We knew this day would come. We just didn't expect it to arrive so quickly.
Since acquiring LeBron James and Chris Bosh, among others, to play alongside Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, the Miami Heat have dominated every angle of the NBA landscape; from their constant exposure as a team that embarked on a hit-or-miss experiment to representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals the past three seasons.
Even though it's still another elongated and superfluous 82-game regular season and postseason away, the uneasiness and unsettling moods that enveloped the league in 2010 is quietly and ominously making its return.
James, Bosh and Wade, as well as essentially the entirety of the Heat roster, will most likely become unrestricted free agents next year. They will be able to sign with any team they want, and it's already peaking the interest of several suitors, naturally creating speculation among major media outlets.
For all we know, the defending back-to-back champions could become the next Cleveland Cavaliers, with the exception of having taken advantage of its superstars and actually coming away with title victories beforehand.
Miami has been a juggernaut since erupting after their 9-8 start to the 2010-11 season. But it has yet to create any audible guaranteed stays from the Heat's stars.
What was once thought to be a guarantee of a dynasty equivalent to that of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980's may never come to fruition because of the impending salary cap hit Miami will end up taking.
Oh, it's not like we never knew this day would arrive. Each member of Miami's 'Big Three' signed their deal with an opt-out clause set for the summer of 2014, four years after originally signing. The looming summer has been festering in the minds of every member of the Heat community.
Why did they sign a contract with that unsettling opt-out clause? Perhaps as a way out in case the experiment didn't go as planned? In case there were more attractive situations elsewhere? Or, ideally, each player takes another paycut and re-sign with the Heat?
That certainly would be ideal, wouldn't it? And it's probably what the Heat front office is hoping for, too.
Part of this ideal situation involves the 'Big Three' opting out and then re-signing with the Heat to lesser deals. Each member will have already made well over $100 million by next summer, but is loyalty, and the possibility of winning more titles and establishing this dynasty, worth more than max deals on other squads?
Each member of the 'Big Three' will be making far less than a max deal.
Miami's ownership made it known that they will not dole out a lucrative amount of luxury tax money when utilizing the amnesty clause to waive a crowd favorite and championship contributor in Mike Miller. The $6 million he was making per year outweighed the chemistry he created on and off the court.
The front office recognizes that they can sign players of Miller's caliber to deals that are worth far less than what he was making. It's not just a salary cap move to give the Heat more money to pay the 'Big Three', it's also leaving room for another productive veteran that may want to win a few titles before retiring.
Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen are all making at least half of what Miller was making, yet all played far larger roles in the rotation.
The Heat will need to sign on a number of role players in 2014, especially with the high possibility Battier and Allen retire, but it all ends up riding on what each member of the 'Big Three' does first.
First off, those three opting out of their deals is the best thing that will happen to the Heat.
Because they're most likely opting out of their current contracts, the Heat won't have to pay over $61 million if they opt-in. Come the 2015-16 season and those three opting-in results in the Heat having to pay over $65 million for those three players alone, one of whom will be a 33-year-old Dwyane Wade.
The salary cap for the 2013-14 season is less than $60 million.
There's no telling how Wade's body will hold up by then. He could be falling to pieces or he could experience another personal renaissance when dealing with injuries that could derail his career. Many critics also counted out Wade following a slew of surgeries that greatly impacted his career from 2006-08, only to see him return from 2008-10 as arguably the league's best player.
Then again, Wade was also 27 when he made his triumphant return. There's a difference between a player's body when he enters his prime and when he leaves it.
If the Heat intend on keeping those three, it means having to give a lucrative deal over the next five years to the aging and oft-injured starting shooting guard.
Nobody doubts that Wade can come through whenever need be, as evidenced by his 32-point Game 5 and Game 7 NBA Finals double-double. What's worth worrying about, however, is if he can consistently be the number two guy over that five-year period; if he can prove to be a shoulder to lean on in times of need.
