance his legacy as the greatest Heat player of all time?
In a league where continuity is a critical part of team success (see San Antonio), Miami’s Big Three are in an enviable position. And the Heat players know what they have. Once the sting from the Spurs drubbing subsides, Miami can look back at four years of staggering success and look forward to the potential for another four more. Sure, Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn loom as challengers in the East, but they are far less daunting than the murderer’s row of elite teams in the Western Conference. Miami, as Riley so dramatically pointed out last week, needs to retool, not rebuild. He’s hoping his star players believe him.