The Miami Heat's high-profile trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all rational human beings, which is why the idea of all three of them giving up the chance to lock in long-term deals this summer is almost unthinkable.
But there's actually more than one plausible scenario in which the Big Three could collectively agree to waive their early-termination options, delaying their paydays until the summer of 2015.
First, though, it's important to survey the recent NBA landscape to get an idea of how unusual such a decision would be.
Everybody Loves ETOs
Gerald Henderson plays for the Charlotte Bobcats. If you're reading this, you probably knew that. What you might not know is that the Duke product could have made more than $18 million on the three-year deal he signed this past offseason.
But Henderson agreed to accept less in exchange for an early-termination option in the summer of 2014.
Now, you're probably thinking, "Who wouldn't want to preserve the ability to scurry away from the Bobcats at the first opportunity?" But that misses the point that early-termination options are so valuable to NBA players that they're actually willing to pay for them.
That's because they provide the rare dual benefit of security and a chance to explore free agency at the player's discretion. If Henderson gets hurt, he can sit back and collect his money. But if he has a big season, he can check out the market for a bigger deal.
Three cheers for flexibility!
If James, Wade or Bosh were to waive the early-termination options in their contracts, they'd be giving up the chance to explore the open market or to lock in a bigger extension with their current team. And frankly, they're not the type of players who waive ETOs in the first place.
ETO Waivers: Not for Everybody
For the most part, ETO waivers and the exercise of the very similar "player option" tend to come from the NBA's inept and infirm. Guys like Andris Biedrins, Marvin Williams, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush gave up the chance to hit the market in favor of collecting guaranteed money this year.
Those players are all in danger of washing out of the NBA because of injury or poor performance, so it makes sense for them to prize current stability over the riskier prospect of free agency. You'll probably note that James, Wade and Bosh have little in common with any of those guys.
But it's not just players on their last legs who have recently decided to waive their options.
On the Heat alone, James Jones, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen have all opted in to one more season in Miami, foregoing the chance to hit free agency in favor of chasing a championship. Allen, in particular, might have been able to sign a two- or three-year deal elsewhere that would have netted him more money overall. But he stuck around in South Beach because he wanted to win another ring.
Perhaps the Big Three will take a cue from their own teammates' "loyalty."
There aren't many instances of healthy, top-tier players waiving their early-termination options. And what few there are feature wholly unusual circumstances.
In March of 2012, Dwight Howard agreed to waive his ETO with the Orlando Magic. That decision featured innumerable flip-flops, and in the end, D12 spurned free agency largely because he didn't want to look like the bad guy in Orlando.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, one executive called the process "a historic debacle."
None of the Heat's stars is facing the public relations disaster that Howard created in 2012, so a reactive decision to opt in seems unlikely. And besides, it's never a good idea to base major decisions on the D12 model.
The other recent instance of a star foregoing his ETO came in 2009 when Kobe Bryant did it.
Again, the circumstances surrounding that decision were unique. Bryant knew the Lakers would pay him as much money as the CBA allowed no matter what he did. And there was no danger of him leaving the team, so there was really no reason for him to explore free agency a year early.
How It Could Happen
OK, so it's clear that NBA players love ETOs, and in most normal situations, they exercise them whenever possible.
But what if the Big Three look across the NBA landscape of the future and see that there's not going to be very many good landing spots for them in free agency?
A quick scan across marquee destinations shows that the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets will remain completely capped out (and well into the luxury tax) this summer, which basically removes them from consideration...for the time being.
The Knicks have just $14 million dedicated to player salaries two years from now, though. And the Nets can trim their payroll down to a much more manageable figure of around $45 million in the summer of 2015 if they decline a few options of their own.
Plus, the Houston Rockets are in line to have James Harden, Dwight Howard and little else under contract after the 2014-15 season, which means they'll be an appealing destination in two years as well.
The point here is that the Big Three might find themselves looking at a 2014 free-agent market that has far fewer appealing destinations than they'll find in 2015. So maybe they'll all agree to sign up for one last ride in Miami before heading their separate ways.
We've established that NBA players love to keep their options open. And by waiting until 2015 to exercise player options that will allow them to hit free agency, James, Wade and Bosh would give themselves a much broader array of choices.
It's also possible that Wade's health will deteriorate to the point that he loses confidence in his ability to secure a multi-year deal in the future. There's certainly no indication that he's in such dire straits now, but if his knee troubles intensify in the future, he might just opt for the guaranteed $42 million that remains on his current contract.
If Bosh, who'll turn 30 in March of 2014, feels the same way, perhaps he'll stick around, too. And maybe James will be compelled to stay in Miami with his running mates.
LBJ knows the sting of a PR disaster, and he might be hesitant to absorb the damage to his reputation if he were to abandon his aging teammates.
Reality Sets In
Ultimately, it'd take an unlikely combination of events to keep all three of Miami's stars from hitting free agency at the earliest possible juncture. They'd have to collectively believe there were no good destinations, develop worrisome injuries that might devalue them on the market, and uniformly agree to forgo the opportunity to lock in more money over new, longer contracts.
Players—especially good ones—always want to secure new deals whenever possible. That's why Carmelo Anthony has already said he'll exercise his ETO this summer. He wants to see what his options are.
James, Wade and Bosh can all re-sign with the Heat if they don't find suitable landing spots as free agents, and they'd stand to gain a few extra seasons of financial security in the process.
So while it's nice to contemplate scenarios in which the Heat's three best players would want to close off options for no reason, it's simply not realistic to think that'll actually happen.
James, Wade and Bosh will exercise their ETOs this summer.
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