His minutes will need to be managed heavily this season. Keep the primary focus on the season that actually matters and use the regular season as recovery for the playoffs.
Instead of depending on Wade so heavily in the regular season, give more run to the younger Bosh. It kills two birds with one stone as Miami eases Wade's minutes and more responsibility on offense is given to Bosh, who is constantly being utilized as a third wheel.
In the end, Wade's health is what's going to effectively convince LeBron to stick around for another five years. He's going to need a crutch, as any superstar would need, or two to help him continue winning titles and advancing his name among the greatest the sport has ever seen. That crutch needs to be an All-Star that can take off some of the offensive and defensive workload off of James.
LeBron has already shown what he is capable of with some help. He doesn't want to lose that feeling in Miami, but there were some heavy doubts being raised at certain points during the past postseason run.
The Heat won that second consecutive title, while beating some great overachieving teams in the process, but don't forget when we were comparing Miami to LeBron's former Cleveland Cavalier teams.
Doubts like that can't be raised in their third season playing together, especially with a 31-year-old Dwyane Wade. It doesn't establish a great deal of confidence for his future play, unless he begins to work on consistently hitting mid-range jumpers and possibly adding the three-pointer to his repertoire.
Until Wade learns to consistently score without having to go over the top of 7-footers, there will always be doubt instilled into how long his body will hold up in his physical playing style. With the rest of the league catching up to Miami, such as the Indiana Pacers, the Heat can no longer afford to have Dwyane limping into the offseason.
Dwyane's playoff averages were his lowest since his rookie year. There's going to be a lot riding on Wade's minutes, usage and production this season in knowing just what the front office is going to attempt to pull off.
Even if he is ailing, Wade's loyalty has not fallen on deaf ears or blind eyes. The Heat appreciate everything he has given to the club, including not complaining for a trade during the period where he was supporting a roster that showcased Michael Beasley and Jermaine O'Neal and bowed out in the first round in consecutive seasons.
Don't think loyalty exists anymore? Don't forget the Heat chose to get rid of Mike Miller and not Udonis Haslem, whose numbers fell to career-lows last season. Seeing Wade in a uniform that doesn't have 'Miami' or 'Heat' or 'El Heat' emblazoned on it almost seems sacrilegious.
Like LeBron, Dwyane is an athlete who reaps huge rewards and benefits off of endorsement deals.
If there's any member of the 'Big Three' that won't be with the team for the start of the 2014-15 season, if it does come down to the front office ultimately deciding if he's worth it, it would be Chris Bosh.
Bosh is worth the money he's making. His role as a stretch-four/five is imperative to Miami's success, and most importantly opening up the lane for LeBron and Dwyane. That ability to spread the floor has been a key fit in the Heat's two championship runs, including the 40 percent he shot from three in last season's playoffs.
But that conversion from a power forward to a center to a shooting guard has hurt the Heat, too. While the rebounding problems have been overstated, it's still a blow to the stomach when impressive defensive exhibitions end up turning into a five-foot putback off an offensive rebound for Roy Hibbert.
Miami is going to have to go through the likes of Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Brook Lopez over the next few years if they intend on just making the championship series. Against Noah and Hibbert, Bosh struggled mightily, with the exception of his 20-19 in Game 3 against Chicago, and ended up having up some of the worst individual numbers of his career.
He went the final four games of the series with Indiana without scoring more than ten points. His high in points for the playoffs was 20 on two occasions. He scored zero points in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. I'm perfectly aware of what he did in Game 6, but he also had zero points in 28 minutes in the following game.
That's the highest paid player on the Heat putting up those numbers. It's unacceptable, and it's perfectly understandable if Bosh declines to spend another five years with a team where he is at times a non-factor in the offense and is forced to play out of position.
There's more money and larger roles for Bosh elsewhere. LeBron has a lead role and a dynasty on his hands. Dwyane has a city's worth of devotion. The most Chris has to stay for is championships, which he has already won on two occasions and could win a third if all goes as planned this coming season.
