LeBron's future coming up fast
SAN ANTONIO -- At least there is no more wait-and-see for LeBron James.
As miserable as it was for James to suffer a one-sided NBA Finals defeat to the San Antonio Spurs, it did provide him with some clarity. After putting off getting serious about his free-agent decision for nine months, he now realizes the status quo will not be satisfactory.
The Miami Heat, quite clearly, are no longer a championship team and are in need of some changes. James will want to hear about plans for those changes before he chooses a path.
James is in an extremely powerful position. He is a player in his prime with the right to be an unrestricted free agent and the off-court financial independence to be flexible in his salary. This will allow him to exert his power in the construction of a roster.
Focused on legacy and building a brand that will allow him to increase his earnings in retirement like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, James may be willing to sacrifice some money in the short term in order to yield dividends in the future. Doing so would apply pressure to teammates to do the same.
However, James does not lack perspective. The defeat to the Spurs does not undo the success the Heat have had over the past four seasons. One of the tenets Heat president Pat Riley has sold to James -- and one he'll likely remind James of before his opt-out decision before the June 29 deadline -- is the value of being on a team that gives you a broad window. The Heat have proven they can do that.
There certainly are outrageous scenarios in play. The option for James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to all opt out of their contracts and take pay cuts to make room for a star free agent such as Carmelo Anthony is one. The idea that James would opt out and leave for a younger team with greater upside, especially if he's willing to take a pay cut, is another.
Two lessons learned from 2010 is that the Heat should never be underestimated and that James always thinks big. But neither are as likely as James staying put and seeing how the Heat can retrofit their roster for the short term.
Before the choice, though, James will have some serious conversations with Heat management and his teammates. There are going to be at least three driving factors in his decision:
• Wade's health is once again in question after he showed signs of slowing down in the late rounds of the playoffs. Wade has needed procedures on his knees in each of the past two summers and it has carried over into the season, reducing his availability. If Wade needs to take any other action with his troublesome knees, James will want to know how much can be expected out of him in the future.
• To better prepare for the long grind of the season, James wants to reduce his minute load so he can attempt to save his body for the playoffs and, for the long haul, hopefully extend his personal championship window.
• James played 400 minutes more than any teammate this season and about 1,300 more minutes than running mate Wade. This is a trend he's interested in reversing immediately. This means the Heat will have to add at least one reliable, and ideally younger, player at his position.
• James is going to want to hear the team will spend some more money on role players. The Heat made three choices over this past season that were aimed at controlling payroll instead of improving the roster that ultimately explained how the Spurs' bench and overall depth proved to be dramatically better.
They released Mike Miller via the amnesty provision, a move that ultimately saved the Heat $15 million in luxury tax. James complained about this frequently during the season, especially on nights when Wade missed games to deal with ongoing knee issues.
In conjunction, the Heat did not use their mid-level exception to add a role player to help replace Miller. After signing Ray Allen and Shane Battier with the mid-level over the previous two years, the Heat added reclamation projects Michael Beasley and Greg Oden instead of a proven backup.
Third, at midseason the Heat traded Joel Anthony, a future first-round pick and $1 million in a cash-dump deal in which they ended up with Toney Douglas. The Heat could've used those assets in a different type of deal, one that provided immediate help and wasn't aimed at saving tax dollars.
James, Wade and Both may discuss opting out and reworking their contracts if it means adding another key player or two. But it is unlikely they would take such a step just to save the Heat luxury tax money.
Of course, James was asked about his plans late Sunday night. As he has for months, he deferred.
"I haven't gotten to that point yet," James said. "You're trying to find answers but I'm not going to give you one."
Don't think for a moment, though, that James hasn't given it a lot of thought already. He learned a great deal when he went through this four years ago, though there will be no television special to announce his plans this time around.
But he also no longer needs Wade, Bosh and Heat to help him prove himself. Now, it is them who need James and he is extremely aware of that reality.
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