Four years ago, when the Big 3 were stunting on stages in Miami and proclaiming they’d be the winners of the next 7 to 8 NBA championships, the thought that their reign of dominance over the NBA could be stripped away after only 4 years together seemed impossible. When the Big 3 came together they were on top of the world. As the most exciting and hated thing to happen to the world of sports ever, the Miami Heat’s time together has been an honor to witness. However, as we all know, good things must come to an end, and this summer might just be it for Miami’s Big 3. Or not… Let’s explore what could happen this offseason with the world’s most talked about sports team ever.
Option 1: LeBron leaves Miami
Not that LeBron would really give two shits, but if he were to sit down with me and discuss what I think he should do this summer, I’d say leave. The NBA is slowly but surely being conquered by young stars, and young teams. I’m talking the Damian Lillards of the world, the John Walls and Bradley Beals, the Kevin Durants and Russell Westbrooks, the James Hardens and Dwight Howards… While this year was surely a year for the veterans, highlighted by the Spurs 5th title since 1999 last night, the future of the league is in the hands of the young. LeBron picked a team in 2010 that was just that. Chris Bosh was younger, Dwyane Wade still had about a foot in the door of his prime and the future stars of the league now either weren’t around or weren’t established yet. Besides the Spurs who are the ultimate exception if you’re talking about teams who can succeed with aging stars, but then again they are the Spurs, the greatest dynasty in sports history and the team who runs the smoothest and beautiful offense ever known to man. Anyway, what’s clear is that in this league where the young stars are on the come up, you don’t want to be on a team like the Heat.
The Finals for LeBron were very reminiscent of a lot of his time with the Cavaliers. He played like he usually does: a bull made out of bricks, but the rest of his team failed to show up.
Dwyane Wade looked old and tired. Chris Bosh wasn’t making threes, which takes him out of the game completely considering he’s taken a vow not to take shots in the paint anymore. The rest of the role players just didn’t step up when it counted most. Ray Allen shot 17-41 in the Heat’s final 5 embarrassing games. Rashard Lewis, the unsung and unlikely hero in the series against the Pacers was a plus minus king in the Eastern Conference Finals but posted a -31 overall through the Finals. Mario Chalmers forgot how to put a basketball in a hoop. Shane Battier’s minutes evaporated. Norris Cole shot 31% from the field and was a -27 throughout the finals. And all of a sudden the supporting cast that looked so capable and reliable throughout the season and the rest of the playoffs looked amateur and unprepared.
The Heat don’t have the space for real role players because their roster is so clogged up by the salaries of the Big 3. The Heat can beat a team like the Thunder who rely on stars to win games, but when it comes to beating real, dynamic, well-rounded basketball teams like the Spurs of this year or the Mavericks of 2011, the Heat can’t survive because they don’t have the pieces to do it. Having stars is great, but if the players surrounding those stars aren’t showing up, or partly in Miami’s case, very old, then Miami won’t win anymore rings. They cruised through the regular season, largely because the Eastern Conference is so bad, they send teams below .500 to the playoffs. They had an easy trip to the finals but once they got there it was clear as the skies in Miami that LeBron needs help and he won’t get it, and isn’t in a position to get it in the future.
Why would LeBron stay with a team who’s other star is slowly becoming a shell of what he once was. Dwyane Wade is no longer a viable 2nd option for LeBron if he wants to win more championships. He’s getting old, he’s less athletic, his lift is disappearing and without a jump shot, he won’t be able to extend his career the way guys like Vince Carter or Jason Kidd did. Shane Battier has retired, Ray Allen is mulling it over, and while Udonis Haslem might be back, players like Chris Andersen will likely be offered more money than the veteran’s minimum this summer during free agency.
