Why Dwyane Wade Dictates LeBron James' Long-Term Miami Heat Future
You may think you know the type of music that LeBron James listens to whenever he puts on his headphones (and the NBA 2K14 soundtrack may give you a good indication as well), but I have a feeling that he's obsessed with "The Clash."
After all, it seems like he's constantly wondering whether he should stay or go.
LeBron's future will end up being completely dictated by the play of Dwyane Wade, though, so he might as well stop thinking about it for the time being. Maybe that way he can go back to reading "The Hunger Games" instead of listening to the late Joe Strummer's vocals.
The league MVP has an early termination clause in his contract, one that he could use at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season in order to hit the free-agent market a little bit early. There's been plenty of speculation over where he'll end up, and something tells me that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are already salivating at the possibility of landing LeBron.
But we can't get ahead of ourselves. Everything depends on this season, which means that it all comes down to the play of Wade.
Breaking Down LeBron's Current Stance
When LeBron was most recently asked about his status as a (potentially) upcoming free agent, he gave the politically correct answer, even if it seemed to lean slightly toward the Heat's side of the equation. As reported by ESPN's Chris Broussard, the reigning MVP wasn't really sure what he'd be doing:
I have absolutely no idea. I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization as we continue to compete for championships. That's ideal. But we don't know what may happen from now to the end of the season. That's the nature of the business. It's the nature of not knowing what tomorrow brings.
I mean, as a kid, I never thought the Bulls would break up. Never. If you'd of told me as a kid that [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen wouldn't play together for the rest of their lives, I'd have looked at you crazy. And Phil Jackson wouldn't be the coach? I'd have looked at you crazy. But sometimes the nature of the business doesn't allow things to happen like you would want them to. But we'll see.
At first, it seems like LeBron wants to commit to Miami. He says all the right things: Spending the rest of his career with the organization is something he desires, and it would be ideal to keep competing for championships in South Beach.
But then come the backpedals.
In a way, LeBron is doing exactly the same thing here that he did in his contract with the Miami Heat. He's providing himself with opt-out clauses. Just as he received an early termination option for the 2014-15 season, so too is he leaving open the possibility that he could leave in this quote, even if he never explicitly states it.
But this is a different situation than the one he found himself in after the 2009-10 season. Let's have ESPN's Brian Windhorst take it away:
Nonetheless, James has a luxury most of those around him or who covet him don't enjoy. He knows that no matter what happens this upcoming season he'll have every choice open to him. This time it will come without the pressure to prove himself a champion that he carried back in 2010.
That will tantalize and perhaps even taunt the fans and management of other teams as they brainstorm how to attract him. It will keep some in the Heat organization up some nights as they worry about keeping him. Right now James feels no such burden.
The final buzzer could ring next year and James could say nothing and let his contract opt-out pass on June 30 and do it all over again in 2015. Then he could opt in and do it all again in 2016. Or he could announce he plans to re-sign long-term in Miami or with any of the other 29 teams, all of whom would tear up their roster if James decided he wanted to play there.
It's a buffet of choices and all of them place supreme power in James' control, a control he will continue to enjoy for the foreseeable future.
He may be headed for being truly the most "free" agent the NBA has ever seen.
It's a great point, especially because Windhorst goes on to explain that no matter where LeBron goes, star players will follow. He's that type of transcendent talent.
But even still, LeBron's decision—much as I shudder to use that word—rests on what the Heat do. The way he began his quote makes it seem as though returning to Miami is his No. 1 choice, just only if they're able to remain competitive and fill up the third finger on his hand with yet another ring.
And that's why everything is about how successful the Heat are this season.
What Leads to Success
Even though the Heat have won each of the past two championships, a three-peat is far from a guarantee. The Eastern Conference is only getting stronger at the top, and it's not like the Western Conference will provide a pushover in the NBA Finals for the defending title-winners to treat as a doormat.
But, of course, it's by no means impossible for the Heat to become the latest three-peating franchise.
For that to happen, Wade has to play like his vintage self. I've already dispelled the unfortunate notion that the shooting guard is declining (you can check it out here), but that's still contingent on the health of his knee.
During the offseason, the 2-guard underwent OssaTron shock therapy in an effort to help him prepare for the 2013-14 season. Let me remind you what happened the last time he had a similar treatment.
That would be in 2008, right after it was announced that he would miss the last portion of the 2007-08 campaign. And talk about a bounce-back.
Wade went on to win the scoring title in 2008-09 and enjoyed what is unquestionably the greatest individual season of his career. It's tough to argue with 30.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 49.1 percent from the field with a career-high 30.4 PER.
Expecting those type of numbers after a second batch of treatment would be foolish, but it's not at all unreasonable to expect another vintage season while he's feeling at the top of his game. OssaTron hasn't been shown to have any long-term effects, either positive or negative, but it does provide temporary relief.
Here's what Will Carroll, B/R's injury expert, had to say about the treatment when I asked him:
@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
All signs point toward Wade still playing at a high level.
Over the last two years, he hasn't declined; his role has just shifted as LeBron continues to take control of the offense. Defensively, he's become more of a standout team defender instead of the individual stopper he was earlier in his career.
And if Wade is healthy and playing at a high level—barring injuries to any other major contributors—the Heat don't look likely to fall out of contention. They still have LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh, plus a whole host of role players ready to contribute.
Will the Heat three-peat?
Additionally, if Greg Oden plays at even 50 percent of what was originally expected when he was drafted one spot before Kevin Durant, the team gets even scarier.
The Heat don't even have to win a title in order to convince LeBron that staying is the right decision. They just have to get close enough and play at such a high level that he thinks a championship is in the cards down the road if he stays.
Unfortunately, that's not a guarantee.
What Leads to Failure
When Wade showed more than just resiliency in 2008, he was 26 years old. Now he's 31 and will turn 32 during the middle of the 2013-14 campaign.
There are no certainties when discussing his ability to regain that old form, and the diminished version of the shooting guard that we saw throughout the postseason may be here to stay. When I wrote that Wade was still elite, it was using the underlying assumption that he was going to recover fully from his knee problems (well, as fully as possible).
But assumptions aren't always correct.
If Wade can't play at an All-Star level, LeBron is as good as gone.
He was able to carry the Heat through the playoffs while going into "Cleveland mode" with more frequency than ever before—except for when he was in Cleveland, of course—but asking him to repeat that is too much.
Over the offseason, the Heat didn't get stronger (unless Oden suddenly remembers how his knees are supposed to work). The rest of the Eastern Conference did, and I'm not just talking about the teams at the bottom.
Will LeBron stay with the Heat?
Going into the 2013-14 season, it appears as though there are five powerhouses in the East: the Heat, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. And that means that this year, rather than facing off with a crippled Bulls squad and then engaging in a winner-take-all battle with the Pacers, the Heat are going to square off with elite teams in back-to-back rounds before advancing to the NBA Finals.
Having help for LeBron is of paramount importance. And without much cap space and a roster that is devoid of star power beyond the Big Three, that help has to come from Wade, who simply must be his old self.
No pressure, Dwyane.
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