LeBron James' impending free agency is a nonissue.
Will he leave the Miami Heat?
That's the wrong question. It's not even a question.
When the four-time MVP, potentially three-time NBA champion hits the open market this summer, he won't leave Miami—because he's not going to hit the open market. Not really.
Will he re-sign or simply opt into the next year of his deal?
Now that's the right question.
Calling James' return to Miami a formality isn't presumptuous, crass or narrow-minded. Everything we've heard until this point makes his imminent departure seem not only unlikely, but unfathomable.
"At this point, I can't," James told NBA TV's Steve Smith in February when asked if he could envision leaving Miami if the Heat won a third straight title. "At this point, I can't."
Months later, with a third straight championship still in sight, there's no reason to assume that's changed. Moreover, Chris Bosh didn't appear the least bit worried about James leaving when asked about it on The Dan Le Batard Show in March, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
The final true-or-false question is the one that will get the most attention.
Le Batard stated that Bosh—who can opt out of his contract after this season—will be in Miami next year.
'True,' Bosh answered.
'And so will LeBron...,' Le Batard continued.
'True,' Bosh replied.
If The Boshtrich's word isn't good enough, Heat owner Micky Arison took a definitive stance on James' future. When asked by 790 The Ticket in Miami how sure he was that James and Bosh would remain with the Heat, he said "100 percent," according to The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser. That doesn't sound like a guy whose worried about luxury-tax bills tearing his team apart.
So there you have it. Bosh and Arison cannot imagine James abandoning the Heat this summer. James himself can't even envision it. How could he?
The Heat's season is going to end one of two ways, neither of which gives James enough reasons to leave.
One scenario has the Heat whiffing on their three-peat. Whether they lose to the Brooklyn Nets, in the Eastern Conference Finals—so, against the Washington Wizards—or the NBA Finals doesn't matter. They could lose.
If they do lose, James doesn't have his third championship. What he does have is a running opportunity to complete the dynasty he set out to build nearly four years ago. Three championships in five seasons isn't bad, after all.
But the Heat could also win another title this season, at which point James has his three consecutive titles and could shuffle off to Cleveland, Los Angeles, Chicago or somewhere else knowing Miami's work is done.
The idea that James would leave the Heat after winning another championship is—well, it's absurd. There is no chance that James passes on the opportunity to do what Michael Jordan never did, what Magic Johnson never could, what Kobe Bryant never will.
What Bill Russell actually did.
Winning a fourth straight title would immortalize James in ways nothing else can. A player so openly concerned about his legacy won't walk away from that type of accolade, even if, as of now, it exists only in theory.
LeBron: "I want to be the greatest of all time. And that's my motivation.... It's not simple, but for me it is. That's my mindframe."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) September 30, 2013
Looking ahead, with the way Miami is playing, the latter scenario appears more likely than ever, as Bleacher Report's Josh Martin outlines:
This isn't to suggest that winning a championship is or will be a cakewalk for the Heat by any means. This team, as great as it is, has always been one to do things the hard way. Each game affords Miami as much opportunity to shine as it does to stumble. The wear and tear incurred over the course of the Heat's three previous trips to the Finals only amplify their odds of having to huff and puff their way back to the top of the NBA's championship mountain.
From their current vantage point, though, the Heat are about as close to that summit as they've ever been at this point in a given postseason. So long as they take care of their own business, the Heat should find the rest of the basketball landscape shifting into position for the third coronation that they were really supposed to have coming to them in the 2013-14 campaign.
None of this promises that James' future in Miami won't eventually be met with doubt. That's the real issue of this summer. How long of a commitment is he willing to make?
Manufactured ambiguity tends to focus on the need for flexibility. Re-signing with Miami tethers the next half-decade or so of James' career to Dwyane Wade—who also won't be going anywhere, folks—and his shaky knees.
When Wade plays, he's usually effective. That's not up for debate. It's never been about ability with him. Availability is the problem.
Most of the time, James puts on a good face. Sometimes, Wade's frequently extended absences get to him.
"With some of the guys being in and out, and with the concern with D-Wade, it's been tough on all of us trying to fill that," James said in January, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace.
Apprehensive about the idea of continuing his career next to his fragile sidekick, James could decide to leave...eventually.
Wade also has the right to terminate his contract after this season. At 32, chances are he will look to cash in one last time. But that doesn't mean he'll be making $20-plus million a year, either.
He could go for the guaranteed money over time rather than seek a high annual salary. And if he's willing to accept a drastic pay cut, that leaves the Heat with some wiggle room to deepen their core, to strengthen their rotation to a point where James would feel comfortable signing on long term again.
Let's, for the sake of being prepared, assume that doesn't happen. Say Wade goes for that expensive, somewhat-deserved, mostly destructive "Kobe deal." Then what?
James exercises his right to remain flexible.
By simply forgoing his early termination option, James stays in Miami without being forced to remain with the Heat beyond next season. Though he technically has two years left on his current deal, the last one has a player option. He could become a free agent in 2015. Or he could finish out his deal and become one in 2016 if he believes he needs two more years to evaluate his options.
Returning for 2014-15 by way of relinquishing his early termination clause makes the most sense given what we know.
Sources told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst in February that if James ever looks elsewhere, it won't just be at "teams with cap space." He knows that he has "30 options if he wants them."
"There's no way LeBron would have gone to New York under the current climate," a James confidant told Isola. "He had a falling-out with CAA (agency) and that was a problem as well. But with Phil there I think he will look at it."
Indeed, James can try to go anywhere his heart desires if he's prepared to suffer the consequences. But after his 2010 free agency, he's smarter than that. He may know that he can force a trade, but he also knows how much of a public relations hit he would take (right now).
What will LeBron James do this summer?
If he really wants to look at the Knicks, they have cap space in 2015. Barring an unexpected spending spree this summer, so will the Los Angeles Lakers. And the Chicago Bulls. And the Cleveland Cavaliers. James will have just as many exits at his disposal in 2015, if not more.
Want to worry about James leaving Miami? Worry about him leaving in a year or two or five. He's not going anywhere imminently.
"I hope it's not gonna be a challenge at all," Arison said of keeping the Big Three, via Lieser. "We'll see."
Convincing James to re-sign instead of returning for just next season, so that the Heat can avoid another year's worth of rumors, hearsay and fabricated babble, will be the only challenge Miami faces this summer, which, compared to the alternative, isn't challenging at all.
*Salary information via ShamSports.