After winning consecutive championships, the Miami Heat don't have to be too worried about the future right now. They can let their focus rest on completing the NBA's first three-peat since the Los Angeles Lakers finished theirs in the early 2000s.
However, the future doesn't just go away.
Eventually, Pat Riley and Mickey Arison will have to figure out a way to make the money work, and that means that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's partnership could come to a close. There's a great chance the Heat could still keep both superstars, especially if one or both are willing to take pay cuts, but they could very well be forced to choose between the two.
If that's the case, forget about nostalgia. The Heat would have to do what's in the best interest of the franchise moving forward, and that would involve cutting ties with D-Wade.
It's a harsh reality—and it's one that ultimately doesn't have to come to pass—but it is a reality.
The monetary situation for the Miami Heat is complicated by the newly instituted repeater's tax. Beginning in 2014-15, teams will have to pay quite a bit more money when they're over the luxury-tax threshold, assuming that they've also been taxpayers for each of the past three seasons.
The Heat will qualify as such, which means that they're subject to significantly higher expenditures than they've typically been used to.
Below you can see a visual representation of how much harsher the repeater's tax is than the regular luxury tax:
For example, when a team is more than $20 million above the tax level, it would owe $4.25 for every dollar over as a repeater, but "only" $3.25 per dollar if a non-repeater. That's a harsh difference when you're dealing with millions instead of single George Washingtons.
So, why does this matter? The Heat don't have a single guaranteed salary on the books past the 2013-14 season, after all.
Well, it matters because if the players all opt into their contracts—something that LeBron, Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Chris Andersen can all do—it becomes more difficult to build a competent supporting cast without exceeding the tax limit. Again.
The NBA is too deep and too top-heavy for a roster without depth to win a championship. So let's say they try to maintain their depth, as Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen shows:
As its payroll stands today, Miami is committed to seven players [the six players listed above and Norris Cole's team option] in 2014-15 at a total cost of $78.4 million. The bulk of that guaranteed money is scheduled to go to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who will be paid $61.4 million altogether that season.
It's important to note that Miami's payroll for 2014-15 does not yet include low-salaried players who are crucial to its championship hopes -- contributors like Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, James Jones and Rashard Lewis, each a member of the Heat's current team. Those five players are making a combined $14.9 million this season.
Let's say that Miami, in order to remain in title contention in 2014-15, will add $14.9 million in cost-efficient role players to the seven men already contracted for that season. (The Heat may have to pay more than $14.9 million for similar complementary talent two seasons from now, but let's stick with that conservative figure for the sake of argument.) Here's what it means: If their ambitions remain high and they're able to keep costs as low as possible, then the Heat will be responsible for a payroll totaling $93.3 million -- and that's before the brutal impact of the repeater tax kicks in.
Will Arison be willing to pay the tax?
Thomsen notes that if the luxury tax—optimistically—rises to $75 million, the Heat's total expenditures for 12 players would be just over $141 million. And that's where he brings in a rival general manager who says that the Heat will have no choice but to break up the team.
Rostering more than two superstars is simply going to be financially impossible for many teams around the NBA.
Arison is not Mikhail Prokhorov. His checkbook, while bigger than anything I can even imagine, isn't on the same scale as that of the Brooklyn Nets owner's, and he doesn't have the Los Angeles Lakers-type ability to basically print money either.
While he hasn't made an official statement on the subject, this team may be out of his price range.
Health and Age
It's no secret that D-Wade isn't exactly the model of health right now.
During the postseason, the shooting guard didn't look like himself. He struggled to remain effective over the course of any single game, and the vintage Wade plays were few and far between. In fact, as reported by the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), Wade almost asked out of a crucial game against the Indiana Pacers.
Wade also received platelet-rich plasma therapy late in the regular season to combat three bone bruises around his right knee, which was his biggest source of frustration and pain during the playoffs. Wade said two of the bruises healed, but a third —directly under the kneecap—remained a big problem, especially since that area was also affected by tendinitis.
