LeBron James has plenty of reasons to smile as a member of the Miami Heat.
Fans in South Beach believe James will stay, and quite frankly, they have a right to be confident. At 28 years old, the forward is on top of the world, as he’s coming off back-to-back championships and looking for a third straight.
Things have gone right for James up to this point, but people love to speculate, as there are always two sides to every story.
When it comes to the 2014 offseason, James will have options. First and foremost, he can play out the final year of his deal, extending this discussion another season.
Which team has the most to offer LeBron James in 2014?
However, the more likely scenario is that he looks for a long-term contract, further securing his future.
When James opts out, there will be a fair share of teams vying for his services. That’s what happens when you’re the best player on the planet, and as we saw in 2010, James loves to be recruited.
Of the potential suitors, expect the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers to make the most headlines. Mark Cuban never shies away from stars, L.A. always has the limelight, and the Cavs are vastly improved since James left in 2010.
The truth, though, is that James left Cleveland to become a champion, and he’s done just that with Miami.
James has experienced more triumph since 2010 than any other player. He’s won two MVPs, he’s been to three straight championships, and he’s collected two rings in the process.
The Heat have redefined success in today’s NBA, and there’s not a team that can compete with what Miami has done in the three years since James’ arrival.
In free-agent discussions, organizations will make sure James is aware of the advanced age and declining health of Miami’s core. Dwyane Wade has become less consistent and frequently wounded, and Chris Bosh has been the focus of similar storylines.
Wade is set to turn 32 during the 2013-14 season, which means the star’s heath is even more of a variable moving forward. But while age and durability are both notable, the truth is that you don’t leave a dynasty this early in the process—especially when you’re hands down the best player on a championship team.
Say what you want about the sample size of the Heat’s success; they have become a perennial powerhouse in a star-driven league. People count the San Antonio Spurs out every season, yet they’ve proven year after year that age and health can be dealt with en route to postseason success.
It’s also beyond noteworthy that Pat Riley has brilliantly surrounded James with talent. Depth was a problem when the Big Three came together, but they now have shooters, defenders and rim protectors as part of a strong supporting cast.
Miami Heat depth chart: PG: Mario, Cole SG: Wade, Allen SF: James, Battier, Jones PF: UD, Lewis, Varnado C: Bosh, Oden, Birdman, Anthony— The NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) August 3, 2013
Along with age and health, James is bound to hear about the new Collective Bargaining Agreement from opposing owners and general managers. The CBA will make it difficult for Miami to retain all three of its stars and nearly impossible to keep the depth it has with luxury tax penalties.
Money is going to be tricky for this organization, but James should be content with Riley at the helm. The GM brought three stars together when few thought it was possible, and he’ll find a way keep James both happy and successful beyond 2014.
The first option is to sacrifice the depth while retaining the stars. The second option is to trade away one of the Big Three while getting younger and retaining reserves.
The latter seems like the top choice at this point, with Bosh being the most obvious sacrifice. But you’d better believe Riley will consult James and do what’s best for his team both now and into the future.
As much as the Heat have to offer on the court, you can’t forget about one other fact: NBA players are people too—people who enjoy lives away from the gym.
As far as we can tell, James has had plenty to be happy about in South Beach. Miami may not be the same market as Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, but it has a lifestyle that appeals to wealthy, popular athletes around the country.
Speaking of popularity, don’t forget that James is better off now when it comes to public perception than he was in 2010. His choice to spurn Cleveland on national television made him one of the most hated athletes in the country, and with a couple of championships to claim, fans are talking about his game—not his “Decision.”
James recognizes the concept of a legacy, and he’s dropped the villain role substantially since his first year in Miami. He tried his hardest to be the bad guy and embrace his new persona, but deep down, he’s still the easygoing kid we’ve seen since 2003.
Winning is the No. 1 goal for James, but he doesn’t want to tarnish his legacy along the way. A move to another contender would negate the damage control he’s done thus far, fueling the fire for cynics across the league.
For those who think James would be better leaving Miami, that’s fine—we’re all entitled to our opinions. But for those who believe the Heat have nothing to offer, take a step back and realize just how good life is for James.
His fans are returning, his championships are piling up, and he’s the face of a remarkably prosperous organization. His ride in Miami has been fast and furious, and simply put, he’s in the driver’s seat.
The beauty behind free agency is that if James wants out, he can leave. Nobody can force him to stay, and he can move onto the next chapter of his illustrious career.
But if James is smart, he’ll realize that home is where the rings are, and that his talents belong in South Beach for the foreseeable future.