There's free-agent speculation, and then there's the storm building around what just might be LeBron James' second Decision since 2010.
To be sure, a decision will be made one way or the other. The only remaining suspense is whether it'll be an endorsement of the status quo or a defection for the ages. If you thought Dwight Howard turning his nose up to the Los Angeles Lakers was controversial, just imagine if the Lakers had actually been any good.
At the moment, it's hard to see James—or his All-Star cohorts Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—giving up on an operation that's come to define NBA greatness throughout the last three seasons. Nevertheless, each of the Big Three has the opportunity to terminate his contract early at season's end, potentially changing the face(s) of the 2014-15 Miami Heat in a big way.
"Potentially" being a key word in this instance. Is a changing of the guard anything more than an archetypal fantasy shared by the league's other 29 times?
Despite LeBron's insistence on keeping future plans under wrap, one need look no further than everyone's first source for NBA news, Women's Wear Daily.
In his interview with Rebecca Kleinman, James had this to say about his thinking: "I miss the slower pace back home but have grown used to my new city’s little perks like fresh fish and sweet fruit. It will definitely be someplace warm. I don’t want to go back to cold winters.”
Are "cold winters" code for not winning championships? Either way, that doesn't sound like very good news for the Cleveland Cavaliers or any other team north of the Mason-Dixon line—the New York Knicks included. Though The New York Times' Nate Taylor and Harvey Araton have speculated that new team president and general manager Steve Mills could be tasked with magically dispatching Amar'e Stoudemire so as to create cap space for someone like James.
Conventional wisdom suggests the Knicks have a better chance of bringing Walt Frazier out of retirement, and this is one of those times conventional wisdom is probably correct.
That leaves the Los Angeles Lakers as the only team with even a remote chance of tearing James away from Miami—and that chance remains remote. According to ESPN's Henry Abbott, "a source close to Lakers management" claimed that, "Within the organization there isn't a single person that believes we can bring LeBron aboard."
In a day and age of constant posturing (and attempts to avoid any appearance of tampering), it's hard to know how much stock we should put in pessimistic sources. After all, the Lakers will have the cap space, and they'll always be the Lakers—a variable that means more to some than it did to Dwight Howard.
Regardless of what we're hearing out of L.A., never count out the Purple and Gold.
Or, for that matter, all those cold-weather teams.
It's hard to know how long James will continue caring about all that "fresh fish and sweet fruit." Those are important considerations to be sure, but his priorities could certainly change in relatively short order. Should Wade embark upon a rapid decline, no amount of feel-good camaraderie will persuade James to forego the remainder of his prime on anything less than a legitimate contender.
So long as LeBron's around, finding above average role players won't be a problem. But the Shane Battiers and Chris Andersens of the world aren't legitimate replacements for someone of Wade's caliber. If the star power in Miami goes South, James could go elsewhere—even if that means going North.
After another two titles in Miami, it's hard to imagine that calculus changing. And according to Wade himself, it isn't (per the Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman):
Everyone knows where I want to be. That's what it's all about to me, is making sure we focus on this season, winning this championship. I want to be in Miami and I have nothing else to talk about. So there won't be no exciting news over here.
Case closed? Probably.
Besides the chance to win and end his career where it started, Wade's also set to make nearly $42 million in the final two seasons of his contract. Facing his 32nd birthday in January, a plaguing injury history and the consequences of a more punitive contractual bargaining agreement, staying with the Heat is about more than loyalty.
That's no knock on Flash—just a pretty convincing reason that he's not going anywhere.
It's reasonably likely Bosh doesn't stick around Miami forever, but it's far less likely he'll have any say over the matter. In the event Pat Riley opts to make a significant changes to the roster, Bosh is almost certain to be the first casualty.
Though it's hard to come by premier bigs, Bosh has neither Wade's longstanding ties to Miami nor James' otherworldly value. That doesn't quite make him expendable, but it does make him the most probable trade chip—at least if there's a trade to be made.
The Heat probably won't go there unless they take a major step back in the near future, and that probably isn't happening either.
But let's assume Miami's fortunes remain more or less unchanged, and let's assume the front office continues to see Bosh as an essential part of that equation. Could he elect to go elsewhere?
To whatever extent his decision is a financial one, that's unlikely. If he plays out the remainder of his very generous contract with the Heat, he'll still be just 32 years old—certainly young enough for a big man to claim another lucrative long-term deal before his time is up. There's no good reason for him to explore his options any sooner than he has to.
This entire discussion will be a moot point so long as the Heat continue playing like the Heat. Though the organization's exposed to legitimate financial pressures on account of the luxury taxes ushered in by 2011's CBA, those pressures won't impact any of the Big Three's individual free-agent decisions. If anything, they'll lead to a trade.
That leaves James the most likely to leave of his own accord. The one guy Miami can least afford to lose is also the one with the most flexibility—and incentive—to do whatever he wants, and that goes for any team holding the rights to a franchise player: the cards in the player's hands.
Of course, saying LeBron is Miami's biggest flight risk shouldn't be confused with believing that risk is a significant one. Rosters as good as Miami's are hard to come by, and it takes time to build the kind of chemistry that's come to characterize that roster. With head coach Erik Spoelstra only beginning to build his legacy, we still may not have seen the best of this club—unthinkable as it is.
James probably doesn't need many reasons to stay—not after the run he's had and the ties he's forged. But those reasons remain all the same. Some flight risks are risks in name only.
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