LeBron James' free-agency decision may come down to choosing between Dwyane Wade and Kyrie Irving.
If LeBron James exercises his early termination option after the 2013-14 season, his free-agency decision will boil down to this: Which team gives him the best chance of winning multiple championships?
Other geographic and financial factors will weigh heavily on James' mind as well, but none will take more precedence than winning. Wherever he ends up, he'll need a reliable sidekick to ensure that opponents can't divert all of their defensive attention his way.
Currently, the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be the front-runners for James' services from 2014 onward. Other contenders, such as the Los Angeles Lakers, remain an outside shot at best.
The choice between Miami and Cleveland won't be easy for LeBron. In one corner, he'll have Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the continuity he's established over the past three seasons. In the other, he'll have Kyrie Irving and a swath of other talented young players seemingly ready to take the next step.
Of Wade and Irving, which player would be a better fit for James' future? Let's break it down, both in terms of tangible basketball skills and intangibles.
Why Wade Is a Better Fit Than Irving
The biggest argument Wade brings to the table when it comes to James' future is experience.
It took Wade and James nearly two full seasons before they grew comfortable with one another on the court. Even now, the two occasionally struggle to find their footing playing together, as covered extensively by Brian Windhorst in an ESPN the Mag piece.
"I'm the second option," Wade said during the Heat's 2013 training camp in the Bahamas, per Matt Kelley of the Miami Herald. "Let's just point-blank say it."
No alpha dog enjoys playing second fiddle, especially one with four NBA Finals appearances, three championships and a Finals MVP award to his name. That's what makes the Wade-James marriage so unique and so difficult to replicate.
There's no guarantee that a James-Irving union would soar like the James-Wade partnership has. Over the course of his young career, Irving has used roughly 30 percent of his team's plays while on the floor, per Basketball Reference.
If James rejoined the Cavaliers, there's little chance that Irving would continue sucking up such a high percentage of his team's possessions. Since his ball-handling skills are partly what make him such a dangerous player, taking the ball out of his hands could diminish his effectiveness.
And while Irving has yet to appear in a single playoffs game, Wade is coming off three straight trips to the NBA Finals. There's no underselling the importance of a player having experienced the grandest stage of them all, as he knows exactly what to expect if or when he returns.
D-Wade doesn't have to rely solely upon intangibles when pitching LeBron on their future together. His low-post proficiency makes him a valuable on-court partner to James too.
"Obviously, I don't have the ball as much, so I've got to be a better post-up player, I've got to be way more efficient than I've ever been," Wade told the Herald during Miami's 2013 training camp. "I've got to—kind of like I did with the Olympic team—find ways to be 'involved when I'm not involved.'"
Wade knocked down 363 of his 556 field-goal attempts from within eight feet of the basket in 2012-13 (65.3 percent), per NBA.com/stats. Irving, meanwhile, only converted 182 of his 347 shots from that same range last year, according to NBA.com/stats.
Just over 10 percent of Wade's offensive possessions last season ended with low-post shot attempts, per Synergy Sports (via Vytis Lasaitis of Fansided.com). He averaged 0.96 points per possession on those shots during the regular season, ranking 18th in the league.
This clip from Lasaitis demonstrates how Wade's low-post ability adds yet another dimension to Miami's offense:
As Wade's athleticism continues to fade, his ability to convert post-up shots will extend the longevity of his career. Irving isn't anywhere near as talented when it comes to paint touches, which gives Wade a major advantage in that regard.
The deck may sound stacked against Irving when matched up against Wade, but all isn't lost for the Cavaliers point guard.
Why Irving Is a Better Fit Than Wade
Irving holds two major advantages over D-Wade when it comes to being a better fit for LeBron's future: his youth and his sharpshooting ability.
Wade, who's battled through knee ailments during each of the past two seasons, turns 32 years old in January. Even if he manages to stay healthy throughout the 2013-14 season, his balky knees still likely make him a ticking long-term time bomb.
Granted, the 21-year-old Irving hasn't stayed injury-free during his first two seasons by any means. He missed 15 games as a rookie and 23 games last season due to an assortment of ailments, including a concussion, a shoulder injury, a broken hand and a hairline fracture in his left index finger, as noted by SB Nation's Mike Prada.
None of those injuries appear likely to become a recurrent issue, however. The same can't be said about Wade's knees, which give Irving the advantage when it comes to health.
Irving's youth can also be considered an asset when comparing the potential ceilings of he and Wade. The 31-year-old Wade has already passed his prime, but Irving, who's a decade younger, remains years away from reaching his.
If you're taking the long-term perspective, there's little doubt that Irving will soon surpass Wade in terms of the NBA's top superstars. That should weigh heavily in James' free-agency decision, as he'll need to set himself up for success over the next half-decade.
Beyond his youth and relative health, Irving holds one major on-court advantage over Wade too: He's a knock-down three-point shooter, something which Wade can't dream of claiming.
In Irving's first two seasons, he drilled 182 of his 462 three-points attempts (roughly 39.4 percent). Since James and Chris Bosh joined the Heat back in 2010-11, Wade has only converted 97 of his 335 attempts from downtown (roughly 29 percent).
Wade hasn't ever shot above 31.7 percent from deep over the course of a single season; Irving hasn't ever shot below 35 percent. A passer as creative as James needs reliable three-point options camping out on the perimeter to help space the floor and keep defenses honest, which, suffice it to say, isn't exactly D-Wade's forte.
Irving also earns bonus points for his ball-handling ability and his body control. With those two powers combined, he's able to juke defenders out of their shoes routinely.
So, to recap: Wade's got the experience and low-post game advantages over Irving, but Kyrie has youth, (relative) health and sharpshooting on his side. Who wins in the battle to be the Robin to LeBron's Batman?
The Verdict: Wade...For Now
D-Wade earns the nod over Irving at the moment, but it's very much subject to change between now and the summer of 2014.
If Wade's balky knees flare up again, it could push the balance of power over to Irving. Likewise, Irving's slow start to the 2013-14 season doesn't play in his favor, but a return to his dominant self would help assuage any concerns about him having already peaked.
Ultimately, the deciding factor boils down to the on-court chemistry that Wade and LeBron have developed over the past three seasons and change. Considering the lengthiness of that process, it's tough to imagine LeBron wanting to start all over from square one with another budding star.
The Irving-to-LeBron connection could prove just as lethal as the Wade-James duo, but James, who turns 29 at the end of December, can't afford to spend another two years developing a rapport with a new sidekick.
James has made no bones about his goal to surpass Michael Jordan as the NBA's greatest player of all time. To accomplish that feat, he'll need to rack up as many rings as possible over the next few seasons before passing the torch to the next generation of NBA superstars.
Years down the line, Irving would be the clear choice for James' ideal sidekick. Given the circumstances, however, Wade takes the cake for now.