With less than 10 months standing between the basketball world and the possibility of The Decision II, LeBron James continues to betray no hint of his plans for the 2014 free agency period.
"I have absolutely no idea," James recently told ESPN.com. "I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization as we continue to compete for championships. That's ideal. But we don't know what may happen from now to the end of the season. That's the nature of the business. It's the nature of not knowing what tomorrow brings.
"I mean, as a kid, I never thought the Bulls would break up. Never. If you'd of told me as a kid that [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen wouldn't play together for the rest of their lives, I'd have looked at you crazy. And Phil Jackson wouldn't be the coach? I'd have looked at you crazy. But sometimes the nature of the business doesn't allow things to happen like you would want them to. But we'll see."
A separate ESPN.com report quotes James' agent, who says his client is solely focused on Miami's potential three-peat.
"All LeBron is thinking about is winning a third straight title," said Rich Paul, James' agent. "He has no interest in talking about next season and everyone around him knows it."
It goes without saying that James, winner of two straight regular-season and NBA Fihnals MVPs, is peerless at this point of his career. His upcoming free agency similarly defies comparison.
For starters, James no longer feels the full weight of the burden to win something, as he did in 2010 when he left the Cavaliers for the Heat. Accumulating titles, and potentially challenging Michael Jordan's standard of six rings, will remain the top objective, but having two titles, and potentially three by next summer, relaxes the calculus. James now knows exactly what it takes to win, from both himself and his potential suitors. That should make life easier and the decision-making process less urgent.
In tandem with that thought is the Cleveland factor. Should James choose to leave the Heat, it would be the biggest NBA story of the year, but it wouldn't provoke nearly the backlash that his departure from Ohio did. His local ties, his failure to win a ring and Cleveland's history of sports heartbreak produced true rage; one imagines LeBron's leaving South Florida would be met with sadness and disappointment but also a level of gratitude for how well James played in Miami. And, anyway, Heat fans sacrificed any potential sympathy from the national media when many left American Airlines Arena early during the 2013 Finals. There just wouldn't be any mourning about "loyalty" from outsiders, given how much James has delivered over the last three years and the Heat fan base's reputation (fair or not) for being somewhat less than diehard. That'd be especially true if, somehow, James decided to return to Cleveland.
An overlooked part of the discussion around James' 2014 summer is the degree to which he possesses complete financial flexibility. Although he was already set for life when he inked with Nike straight out of high school, James will have earned more than $66 million of salary from the Heat while also climbing to the No. 1 spot on the list of highest-earning NBA players. In 2010, James took slightly less than the maximum available to him so as to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and few athletes are ever in a position where maximizing their salary isn't the No. 1 factor. If money wasn't an obsession in 2010, his new wealth during the Miami period theoretically makes it even less of a focus. The right mix of basketball talent trumped total compensation in 2010, and there's no reason to believe that will change in 2014.
But James' flexibility goes even further than not needing to squeeze out every last penny. He holds player options on the final two seasons of his current deal -- covering 2014-15 and 2015-16 -- which allow him to assess his future on a year-by-year basis, should he choose to do so. Conventional wisdom dictates that players of James' caliber re-up for as long as possible as quickly as possible, and that's definitely a strong option available to him. It's just not the only option. If Wade remains healthy and the Heat three-peat, James could always decide to run it back for another season, pocketing $20.6 million in 2014-15 salary in the process, delaying his free agency by a year. At 28 and at the peak of his power, he's uniquely free to take that unusual step. After all, he would surely command max money in July 2015 (when he's 30) or even July 2016 (when he's 31), if he decided to return to the Heat.
Add it all up, and it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which a current NBA player would ever enjoy more leverage than James will possess next summer. He combines unmatched talent with total financial flexibility, and he will be operating under conditions as pressure-free as possible for someone with his stature. He will have 30 suitors, of course, and a much better idea of exactly what he wants from them, and he will have a legitimate backup plan (his player option) in his pocket. He will also have the experience of going through the decision-making process, which is no small benefit, considering the stakes.