Point guard play was a huge problem for the Heat this series, as was defense. This year the Heat dropped out of the top 10 in defensive efficiency for the first time since the Big 3 came together in 2010 and a large part of that is lack of athleticism and energy on the defensive end. Dwyane Wade used to be an all-nba defender but looking at him now, he doesn’t have the physical abilities to contain quicker players on the perimeter. The Heat lack any interior defensive presence so rotations and help defense is pivotal to their defensive performance. Unfortunately, when you have a team full of aging veterans, rotations will be slow and help defense may not be there. The slower, older players won’t be able to keep up with ball movement or penetration of a team like the… I don’t know… Spurs. LeBron can’t do it all. He played 400 more minutes than any one of his teammates this year and about 1300 more than Dwyane Wade, the guy who was supposed to be the Robin to his Batman. Playing the minutes LeBron did the entire season, and carrying that sort of load means only bad things for him come the playoffs when that load and that grind is inevitably increased. He needs some young talent. He needs to join the current of a team on the rise, instead of fight the current and try to carry a team on the decline. His trip to the finals was easy as it could be this year, but next year will not be as easy. His teammates are only getting older, and the other teams in the East are only getting better. Who’s to say Washington can’t give the Heat a run for their money next postseason? What about a Bulls team with a healthy Derrick Rose? The Pacers never seem to give up either. Staying in Miami with the team he has doesn’t help him while every other team in his way is only getting better.
What are his options? Well, we always hear things about Chicago, Houston and Dallas and their willingness to do just about everything they can to get Carmelo on their team. Well, if LeBron was a free agent, those teams would forget about Carmelo entirely and focus their attention on LeBron. While a Rose, James, Noah superteam in Chicago seems unlikely considering the rivalry between the two teams, a sign and trade with Houston isn’t out of the realm of possibilities, especially when people think Carmelo joining the Heat is a plausible off-season event. Then there are other teams who are less popular options for LeBron but are certainly there. There’s Cleveland who with Kyrie Irving and a No.1 pick coming up in 7 days would welcome LeBron not only with open arms but with a team full of young talent and role players to help out. There’s always Philadelphia and even the Hornets; the Michael Jordan owned franchise who have enough room this off-season for another max contract to join LeBron with Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson down in Charlotte. There’s also been rumors of a move to the Clippers. LeBron and his wife, Savannah love Los Angeles and although it would involve trading DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford, the Clippers would love to get LeBron to team up with Griffin and Paul. All of this is speculation, and hypothetical but what is concrete is that LeBron cannot do it on his own. Through a combination of lack of youth and lack of talent off the bench, the Heat aren’t a viable option to win more championships in the future and LeBron has to see that now while he’s still in his prime.
Option 2: BIG 3 Take Pay cuts and Welcome Some Help
Right now the Big 3 is due about 20 million each this year and even more the next year. They want some help, but ironically their contracts are the things preventing them from receiving that help. While they already took pay cuts to come to Miami in the first place, taking even less might be the thing they need to surround themselves with a supporting cast that can compete with the likes of the Spurs. Dwyane Wade certainly doesn’t deserve to be earning 20 million a year anymore, and for these stars, and especially for LeBron who is still trying to build his legacy by way of rings, cutting salary to create a better team could be pivotal for his future success. LeBron could also look down south in Charlotte and see that there is still money after the career. Jordan just became a billionaire through a combination of larger stakes in the Hornets (previously bobcats) and endorsement deals, of which LeBron has an ocean full, meaning while he may get paid less now, post-career life for LeBron will be anything but lucrative. While its easy to sit here and tell people to take less money, if the real goal is to win championships, which is really the only thing differentiating LeBron and Michael at this point, then why not take 13 million a year instead of 20? Is the lifestyle they’re living really going to change that much? Sure LeBron and the Big 3 won’t be making what they’re worth, but it’s the kind of selfless thing that the Spurs Big 3 did and look where its got them.
This 4th player doesn’t have to be of a Carmelo Anthony caliber. Frankly, adding another superstar isn’t what they need. Carmelo wouldn’t help them defensively or athletically, two problems they faced against the Spurs. There are rumors of a Kyle Lowry addition going around, which would surely help the Heat’s lack of point guard play they so severely suffered with during the final stretch of the playoffs. He would likely have to take about 10 million a year and the Heat can afford him if the Big 3 were to cut their salaries immensely. Another addition could be power forward Pau Gasol who has been openly unhappy in Los Angeles for the past few seasons. His price range is probably in the same realm as Lowry’s. Pau could help the Heat with rebounding and a presence inside both offensively and defensively. Pau can still attract a lot of attention in the post and has the ability like Bosh to play a stretch 4 or 5 if he needs to. Bosh has developed into a stretch 4 so there won’t be any issues about a clogging in the paint. Gasol is also a very talented passer and could not only help the Heat move the ball but an inside passing tandem of Bosh and Pau could be very effective.