Wade underwent an MRI to rule out additional problems during the East finals against Indiana, and said he was driving into a meeting with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra before Game 7 of that series—not long after saying in the immediate aftermath of the Game 6 loss to the Pacers that he needed the ball more—to tell him that he felt he should only play short minutes because his ineffectiveness was hurting the team.
And that was before he needed his knee drained and eight hours of game-day therapy in order to play in the final contest of the season.
Wade was ultimately able to play in every important game, but he still had trouble regaining the effectiveness he once possessed. Tendonitis and bone bruises have just continued to be problematic as the years pile up, and his aggressive playing style doesn't help much.
Some games it seems as though the dynamic 2-guard spends as much time on the ground as he does standing up. And no, that's not the result of flopping.
During the offseason, Wade underwent OssaTron shockwave treatment to relieve the pain in his knees. It's a more radical procedure than the typical surgical options, but it's also non-invasive and has typically had a high rate of success.
In order to confirm that this procedure wouldn't have any long-term ramifications, I reached out to Will Carroll, B/R's injury expert (literally, that's his Twitter handle):
@fromal09 None. It's been used on lots of players (similar, if not identical.)— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) August 16, 2013
@fromal09 I mean that in terms of negatives. The therapy itself is interesting and should offer some level of short-term relief.— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) August 16, 2013
While that's obviously good news for Wade, it's interesting that we're talking about "short-term relief." This might help out the Heat for the 2013-14 season, but the knee isn't just magically going to get better.
Wade is inevitably going to be dealing with injuries throughout the rest of his career, just as he has since first joining the NBA out of Marquette. Chalk it up to his style of play.
But it's only going to get more and more difficult for him to recover in timely fashion, and Wade is already 31 years old.
For the sake of comparison, LeBron is still built like a tank. While a fluke injury could happen at any time, it's not exactly like he's earned an injury-prone label.
Past vs. Future
Which is more important, the past or the future?
If forced to choose between the two stars, the Heat essentially have to make that decision.
Wade clearly represents the past. He's spent his entire career with the Heat, winning three championships and accruing a ridiculously large fanbase within the city all the while. That's not to say that he's not a part of the future, only that the bulk of his career rests in the past. Especially when compared to LeBron.
The demise of the shooting guard is admittedly a bit overblown.
While Wade is 31 years old, he's an old 31.
His body has taken an incredible beating over the years and no amount of treatment can help fix that. Even if he has great years left in the tank—which he does—they're limited, and it doesn't make sense to build the franchise around him going forward.
The same simply can't be said about our reigning MVP.
LeBron is in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in basketball history. In the last two years, he's won two NBA championships, an Olympic gold medal, two regular-season MVPs and two Finals MVPs. That's an unparalleled stretch of individual and team success.
Ready for the scary part?
He's 28 years old and just entering his prime.
LeBron has been getting significantly better as the years have progressed. We're not talking about small improvements, but rather major steps forward across the board. He just put up arguably the best season in NBA history—you have to consider both offensive and defensive impact—and he's still showing signs of getting even better.
Take a look at LeBron's shooting percentages over the last few years:
Does that look like someone who's getting worse or remaining stagnant?
Not in the least.
In fact, LeBron's field-goal percentage has followed a nearly perfect quadratic regression (the scale makes it hard to see that) over the given time period, and if it continues on that path, he'll be shooting right around 60 percent from the field this season.
If you were running the Heat and had to pick between Wade and James, who would you choose?
He's gotten remarkably better when using his jumper, and the post moves are getting deadlier every day. It's still clear that he's the future of the franchise, and we can't predict when he'll begin to decline since we haven't seen an athletic marvel like him in a long time.
LeBron has been part of the past just like Wade, but he's a much larger player going forward. He is the future, just as he is the present.
Now, Arison could very well render this whole conversation moot by stepping forward with a check large enough to pay the ginormous luxury-tax bill, but if he doesn't, the Heat have to make a decision.
And as painful as losing the past may be, it's worth giving up for the future. LeBron has to be the choice over his friend and teammate.