Biggest Variables That Could Influence LeBron James' 2014 Free Agency
It's hard to fathom, but it's nevertheless true: A three-peat opportunity is only the second-biggest storyline for the Miami Heat in 2013-14.
If things start going sour for the Heat, the inevitable free-agency questions will begin bubbling to the surface. James, Wade and Bosh all have early-termination options in their contracts after this year, the thought of which will have 29 other teams salivating from now until July 1, 2014.
With two NBA championships now under his belt, there appears to be no stopping James from cementing his name as one of the league's all-time greats. Players like that aren't often available in free agency, to say the least.
Seven key factors will help determine what James decides to do with his future following the 2013-14 season.
Let's run through them.
Dwyane Wade's Knees
If Miami Heat fans want LeBron James to stick around past the 2013-14 season, they should pray to the basketball gods that Dwyane Wade makes it through the year unscathed.
Knee problems have caused the man once known as Flash to sputter at times during each of the past two seasons. A third straight flare-up could be an indication to James that he can't rely upon Wade to stay healthy and help carry the team each year.
In the 2012-13 season, his right knee was the one that gave him trouble. He missed six games late in the regular season due to three bone bruises in his right knee, a problem which lingered throughout the playoffs.
After the Heat won their second straight championship, Wade told Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press that he needed eight hours of game-day therapy to play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. He also told Reynolds that he received platelet-rich plasma therapy late in the regular season because of the bone bruises.
To cut down on the wear and tear this upcoming season, Wade told USA Today's Sean Highkin that he hopes to be more of a consistent outside shooter. If he can't stay healthy, however, James will be forced to consider whether Wade can be a reliable sidekick for the next half-decade.
Miami's 2014 Playoff Run
If the Miami Heat do pull off the three-peat, there's little question that they'll stay together past the 2014 offseason. The chance for four straight titles, something Michael Jordan never accomplished, would be too juicy to pass up.
Don't just take my word for it, though. Chris Bosh told Joseph Goodman of the The Miami Herald the same thing.
"If we take care of business, we know everything is going to be all good," Bosh said. "So, we just have to take that mentality, and that kind of erases all the doubt."
Remember, the Heat's stars are under no obligation to exercise their early-termination options. Each of the Big Three also has a player option following the 2014-15 season, so they can delay their free-agency bonanza for another year.
Those free-agency questions will reach a fever pitch, however, if the Heat can't successfully defend their championship.
To compete with the NBA's all-time greats, LeBron James needs to rack up as many rings as possible before he retires. If the Heat falter in the 2014 playoffs, he'll have to seriously consider whether Miami gives him the best opportunity to compete for championships over the next few seasons.
Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade Play Hardball
When the Big Three first joined forces in 2010, each player made a sizable contractual sacrifice.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were all eligible for six-year contracts worth just over $120 million. Instead, the three players each took a discount of roughly $2 million per year, which gave the Miami Heat enough cap space to sign Mike Miller that summer, too.
James and Bosh are slated to make just over $19 million this season, while Wade will earn just shy of $18.7 million. If they decide not to opt out after the 2013-14 season, all three players will make over $20 million each in 2014-15.
Keep in mind: The Big Three signed those contracts under the old collective bargaining agreement, which wasn't nearly as restrictive as the latest CBA. Now, it's all but impossible to sign three free agents to maximum (or near-maximum) contracts at once.
In other words: If James, Wade and Bosh opt out and aren't willing to sign for less again, the Heat likely won't be able to retain all three of them.
Given the endorsement money each player earns on the side and the precedent they set in 2010, it's entirely possible that all three decide to sacrifice for the greater good once more. If Wade or Bosh plays contractual hardball, though, they'll likely be negotiating their way out of Miami.
Micky Arison Tightening His Wallet
Even if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh agree to sign for less than the maximum amount they're allowed to earn, the Miami Heat still could be in dire financial straits.
The latest collective bargaining agreement instituted a punitive "repeater rate" for frequent taxpaying teams. In 2014-15, any team that has paid the luxury tax in each of the past three seasons will be subject to the repeater rate, which will more than double the cost of every dollar spent over the tax.
Starting this upcoming season, the tax rate shoots up even for non-taxpaying teams. That fiscal reality caused Heat owner Micky Arison to exercise the team's amnesty provision on Mike Miller this offseason, saving nearly $17 million in the process, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
The Heat paid $13.3 million in luxury tax during the 2012-13 season, Windhorst reported, which was the most Arison has ever paid. Suffice it to say, Arison isn't Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who's openly laughing in the face of the NBA with his projected $85-plus million tax bill.
If Miller's departure comes back to haunt the Heat this coming season, will James hold that amnesty decision against Arison?
It's certainly within the realm of possibility.
2014 Draft Results
At the moment, the 2014 NBA draft is shaping up to be the best in over a decade.
Andrew Wiggins leads the way as the projected No. 1 pick, but he'll have plenty of competition at the top. Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum and Aaron Gordon, among others, will be challenging him every step of the way this coming season.
Of course, plenty is subject to change between now and the day of the draft. If some of the presumed top-five-pick freshmen decide to stay in school (a la Smart this past year), the draft could begin to lose some luster.
Regardless, it's highly likely that multiple franchise cornerstones will be available to be selected on draft night in 2014. Where they end up could go a long way in determining what happens with the 2014 free-agent class.
What happens if a team like the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder or Indiana Pacers suffers an unthinkable string of injuries and misses the playoffs entirely? What happens if the Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Lakers defy the odds and land a top-five pick?
The odds are certainly against a 2014 top-five pick ending up on a team that will pique LeBron James' interest next summer in free agency. On the off chance that it happens, though, it could have lasting ramifications far beyond draft night.
Other Contenders' Statuses
If the Miami Heat can't successfully pull off the three-peat in 2013-14, LeBron James will be forced to examine the competitive landscape.
James, who turns 29 at the end of December, can't afford to sign on to a rebuilding project at this point. If he has any hope of overthrowing Michael Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history, he'll need to continue adding rings to his growing collection.
Therefore, as a free agent, he'll have to take stock of where the other top teams stand, both in terms of cap space and proximity to true championship-contender status.
If Kyrie Irving emerges in 2013-14 looking like the NBA's best point guard, the Cleveland Cavaliers suddenly could become a more realistic landing spot for James. Or what if Kobe Bryant comes back from his torn Achilles tendon with no side effects and then decides to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers next summer for the veteran's minimum?
Both of these situations are pure hypotheticals at the moment, but it speaks to the uncertainty around the league. A year ago, who would have ever thought that the San Antonio Spurs would be 28 seconds away from winning the 2013 championship?
Plenty will change between now and July 1, 2014. Expect James to be taking stock of it all, no matter what happens with the Heat in the 2014 playoffs.
Location, Location, Location
For a player who can have his pick of the litter when it comes to a team, there's no reason for LeBron James to settle for a city in which he wouldn't enjoy living.
Based on comments he made to Rebecca Kleinman of Women's Wear Daily, it sounds like he'll be putting a premium on warm weather.
When discussing his eventual retirement locale, James told the magazine, "It will definitely be someplace warm. I don't want to go back to cold winters."
The weather won't be his only location-based consideration. State taxes could be a huge factor, too.
His current home state, Florida, is one of nine U.S. states that don't charge individual income tax. Living in such a state gives James millions of reasons not to leave.
On-the-court considerations will weigh most prominently in James' mind when deciding his future in free agency, but don't rule out these off-the-court aspects.