LeBron James should stay in this jersey for a long time.
Miami Heat fans should be enjoying every second of watching LeBron James dominate basketball games during the 2013 postseason because there's no guarantee that he'll stay with the franchise for the rest of his career. He should, but there's no certainty.
LeBron entered the league as a precocious teenager ready to show off his skills for a national audience while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He blossomed into a superstar with his hometown franchise, but it wasn't until leaving for South Beach that he matured into a champion.
Now, the league's MVP is the clear-cut best player in the world. You could argue that he stood on the same pedestal back up north, but it's indisputable now. Any arguments that claim Player X as currently better than LeBron are simply flawed.
But what happens next?
Now that LeBron is squarely within the prime of his career, will he choose to play out that prime and the ensuing twilight before retiring in a red-and-black jersey? Or will he bolt and choose to realize the remainder of his potential in someone else's service?
We won't know for a while, but that decision is looming in the not-so-distant horizon. When the 2013-14 campaign draws to a conclusion, the wheels will start churning in James' head once more. And that's assuming that they aren't already.
Just as is the case with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron has an early termination option in his contract, one that can be used to make him the league's marquee free agent during the summer of 2014.
If he chooses to leave Miami behind, opportunities abound.
He could rejoin his first team and attempt to repair any bridges that haven't been completely burned. He could join the Los Angeles Lakers and play in the league's most famous uniform—or second-most famous, depending on how you feel about the Boston Celtics. He could even shock the world and join a team that hasn't even prematurely entered itself into the rumor mill.
There's just one problem with each and every one of the aforementioned scenarios: They aren't as appealing as staying put.
The Uncertainty of Other Situations
As a certain purple-and-gold-clad team reaffirmed during the 2012-13 season, putting superstars together isn't always an immediate recipe for success.
No matter how high-quality the other ingredients are, just as bread won't rise without yeast, a team can't rise to the top of the pile without chemistry. And what guarantee of chemistry is there in the City of Angels?
Simply put, there isn't any. For proof, you need look no further than the players under contract for the 2014-15 season when LeBron is first eligible to join forces with the rest of the remaining Lakers.
Steve Nash is literally the only player with guaranteed money that year, and he'll be turning 41 during the season. No one else is under contract, not even Kobe Bryant, the man who has virtually become synonymous with the Lakers.
We'll surely have a bit more clarity a year from now—maybe Dwight Howard will be signed well past 2014-15, for example—but who knows how well LeBron will work with the incumbents?
The situation is similarly murky with the Cavs, although there are a few more names already in place. Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller, Alonzo Gee could all be under contract—assuming Cleveland picks up a few club options—and it seems rather likely that the Cavs will still be boasting the services of a soon-to-be No. 1 pick, whether that becomes Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Otto Porter or someone else entirely.
But again, can LeBron work with these guys? I have my doubts about his ability to coexist with two ball-dominating guards like Irving and Waiters, especially if the former continues developing into a premier offensive superstar.
Is it worth the risk? Should he tempt the fates and let uncertainty enter into the equation when it doesn't need to?
LeBron might not know exactly who will surround him if he stays in Miami for the rest of his career (more on that later), but he can be certain that Erik Spoelstra will continue to craft the team's strategies around his unique talents.
No longer falling into the trap of functional fixedness, Spoelstra took massive strides forward as an NBA head coach over the last few years and has completely abandoned the traditional positions. Miami's offense is much more free-flowing, and it suits LeBron perfectly.
There's no guarantee of that elsewhere.
LeBron was a popular player in the Association during his Cleveland days, but that quickly changed following the infamous decision.
He still held on to a large contingent of supporters, but the tides seemed to turn on him, spewing nothing but unrelenting vitriol in his general direction. We heard all sorts of negatives thrown at LeBron during his first two seasons with the Miami Heat.
Hell, Cleveland fans even burned his jerseys in the streets.
LeBron's image is starting to regain its earlier luster, though. The vast majority of basketball fans appreciate his unabashed greatness on both ends of the court and have started to put past gripes aside. The work and dedication he's devoted to his game—particularly when he goes to work in the post—have also done wonders for his image.
There's still a fairly sizable group of people who refuse to support James, but they're outnumbered more and more as the days progress and the defending champion marches closer to what could be a second career title. These are the ones who use degrading forms of his name, allow his penchant for flopping to trump every other aspect of his game and still hold on to the nonsensical belief that he can't come through when it matters most.
We've all run into them, but the number of players in said group is quickly dwindling. LeBron is the golden boy of the league—and, perhaps more importantly, the league's fanbase—once more.
As the temporal distance between the present and "The Decision" grows larger, it becomes easier to compartmentalize objectivity and raw emotion. The furor among fans was raised because the world's best player seemingly deserted his hometown team, not because it was a bad move for his basketball career.
LeBron's supporting cast was lackluster in Cleveland, and it's hard to win a title in that situation (see: Durant, Kevin). He was simply capitalizing on an opportunity to win basketball games, which is easier to see now that the emotions associated with his 2010 choice are fading away.
No such excuses exist anymore.
LeBron is playing in the city of his choosing. He's playing with his closest friend in the league. He's won a championship with the Heat, and that could become "championships" by the time the 2014 offseason rolls around.
If he removed his talents from South Beach, just as he once took them there, his image would suffer another heavy blow. But this time, it's one he might not be able to get up from.
The Big Three May Be Able to Stay Together
Doesn't money always seem to get in the way of things?
When we're inevitably discussing LeBron James' 2014 choice in the future, money is going to be a primary topic of conversation because there's a general notion that the Miami Heat can't afford to pay LeBron, Wade and Bosh during the 2014-15 season and beyond.
Yes, the team will be over the salary cap, and yes, it'll be over the luxury tax. But that doesn't mean it's impossible to keep the trio.
The big deterrent is what the new collective bargaining agreement calls the repeater tax. Starting in 2014-15, teams will pay this repeater rate if they were over the luxury-tax threshold during the 2011-12, 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Yes, the Heat will likely fall into that category.
Here's a simplified version of how the repeater tax compares to the traditional luxury tax, courtesy of Larry Coon's fantastic Salary Cap FAQ. For each dollar over the luxury tax, the non-repeater/repeater pays the given amount:
|Amount over luxury tax||Non-repeater||Repeater|
|$20,000,000 or more||$3.75, and increasing $0.50 for each additional $5 million ||$4.75, and increasing $0.50 for each additional $5 million|
So yes, Miami will owe quite a lot of money if The Big Three stay put for two more seasons (and possibly well beyond), but is it too much moolah?
Not when Pat Riley is in charge. A brilliant businessman with a knack for winning championships, Riley recognizes that you often get what you pay for. Plus, he understands the amount of revenue that a player like LeBron James generates for a franchise.
In an open market, LeBron would be worth far more than whatever his salary plus the luxury-tax penalty would add up to.
Will LeBron James play out his career with the Miami Heat?
Basically, he doesn't have to concern himself with losing the other two members of his triumvirate, because the three are worth more together than they cost.
Miami has a lot of LeBron left to enjoy no matter what happens two offseasons down the road, but it looks a lot like the Heat will be employing the MVP even beyond that. Without money concerning the Heat, the onus is on Mr. James.
And given his newly refurbished image and the inevitable uncertainty of other situations outside Miami, James is best suited to just stay put.
After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.