Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: LeBron James has a decision to make this summer that could alter the landscape of the NBA.
(That was purely rhetorical. There’s no stopping me now.)
The four-time MVP and, with apologies to Kevin Durant, consensus best basketball player on terra firma, has an opt-out clause he can activate this offseason, nullifying the final two years of his deal and rendering him, for the second time in five summers, a free agent.
Much of the speculation about this impending choice has focused, not wrongly, on the person of Dwyane Wade.
When LeBron jettisoned Cleveland in July of 2010, the catalyst was Wade. Yes, LeBron and Wade were close—and for a man who seems to value friendship as highly as James, this surely, at the margins, moved the needle toward the Heat. But the real impetus behind the move was coldly impersonal: Wade’s obvious, irrefutable greatness.
His resume spoke for itself. The then 28-year-old had, in the previous six seasons, made six All-Star teams, produced double-digit win shares four times, led the league in scoring in 2008-09 and won an NBA title—the lone prize that had eluded James up to that point in his career.
Not only had Wade won an NBA championship, but he was named MVP of those finals, all for posting the single greatest NBA Finals performance of all time, according to John Hollinger, then of ESPN.
This was a good guy to join forces with, LeBron wisely concluded, before joining said force and destroying everything in its path. But now with a second decision fast approaching—one that, presumably, won’t involve Jim Gray—Wade seems more liability than asset.
There’s the fact of his declining production, which has been so well-chronicled that “declining” is now affixed to Wade’s name as routinely as “GOAT” is to Michael Jordan’s or “troubled nitwit” to Justin Bieber’s.
Wade has become increasingly injury-addled in recent seasons, and when he’s been on the floor, his win shares per 48 minutes have dipped in each of the last three campaigns. At 32, these trends figure to accelerate.
There’s also the matter of his own contract. Wade (and Chris Bosh) have the option of opting out along with LeBron this summer. And Wade’s next deal could be a very generous one.
“D-Wade is getting that Kobe deal,” LeBron told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst in December, ostensibly praising his teammate but, in doing so, gesturing at the precise thing that could force him to leave Miami in search of greener pastures.
Let’s say Wade gets that Kobe deal—a stupidly lavish lifetime achievement award that could, according to Windhorst, cost the Heat upwards of $100 million for four years. And the 32-year-old proceeds to provide the sort of ROI Bryant looks likely to give the Lakers: i.e., nothing but nostalgia.
This would prove, if not crippling to Miami’s ability to maintain a contending team, terribly wounding. And given the progressive ebb of Wade’s skills, this is certainly a plausible, if not probable, outcome of such a contract.
Wade, for his part, seems unlikely to demand a deal of that sort. “You have to sit down at the time and see what is best for you and for your team,” he told Windhorst, apparently hinting that he wouldn’t insist on a contract that would put undue strain on Miami’s limited cap space.
Wade and Bosh could pose an even bigger problem if they, along with James, opt in to the last two years of their respective deals. According to ProBasketballTalk, in this scenario, the three would make $61.3 million in 2014-15. The league’s cap next season is projected to be $62.9 million.
If LeBron and his people aren’t considering this, the extent to which the salaries of the other two members of Miami’s Big Three could hinder his ability to chase titles—frustrating his dynastic ambitions—it’s a serious oversight.
Fortunately for the Heat, this time around LeBron’s decision isn’t completely about his (overqualified) No. 2. When we say it’s “about” Wade, it’s more of a shorthand. He’s merely a symbol of Miami’s ability to contend, a synecdoche for organizational health.
And the state of the organization is strong.
The Miami brain trust has demonstrated itself capable of constructing a roster that is perfectly complementary of James’ exquisite and multitudinous abilities: “a special limited-edition Formula One race car...that only the league’s most uniquely skilled player could drive,” in the words of Grantland’s Bill Simmons.
From Shane Battier to Ray Allen and Mike Miller to Chris Andersen, the Heat have shown themselves capable of, on the cheap, augmenting their roster with top-notch role players who fill essential roles. This is no small thing—it’s what separates the Heat from, say, the Clippers and other star-laden also-rans.
It’s the stuff championships are made of. And if Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley and company did it once, it stands to reason they can do it again.
Geography doesn’t hurt, either. Miami is an obviously attractive place for young, obscenely wealthy, physically fit young men to live and play basketball. LeBron shouldn’t have any trouble, even sans Wade and Bosh (if it comes to that), luring another superstar or two to join him in South Beach.
This is doubly true because, of course, LeBron James plays there. To an extent, anywhere LeBron goes (or, in this case, stays) becomes a contender. And NBA players—to their credit—seem uniformly eager to play for contenders. These guys care about winning.
And so does LeBron. He’s singularly focused on it. Obsessed, maybe. And Miami still, probably, gives him the best chance to do it. In this way, LeBron’s decision this coming summer is about Dwyane Wade only in the sense that it’s about hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy again. Which is to say, it’s not really about Dwyane Wade at all.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.