It will be up to Chris if he wants to put more weight into winning than into making money and playing an increased role in the prime of his career, right?
The Heat would much rather keep their core together than introduce a new player to their system. It would be difficult for the Heat to find any sort of replacement for Bosh, the league's top mid-range shooter last year, an improving defender and a big who can stretch the floor that is on par with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love.
Just like how you can't replace LeBron James, you also can't just replace Chris Bosh, which is why it's always been a peeve of mine to hear any sort of clamoring for a Bosh trade. There's no immediate need for the trading of a key starter of a two-time champion that could easily have been looking at a four-peat next year.
It's going to take compliance from each member of the 'Big Three' if they want to keep this thing together. Obviously more of these questions will be easier to answer once the 2013-14 season comes to a close and the Heat are either going into the summer of 2014 as three-time champions or disappointed from an untimely exit.
Needless to say, it would come as quite the surprise if the 'Big Three' decide to take max deals elsewhere after winning a third straight title. As much as the Pacers or Bulls or Nets have improved, they still lack a four-time MVP that could legitimately still improve as well. Don't think for a second that when LeBron has been resting, he hasn't also been refining a game that's going to enable a third championship.
Also, let's not forget teams like the Pacers and Bulls will be beating up on each other in the regular season in one of the league's toughest divisions, which also features a young Cleveland team and a revamped Detroit squad.
There's no championship hangover. If a player signs with the Heat, their primary and sole purpose is to win. A vast majority of the players on this team are playing on salaries far less than what they would be making with a different team, making the accomplishment of winning a championship all the more desirable.
And if Greg Oden is actually healthy and preserved for the postseason? The Heat's road isn't as difficult as it may appear to be right now.
It's extremely premature to know what any of these players are going to do because of how much there is riding on the upcoming season. Nothing will get broken up if the team achieves a three-peat. The same may not be said if the team experiences an exit in the semifinals or Conference Finals.
The only way to ensure those three stay with the Heat is purely up to them and their willingness to continue earning a considerable amount less than what they could be making elsewhere. LeBron and Chris both have their reasons as to why leaving could help their future situation, but they will never replicate what they had in Miami.
Also, those two will never have their prayers answered as much as they were in Miami by Pat Riley. In three short years, Riley has flipped a bench that prominently featured Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and James Jones and turned it into Ray Allen, Shane Battier and 'Birdman'. It was those moves to acquire those role players that truly enabled a championship.
Even if offseasons such as this one where Miami has little to no money to spend, Riley still gets his man for a low price. With as many as eight teams pursuing Oden, it was the team that was offering him the least amount of money, a veterans minimum, that ended up getting him.
No other franchise can pull the strings like Miami can. For the likes of LeBron and Chris, it'll be solely up to them if they think they can find as competent an ownership as what Miami employs.
The front offices of Cleveland, who couldn't acquire a single All-Star outside of an aged Shaquille O'Neal to play alongside LeBron and have been gifted incredible draft spots, the Los Angeles Lakers, who failed in their begging and pleading of Dwight Howard, and the New York Knicks, proud recipients of Andrea Bargnani this summer, represent the franchises most expected to make a serious run at LeBron.
Who's to say Riley can't get all three players to take paycuts and then create a nearly new roster out of veterans that also want to win? He has the track record to prove it.
As desirable as it may appear to play alongside young stars in Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, it also means choosing to not continue playing with a three-time NBA champion, possibly four by the end of next season, and having to play with a roster full to the brim of players who have little to no playoff experience.
Does LeBron really want to establish a brand new chemistry with a brand new team? Does he want to face the torrid flaming of the media when they declare how he had to jump ship for the younger team? Does he really want to go back to play for the owner that ridiculed and turned his entire city against him?
Stranger things have happened, but that particular scenario seems unlikely.
The even more unlikely scenario would be seeing this thing get broken apart after three seasons of success, and an upcoming fourth season that has the Heat favored to win the title. Success is what brought everyone here, so why lose that rare feeling when it's already there?