What's at Stake for LeBron James in 2014 Free Agency?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 1, 2013

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat celebrates after defeating the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 to win Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 20, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Immediately after Dwight Howard completed his escape from LA, HOOPSWORLD's Alex Kennedy turned his attention to the future—and LeBron James

Obviously. This is what the Lakers do.

Just 48 hours later, though, Stephen A. Smith claimed on ESPN Radio that James hypothetically preferred both the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers to joining the Lakers.

Somewhere on the set of Shark Tank, Mark Cuban is furious no one's mentioned him yet. 

Give it time, Mark. Any franchise with serious cap space will have eyes for LeBron in 2014, along with a few franchises that have no cap space. The Yankees might give him a look at third base before this is all said and done.

Indeed, the only person yet to obsess over LeBron's 2014 fate may be LeBron himself. According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst, he's more focused on his September wedding than making any long-term professional plans this summer. 

To be clear, James isn't currently scheduled to become a free agent in 2014. But, as Brian Windhorst explains in his extensive rundown of the "next decision," James will become a free agent regardless of whether he remains in Miami. A new contract with the Heat could pay him more, and for up to five seasons. There's no reason not to terminate.

As for the decision itself, though, this won't be about who can offer the most money.


"Sacrificing" Money

Of all the things weighing on LeBron's mind in 2014, getting paid won't be one of them. According to James, it really never has (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst):

I have not had a full max deal yet in my career -- that's a story untold. I don't get (the credit) for it. That doesn't matter to me; playing the game is what matters to me. Financially, I'll sacrifice for the team. It shows for some of the top guys, it isn't all about money. That's the genuine side of this, it's about winning. I understand that.

Let's get something straight. LeBron will receive over $19 million next season from the Miami Heat alone, much of which isn't subject to state income tax since Florida has none. According to Forbes.com, he remains the world's fourth highest-paid athlete when accounting for both salary and endorsements.

This notion that it's either about money or winning is pure nonsense. Money almost always follows winning one way or the other, and it helps when you're winning with other big names at your side. Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen crunches the numbers:

The Heat sold out all of their games this season, as did a handful of other NBA teams. But on the road, the Heat live up to the “Heatles” nickname James gave them in 2011 for their ability to pack arenas around the country. The Heat’s 41 away games played to an NBA-best 100.5% capacity this year. The Heat and James are their own economic stimulus in every city they visit. The value of the Heat is up 72% to $625 million since James arrived and ranks sixth highest in the NBA.

Of course, James doesn't earn anything directly from those ticket sales, but they illustrate just how broadly his appeal extends beyond Miami—and because of Miami. Collectively, the Heat have become a phenomena. As much as LeBron needs his teammates to win titles, he also needs this franchise to reach his celebrity potential.

"Potential" being the key word. Though James' status as the world's best player obviously isn't in any danger, his larger-than-life brand is fueled by heroism, and heroes don't lose. There's no question James' long-term financial future will reap massive dividends on account of defecting to Miami in 2010.

With a couple of titles in his pocket and the world's attention trained on him daily, LeBron's fortune will grow leaps and bounds wherever his next stop, perhaps reaching altogether new heights if that stop is in New York or Los Angeles.

Even then, the money would remain tangential for James. Success is still the bottom line here.



Two down, and what...five, six, 10 to go?

Nothing seems impossible for James, not with quality role players and ring-chasing veterans flocking to his cause. The Heat don't win the 2013 NBA Finals without Ray Allen's Game 6 shot. And there will be more Ray Allens following LeBron to the ends of the earth, maybe even back to Cleveland.

Even so, there are good reasons to stay in Miami. Pat Riley has proven he's not too shabby at this whole team-building thing. When it comes time to do a little remodeling, we know he'll pass on the shag carpet and lava lamps. And 42-year-old boy wonder Erik Spoelstra could go down as one of the greats if he keeps winning at this rate.

There are two big questions for Miami, though.

