Sequel time? LeBron's next decision
Heat star's choice won't be known 'til summer, but a Clippers scenario could work
On Feb. 5, 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers were in the midst of a 13-game win streak and celebrating an easy victory over the Miami Heat the night before. They were on their way to a 60-win season and believed they had put their best-ever team around LeBron James.
That same day the Heat were at a low point, on a five-game losing streak to drop to three games below .500. Dwyane Wade and team president Pat Riley were in the midst of an uncomfortable and worrisome stalemate. Riley had publicly said he was not prepared to make major improvements to the team until he knew Wade planned to re-sign that summer. Wade, in turn, publicly said he couldn't commit until he knew what he was committing to. At the time, the thought that James, Wade and Chris Bosh would all be members of the Heat five months later was unfathomable. Riley and the Heat had dreamed it and prepared for it but it seemed an improbable long shot at best.
Now four year later, as James possibly heads toward another free agency, taking the temperature in February seems to yield a similar feeling. The incumbent Heat have done everything possible to keep James long term, including surrounding him with Hall of Fame talent and winning two championships. The logical and gut read is, five months from now, James will have recommitted to staying in Miami, either by not opting out of his contract or re-signing long term.
But as James and the Heat visit the Los Angeles Clippers on this Feb. 5, the lessons from the past are a reminder to be careful making assumptions at midseason. Especially when it comes to James.
"This time is going to be different," a source close to James said about James' view of free agency. "If LeBron decides to look at other options it won't just be teams with cap space. He has 30 options if he wants them."
Unlike the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cavs -- two teams that have been mentioned as suitors for James this summer -- the Clippers will not have open cap space. They will not have the cap space to sign James as a maximum-level free agent. It would require a sign-and-trade if James ever got serious about the option. In short, it would take the Heat's cooperation.
For this reason, the Clippers are not on the national radar as a potential location for James if he decides to look around. It is unconventional to consider it. But what the Heat did to land James four years ago was not conventional, either. They were able to make some remarkable last-minute trades -- a detail that largely goes overlooked in history -- then convinced three stars in their primes to take pay cuts so they could play together. That is also a feat that remains unmatched by any of their peers.
The takeaway from that operation: Don't assume anything and don't underestimate competition.
Stemming from that experience, while James is content for the time being, he does not plan to close any doors. He's admitted that he paid a public relations price for how his free agency was executed in 2010. But he has no regrets in how his open-mindedness about his options changed the face of the league and propelled him to championships. Now more emboldened and self-assured, James has more power and perspective than ever before.
"LeBron is not thinking about free agency right now, he's totally focused on the season," said one James associate. "In the summer he knows he can get to any team he wants to."
James was signed and traded from the Cavs to the Heat. Bosh was signed and traded from the Toronto Raptors to the Heat. In 2012, Steve Nash was signed and traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Lakers. Last summer, the Denver Nuggets lost out on re-signing Andre Iguodala and eventually signed and traded him to the Golden State Warriors.
For top free agents, this is standard business. They have the power to force hands when they are free agents.
If the results of this season ended up with James looking at the Clippers and the Heat were eventually forced to cooperate, league executives believe Miami would ask for Blake Griffin. But neither the Heat nor the Clippers at this juncture, slightly more than halfway through a season that finds both teams believing they're capable of winning the title, are prepared to discuss such a hypothetical scenario as they try to keep the focus off the future.
Under any scenario, the Clippers would have to make another maneuver to make a sign-and-trade work, primarily to shed some salary to get under the luxury tax. But it is not that complicated. The bottom line is this: If the Clippers were interested and James got interested, there's a deal that could be done whether it involves Griffin or another package of players.
For the biggest free agent of all like James, it is an option he knows he can leverage if it comes to that. Especially when there will be other suitors he could sign with straight up, which would force the Heat's hand if James decided he wanted to relocate again. The entire star free-agent market will wait on James' choices this summer.
It should also not be taken for granted the Heat will want to keep the status quo. While they certainly want to keep James, it is possible they will use the potential free agency of their stars to go shopping themselves and perhaps reshuffle their roster by actively seeking their own sign-and-trades.
It's another reminder about the dangers of assumption. If the Heat had made assumptions in February of 2010 they wouldn't have what they do now. If the Clippers had made assumptions over the past few years, they wouldn't have Chris Paul as their point guard or Doc Rivers as their coach and vice president right now.
As of now these types of moves may not seem likely but that shouldn't mean they should be considered impossible. The unlikely has been happening more and more in the NBA, which is in an era of unprecedented superstar movement over the past seven years since the Boston Celtics became a powerhouse when Kevin Garnett used his status to force a trade to a city he selected.
