For our first official NBA column of the 2013-14 season, we've chosen a topic that shouldn't get a lot of traction over the next 10 months for a few reasons, but probably will anyway: LeBron James, Free Agency and Will-He or Won't-He, Does-He or Doesn't-He.
Seriously? We have to go there again? Aren't you already sick of it?
Well. Is the Boys and Girls Club of Connecticut busy next July 10 or so?
Does Dan Gilbert have his apology letter to LeBron written and ready to be splashed on the Cavaliers website, and is it done in Comic Sans?
Which LeBron jersey is some idiot preparing to burn in order to get TV time?
How long will a large segment of the basketball world lose all perspective and go completely berserk over a player making a career choice, which is, you know, his right? (Oh, it was the way he left Cleveland. My bad. Carry on.) It's been four years since LeBron dumped the Cavs and Mo Williams for Miami and Dwyane Wade, and in hindsight, everything about it was so silly and over the top. The buildup, the announcement and especially the reaction, just … stoopid.
The good news is, the world has changed. We've all learned something about that sloppy process. LeBron is more mature, likable even, carries himself like a pro, recently got hitched and takes everything in stride. We as a basketball society finally took a deep breath and began to judge LeBron on his basketball merits, which are considerable. Those who took LeBron's decision as some sort of personal attack should have a life by now. And LeBron owns two championships, maybe three by next July, so that King Kong is off his back. He has found peace, personal and team success, comfort and a family-type atmosphere on South Beach. We have come to respect if not appreciate LeBron as the greatest player in the game. Win-win for everyone.
But still, a four-time MVP can enter free agency next summer, if he chooses, and shake up the NBA again, if he chooses. A player who's still in his prime can leap from one team to another and completely change two franchises, Miami and the one he joins. While his next decision should be free of the circus atmosphere -- we can only hope, anyway -- it'll still command plenty of attention and provide lots of nervous moments for everyone involved.
But first, what LeBron does after July 1 will be dictated by Micky Arison, the Heat owner. If anything, this time, it's Arison's decision. He controls this situation just as much than LeBron, if not more. Will Arison still be willing to shell out tens of millions in luxury tax penalties every season to keep the Heat a title contender, as he has the last three years? He's a billionaire, and as long as the team is chasing titles, paying the tax seems justifiable. But it's not my money, not your money. How much is too much?
Does he keep Pat Riley, who's almost 70, in charge beyond this season? And if not, does this mean Arison's son Nick will start calling the shots? And (important question here) would Nick be the next Jim Buss? Are Chris Bosh and Wade still quality 2nd and 3rd options and if not, is Arison willing to replace them (if that's possible) at any cost to keep Miami in the title hunt?
LeBron, Bosh and Wade, the Big Three, can all escape their contracts next summer and become unrestricted free agents. Yet only LeBron is guaranteed to choose that option, if only to get a longer, richer deal, which Arison will happily oblige. That's the only sure thing about next summer. Arison will offer LeBron the max in money (over $100 million) and years (five). Easy decision.
Now, the tough part. Bosh? Will he go shopping for another team? Not many will rush to pay him $20 million in '14-15 and $22 million in '15-16, which he stands to make in Miami if he doesn't opt out. That's a steep price for a player who hasn't been a lead singer since leaving Toronto, and besides, the luxury tax implications of paying Bosh a ton will scare off plenty of teams. Bosh could, however, agree to something more reasonable with another team -- say, an average of $14-15 million a season -- if he's satisfied with his Miami championship haul and just wants a change of scenery, or to escape LeBron's shadow. Giving Bosh a max extension is a very tough call for Arison, because Bosh would be making franchise player money as a No. 3 guy. My guess? If Bosh wants to stay in Miami, Arison gives him a choice. He can accept less money on average over five years, or take the $42 million over two.
Another tough Arison call: Wade. Because of his age and checkered history with injuries, giving Wade a max extension is almost franchise suicide. That said, Wade could opt-out and turn down the remaining $41 million anyway, demand the max and dare Arison to risk a potential PR nightmare by refusing to give it. Their relationship isn't anywhere near that poisonous, though. Most likely, Arison and Wade will work out an extension that will pay considerably less than the max but stretch five years.
Here's the catch, though: Keeping Bosh and Wade still might not be enough to sway LeBron to stay. Suppose Wade's body begins to break down again and Bosh is nothing more than a solid role player. Does LeBron begin to wonder if he'll ever win another title in Miami? Will he think he's back in the same situation he left in Cleveland, pulling heavy cargo? With potentially $60 million-plus tied up in three players for each of the next four or five years, handcuffing Miami's ability to add significant help, is that reassuring for LeBron? For Arison?
If LeBron has any second thoughts about staying in Miami, it's hard to imagine him holding another round of interviews with five or six teams. Again, he's in a different place now. He wants stability. At this point, franchise-hopping could do more harm than good to his legacy, which he cares about deeply. So while he could boomerang back to Ohio -- where his wife and kids live year-round, where the Cavs are assembling a good young cast, and where Gilbert has long ago buried the hatchet -- you really can't see LeBron going to another team. Not right now, anyway. What about the Lakers, you ask, where Kobe Bryant has maybe two good years left? Seems remote; even the Lakers privately admit as much. But again, come next summer, who knows? Right now, not even LeBron knows.
Plenty could happen between now and then to convince LeBron to re-up with Miami, which is the likely scenario, or to leave the beach, which won't happen unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong there. If LeBron believes he has a chance to win more titles in the next few years, then it's a wrap. There's no reason for him to change teams.
So that's the scenario. Playing the guessing game with LeBron and free agency is simply a way to pass the time. It's fun to do, if you're into that sort of thing, and it'll give radio and TV talking heads some material on a slow day. All we know for sure, right now, is that LeBron James is thrilled to be where he is. He has an owner he likes and respects, Pat Riley, his own VIP section at every A-list spot on South Beach, the sun and a sense of calm. Oh, and he has championships. This is the state of LeBron James here in late September, one week before the start of training camp.
Come next July, we'll see what changed and what didn't.