If they choose not to go with players of that caliber, there is always the smart, yet rarely talked about option of using the large cap space to add several effective role players rather than one expensive star. While the star will bring firepower and more responsibility for opposing defenses, it still doesn’t help the bench problem. Using the space to sign a number of guys like an Andray Blatche, Rodney Stuckey and Evan Turner could be a direction in which the Heat acquire more value and address the problem of depth rather than making headlines with an addition of another star. The Spurs proved it this season that its not about the stars but about the role players and how everyone co-exists and plays together on the floor. Once again, these are all of the most hypothetical order but very possible if the Big 3 would do the usually improbable with famous star athletes: take less money.
Option 3: LeBron Stays in Miami and Waits for Free Agency Next Year
If LeBron were to opt into his contract and play out next season he actually may have the best of both worlds. Here’s why: Although the Heat were embarrassed by the Spurs, you really can’t discredit what the Heat have accomplished in their time together. Like LeBron said, “he’ll take 50%.” If the Heat stayed together they’d likely be the 1 or 2 seed once again and a definite lock at #3. It won’t be as easy as this year as players are only getting older and younger teams are only getting better but a LeBron Heat team is still one of the best in the league. The Heat also have the opportunity to sign some smaller free agent additions that could help reinvigorate them. Rashard Lewis is a free agent, as is Mario Chalmers, both of whom they could let go without feeling uneasy about it. In their place, there are some interesting options for role players on the market. Given the wide selection as well as Pat Riley’s uncanny ability to convince players to take less than what they’re worth puts the Heat in a good position to pull in some surrounding pieces.
There is a plethora of role players on the market this off-season who have the potential to give the Heat a boost in a number of ways, especially in their guard play. These are affordable guys like a Rodney Stuckey, Jordan Farmar, Evan Turner, Mo Williams, Dejuan Blair, and Jodie Meeks… The list goes on and on. Not only are these players cheap as it stands, but also role players do have a history of taking less money to join the Heat. With a few of those type of players joining the already proven, championship caliber Miami Heat team, the Heat can trampoline themselves back to finals success next season. So LeBron could stay, and see what magic Pat Riley is able to pull off and if its not to his liking, and the Heat don’t win a championship next season, he still has the 2015 offseason where he’ll be 30 years old and in a free agent class with superstars like Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, possibly Carmelo Anthony, or LaMarcus Aldridge. Then in 2015 he has the ability to form another superteam with that class of stars, or wait for teams like the Knicks or Bulls who will have much more cap space when contracts like Bargnani, Chandler and Boozer all expire, respectively. So opt-in, play it out, see what Riley can muster up and if he doesn’t win, look at 2015 as a completely fresh beginning with a new crop of stars to team with and a new batch of teams begging at his knees – sounds nice doesn’t it?
Option 4: LeBron Opts Out and Signs An Extension
This to me is the most unlikely of the bunch, but it is possible. Say LeBron opts out and resigns with the Heat. In 2015, Dwyane Wade may face the idea of retirement as he’ll be in the second half of 33 years of age. Chris Bosh will be an unrestricted free agent. And LeBron will have the Heat to himself and leverage to say to Pat Riley, “I don’t want Wade and Bosh back. Bring me new stars.” Or, at that point in Wade’s career, he’ll sign a much smaller contract and play a Manu Ginobili type of role, enabling the Heat to treat his contract as that of a 6th man, and sign other big free agents on top of Wade and James. LeBron will be able to dictate who the Heat sign, and with the expected cap space in 2015 – barring any extended contracts with new players – he’ll be on a team in a position to recruit other free agents to join him. If teams like the Knicks think they’re an appealing place to play, what do you think a free agent is going to be thinking when he has a meeting with LeBron James and Pat Riley and they ask said free agent to join LeBron. Which player in his right mind, looking for championships, is going to say no to not only playing in a place like Miami, but on a championship caliber team with the greatest player in the world and 4 finals appearances in the last 5 years?
It’s appealing, one of the more appealing pitches that teams will be able to offer free agents in 2015. This extension also doesn’t have to be that long. LeBron can sign a shorter extension, something along the lines of 3 years, it doesn’t have to be a 4 or 5 year deal. He’ll also probably opt for an early termination option to give him the freedom to get out of Miami if the new look team isn’t panning out how he planned.
With so many options, hypotheticals and different outcomes at every turn, this offseason will be a complicated one for LeBron. He might be on vacation with family, and might insist to the media that he hasn’t thought about free agency, the only thing on his mind is where he’ll be playing in 2014-15 and where he can win a championship. All we can do now is wait and see.