James, Wade and Bosh all have the option to become free agents this summer and all have different situations. Wade, who just turned 32, has battled knee issues over the past few years. He would not be able to command the same $42 million he's owed through 2016 in a new contract. The Heat, however, will likely ask him to opt out so they can perhaps extend and restructure his contract to help manage the rest of the team.
Bosh, 29, is having a strong season. He will likely be able to get a maximum contract offer elsewhere if he opts out -- the Lakers and his hometown Dallas Mavericks being two obvious options -- and the Heat will probably have to re-recruit him if they want him to take less money again.
The Heat are facing the reality of being the first team in history to have to pay what is known as the repeater tax, an added penalty for being a luxury tax team four out of five years. To put this in perspective, this season the Heat are about $10 million over the tax line and paying about $15.5 million in taxes. If they are at the same area next year, they would pay about $26 million in taxes alone.
If Bosh, Wade and James all decline to accept pay cuts, the three of them will alone account for $61 million. If James and Bosh request pay increases, they can each make about $21 million, which is where you can see how the Heat would be greatly helped if Wade was willing to redo his deal and accept a pay cut. James, Wade and Bosh have worked well together and all seem content. But it is hard to predict how they will feel by the summer. If all three want to maximize their earnings, the Heat will be in a challenging position both in terms of money and flexibility in the coming seasons.
The Heat and general manager/cap specialist Andy Elisburg have handled the cap masterfully in the past but have needed the cooperation of players. Wade has already cautioned, though, not to expect history to repeat.
"There are different times and different mindsets that you deal with. That was 2010," Wade said earlier this season. "I'm not saying that LeBron James or Chris Bosh, if they get the opportunity again, are going to leave $17 million on the table [as they did in 2010]. No one can say they should do that. You have to do what is best for you."
These uncertainties plus an aging roster -- Shane Battier is likely to retire at season's end and Ray Allen's contract is also up -- are why rival teams have prepared plans in the event that an opportunity arises.
The James contingency has been examined by the Clippers, sources told ESPN. The Heat, one of the most thorough and thoughtful organizations in the league, are quite aware the Clippers could end up being a competitor if James elects to opt out. Perhaps the most serious competitor of all.
Primarily this is because of James' relationships with Paul and Rivers. Paul is one of James' best friends and the two have talked about playing with each other since they were in high school, when they met on the AAU and prep All-Star circuits. Paul is godfather to James' son Bryce and they were in each other's weddings.
In a classic "what if" moment in recent history, James urged the Cavs to attempt to draft Paul in 2005 but the team didn't have a first-round pick that season. Cleveland's attempts to trade into the draft were unsuccessful. The two stars later won gold medals playing together in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics for Team USA.
James respects Rivers perhaps more than any coach he hasn't played for, a side effect of playing four playoff series against Rivers when he was the coach of the Celtics. James developed a strong dislike for many of the Celtics players, but with each year he grew more fond of Rivers as an adversary.
The bond between James and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is strong and Riley has delivered on every promise he's made to James. There's no reason to expect any of that will change. But if for some unforeseen reason it does, James' best friend and favorite coach he hasn't played for are a part of the Clippers organization, which is located in a glamour market. Four years ago the Clippers got a courtesy meeting from James during his three-day free agency summit in Cleveland. Rather tellingly, when it came time for the Clippers' appointment they were left waiting in the lobby so the Heat could finish their presentation, which ran long. James had known then-Clippers general manager Neil Olshey since James was a teenager and Olshey was a workout coach, and because of it he was willing to hear the Clippers' pitch.
At the time, even getting the meeting was a big deal to the franchise. The Clippers later issued a press release just to announce they'd simply met with James. In recent years, they have built a new state-of-the-art practice facility, traded for Paul and then convinced him to re-sign, lured Rivers away from the Celtics, and landed several key free agents like Jamal Crawford.
For the first time in his tenure, Clippers owner Donald Sterling is paying the luxury tax this season. He has handed control of the basketball decisions to Rivers, whom he is paying the highest coaching salary in the league at $7 million per season. The Clippers of 2014 are not like they were in 2010 or the 20 years before that. They are now the dominant team in Staples Center, which sums up their shift more profoundly than anything else.
Despite the increased investments from Sterling over the past few years, the Paul-Griffin pairing still has yet to get past the second round of the playoffs. The Clippers are currently 34-17 as they deal with Paul's shoulder injury. That is fourth place in the Western Conference and a game behind last season's pace.
If the Clippers fall short of their lofty preseason expectations with Sterling's expanded expenditures, they may be willing to break up some of their core in an aggressive attempt to chase James. Once again, this cannot fully be assessed until the end of the season.
James has been very clear he will not address free agency during the season. That is a reminder that, just like in 2010, where things stand in June and early July will matter more than anything that is thought or said before then.
Back then many people took some things for granted and never saw the big move coming; that mistake will not be made again.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein contributed to this story.