First, how quickly can they hit the reset button when Dwyane Wade officially loses a step? The organization isn't rich in cap space, and it's not especially awash in prospective young talent. Surrounding James with new studs will require smart trades and creative use of cap exceptions.

Second, the CBA could make the Heat as we know them prohibitively expensive. A new "repeater's tax" could even force out one of the Big Three, so start saying your goodbyes to Chris Bosh.

Kidding. Sort of.

Riley may indeed sell James on whatever comes next. He's a charming man. Historically speaking, though, LeBron seems to view winning through the lens of successful partnerships. In 2010, it wasn't that the Heat already had a complete roster or an acclaimed coach. They offered an opportunity to work with two of the game's best players. The next partnership may well be somewhere else.

The Cavaliers suddenly look pretty good with Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and potentially Andrew Bynum all returning a year from now. It's a young nucleus with at least one sure superstar.

The Knicks would have a difficult time getting their hands on James until 2015, when both Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony's contracts come off the books. The Lakers could offer little more than promises and the appeal of watching Kobe's career come to a slow, depressing end.

Maybe Miami doesn't have much to worry about, after all. Or maybe Mark Cuban will finally get the last laugh. LeBron does like the Cowboys.


The "L" Word

Make that two "L" words. Loyalty and legacy. Whether one has to do with the other depends on who you ask. For many, the worst thing about 2010's Decision was that it was broadcast on television. Free agents are free to do whatever they want, but maybe they should be a little more sensitive about their ex-fans' feelings—that's all.

Still others wondered why the TV broadcast was only one hour long. Why didn't LeBron get his own channel for an entire month where we could have literally watched him deciding through countless hours of silent deliberation?

Saying there's no loyalty in this business is how self-fulfilling prophecies get started. To the average fan, loyalty matters. It doesn't mean you stick with the same team under absolutely any circumstances, but it probably doesn't mean trying out all 30 of them either. LeBron might get a pass for ditching Cleveland, where—in fairness—he spent seven seasons. Leaving Miami, especially for anywhere but Cleveland, would entrench James ahead of Dwight Howard as the NBA's most fickle franchise player.

James wants to be remembered a winner, but not all winners are equal.

Kobe Bryant will be remembered a lifelong Laker and Tim Duncan the Spurs' heart and soul. They each won multiple titles with different supporting casts and over stretches of (at least) 10 and eight years, respectively. There's something to that kind of longevity, and still more to the fact that neither Kobe nor Duncan leapfrogged their ways to glory. 

Those are the guys dynasties are made of, the true heirs to MJ's throne.

LeBron could still join them, but he'll have to make up his mind and plant some roots. He can't show up in a new, third city proclaiming, "Not three, not four, not five... no seriously, I mean it this time!" Staying in Miami guarantees James a chance to still make good on that promise.

A return to Cleveland would be awkward at best. James has something special with Miami, something Cleveland couldn't give him. Cavs fans would get over it, if only for Miami to know their inconsolable pain. But LeBron might seem like an outsider from Day 1. He had his turn as a Cavalier, and now it's Kyrie's.

It could feel a lot more like the family reunion from hell than a joyous homecoming.


The Future

James would be wise to draw out the frenzied speculation about his destiny. With every report of another free-agent suitor comes a reminder that he's on another level of NBA stardom. Whether he has any intention of ever leaving Miami, ongoing suspense is free advertising.

When he gets serious about making what promises to be a more subdued, lower-cased decision, odds are he picks the Heat. Miami's roster may undergo some changes, but the organization has developed a proven, winning formula. Assimilating new faces and saying goodbye to old ones won't be Miami's undoing.

More importantly, no one will fault James for staying. The only argument available to his critics might be that he could win more somewhere else.

Maybe his decision shouldn't be about winning this time. Maybe it should just be about follow-through, sticking with a city through the good and bad alike. It's not that he owes Miami or Cleveland anything necessarily. But when looking back on a career for the ages, his greatest accomplishments might not be what he did with the best teams.

They might be what he did with the worst.


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