The Heat team that embarked on a loud, entertaining, swaggy, needle-moving, four-year championship series romp no longer exists. It perished in five games against the Spurs, going out meekly in the final three, never putting up a fight to keep a legacy alive.
Yes, losing the NBA Finals usually doesn't send out a distress signal for a breakup, but in this case, where only championships matter, Miami must become creative to remain viable. You know why the 2011-14 Heat are done? Because Dwyane Wade isn't the same, Chris Bosh was never a true star and LeBron James, if he re-signs in Miami -- and there's no guarantee of that -- will and should demand major changes and stipulations.
The Heat know they can't stay status quo and still keep their edge as contenders. As Bosh said, they were "exposed" by the Spurs and once that happens, there's no reason to stick with the blueprint. But first, an obvious question must be answered: Is LeBron on board?
He was non-committal after the NBA Finals, no surprise there; the last thing LeBron wants is to fuel his upcoming free agency. Curiously, though, he backed off the statement he made last winter, when he said he'd be "surprised" if he played anywhere other than Miami next season. That suggests that LeBron has at least opened the possibility of leaving based on the events that happened since then -- namely, the Heat losing to the Spurs in five games.
The entire operation depends on him, of course. And it's a tricky situation without any easy answers or solutions. LeBron is about to make decisions about his future as a 30-year-old, not a 25-year-old. Playing careers go in stages, and LeBron is entering midlife in the NBA. What's acceptable to a young superstar no longer appeals to a player with 10 or more years of tread. This will most likely be the last contract LeBron signs in his prime. Therefore, the free agency game has changed, and here are the issues he must weigh:
1) For the sake of longevity, he can't multi-task at such a high degree every season. It's too much of a physical burden to be your team's best rebounder, passer, defender, shooter, ball-handler and savior, even if he's still able to do that. LeBron needs someone who can free him from one or more of those chores, and neither Wade nor Bosh is capable of that.
2) He needs to be surrounded by a core with at least one or two young teammates with upside. If LeBron's best three teammates are tapped out and soon ready to enter their twilight, that's a problem. He needs players that are quicker, more aggressive and have a longer shelf life. Tim Duncan does have Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but he also has 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard, 25-year-old Danny Green and 23-year-old Patty Mills, important rotation players with high ceilings.
Essentially, since his stated goal is to chase championships, LeBron must put himself in position where he can win multiple titles, not just one. The Heat can return to the Finals and possibly win it next season without major changes, but would they be built to last? Can he win it all with Bosh and Wade as his best teammates and a minimal amount of help from the supporting cast, as the Heat received this season? Most likely, no. This isn't 2010.
Pat Riley masterfully steered the Heat through the last four years but unless he's saving his best maneuvers for last, it'll be very tough to re-tool the Heat and convince LeBron that Miami remains the place for him.
There are lots of moving parts here. First, Riley must get Bosh, Wade and LeBron to take reduced salaries. Only one player can do that without feeling a pinch or any regrets: LeBron. Because he generates so much outside income, LeBron can make that financial sacrifice without much debate. Not Bosh, who left money on the table when he bolted Toronto for the Heat, or Wade, who's about to cash in for the final time. And unless the three are willing to accept a salary, say, in the $15-$18 million range per season, Miami won't have enough room to find a quality fourth wheel or a solid sixth man.
Wade, for example, is due $40 million over the next two years if he doesn't opt out. How can Miami make it financially appealing for him to take less? Suppose the Heat offer $50 million over three. Do they really want to be tied that long to a 32-year-old whose superstar days appear over? Will that contract or a similar one be enough to keep Bosh, who could take his two rings and run to another team offering more money and a chance to be a centerpiece player?
Even if James, Bosh and Wade agree to pay cuts, that doesn't mean the Heat will get the supporting help they need. Carmelo Anthony has given no indication that he's willing to also accept less money and a role in exchange for improved odds at a title. And even if he does, why would he choose Miami over, let's say, the Bulls? Getting Kevin Love is a stretch because the Heat lack trade assets to get him. Otherwise, there are no other A-list players available this summer and Miami would need to settle for an Evan Turner or Devin Harris or players at that level.
Finally, there's the issue of how much money owner Micky Arison is willing to spend. The Heat cut loose Mike Miller to save roughly $15 million in salary and tax, proof that even a billionaire like Arison has a budget in mind.
As long as LeBron, Wade and Bosh are together, the Heat can only surround them with so much talent. Usually, this means getting help on the cheap, which means veterans on the downside of their careers (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier) or young players who'll never be stars or even starters on other teams (Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole) or gifted players with some sort of baggage (Michael Beasley, Greg Oden).
Hard decisions, all around. None more than for LeBron, who once again will be the topic of discussion for a few weeks in July, though maybe not at the same hysterical level of five summers ago. He must first weigh whether the Heat, given all of their flaws and challenges, are his best choice. Are they? That depends.
A return to the Cavaliers remains in play, if LeBron can stomach shaking hands with owner Dan Gilbert. But that rests with what the Cavs do between now and mid-July. They have Kyrie Irving, but it'll take more to get LeBron's attention. Their plans for what to do with the No. 1 pick will be a major factor, and also if they can get an All-Star veteran. Should the Cavs manage to get Love without surrendering Irving or the No. 1 pick, that would at least force LeBron to think about it. He'd have two All-Stars in their 20s and a teenaged first-round pick.
LeBron does have a fallback plan. He can decide not to opt-out, give Riley one more year to revamp the Heat, and do this all over again next summer. As crazy as it sounds, that could be LeBron's best course of action. Not only would he give Riley more time and show some faith in one of the league's best-run franchises, his options in the summer of 2015 could be greater if Miami fails. Suddenly, the Lakers and Knicks would be in play.
"You want answers, and I'm not going to give you one," he said after losing his second title in four years. "I'm not going to give it to you."
He's on the clock, though, and the alarm sounds on July 1.