This was unavoidable. Win or lose against the San Antonio Spurs, James would be able to opt out of his contract; he would have a free-agency decision to make. A simple one in theory, yet complicated in practice.
Should he stay with the Miami Heat, or should he seek the refuge of championships elsewhere?
That is his question.
"You guys are trying to find answers," James told reporters after falling to the Spurs, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "I'm not going to give you one. I'm just not going to give it to you."
Eventually he'll have to. And whatever his answer is, the rest of the league—its teams and its players—will be left to adjust and react accordingly.
If He Re-Signs...
Fingers crossed, Miami.
Re-signing with the Heat is the most definitive end there can be to this entire saga. If James stays in Miami long term, the Big Three aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Dwyane Wade has spent his entire career in Miami and has won three championships with the Heat. He's never going to leave. Chris Bosh seems to be doing anything in his power not to leave. Seeing James stay makes his decision a no-brainer.
James himself won't have to deal with the probing, poking and prodding that comes with having exit avenues. Agreeing to stay in Miami for the next few years puts an end to imminent speculation. He'll be a Heatle. Everyone else can move on.
And there will be teams that need to move on.
No other domino will fall before James. Sources told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne in February that the four-time MVP knows he'll have "30 options" in free agency, and it shows. Teams are waiting on him; they're hoping to make a play for him.
The organization's recruiting efforts will be aggressive and expansive as always, just as they were when they landed Howard last July and his decision to leave Los Angeles meant the Rockets had two-thirds of the Big Three that they had envisioned. Now comes Part III of their plan.
Then there are the Los Angeles Lakers, who Amick says are delaying their coaching search on the off chance that James attempts to drum up Kobe Bryant's ring count. And there are the Cleveland Cavaliers, his former team, who have not-so-subtly positioned themselves to bury the hatchet.
All those teams—and others like the New York Knicks, who want to make a run at James in 2015, per the New York Post's Marc Berman—are forced to stick a fork in their LeBronathon ambitions if he re-signs long term. Their hopes would be shot, their posturing for naught.
They would have to move on with Bosh and James (and Wade) off the market—as would other players.
Is Carmelo Anthony less likely to stay in New York if James re-ups with the Heat? You bet.
Any dream of joining forces in New York would be dead, and Anthony would be armed with the knowledge that the Heat aren't going anywhere. All Eastern Conference roads to the NBA Finals will continue to lead through them—paths that many, like himself, have tried to travel, only to fail spectacularly.
Will he be compelled to mimic James' 2010 performance and take his talents to South Beach? Windhorst and colleague Marc Stein report it's a possibility. It remains unrealistic, given all the financial and egotistical sacrifices involved, but it's far more plausible if Anthony realizes the Eastern Conference's balance of power isn't changing.
More likely than not, James' decision to re-sign with the Heat would be "good news" for teams like the Chicago Bulls and Rockets, who Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski cited as favorites to rescue Anthony from New York. Chances of them landing this summer's best consolation prize increase tenfold if James re-signs.
From there, it's a matter of watching the other dominoes fall in succession.
Trade offers for Kevin Love will skyrocket if he isn't dealt before then. Lance Stephenson will be swimming in Benjamins. The Lakers can hire a coach. Marcin Gortat can sign the foreheads of more newborns for whatever fanbase he pleases.
Things will take shape, as they fall in and out of place around the league.
All because James' decision led him to go nowhere.
If He Leaves...
Predicting where James will sign if he leaves Miami is impossible. You have a better chance of surviving a one-on-100 clash with a pack of hungry vultures.
There is no determining the exact ripple effects of said decision as a result. All we know is that his new team becomes an instant contender.
And that it will be time to panic in Miami.
Free agents won't flock to the Heat if James leaves. Bosh and Wade aren't enough to sell stars and respected role players on pay cuts. The former might not even be there.
Although he wants to remain in Miami, Bosh becomes fair game without James. Amick writes that he'll "certainly be on the Rockets' short list of targets should James decide to head elsewhere."
Other teams will have him on their short lists as well. Plenty of them.
Convincing Bosh to leave the Heat becomes much easier when the alternative isn't playing alongside James. It's hoping that Wade—who is owed about $42 million over the next two seasons—still has some lift left in his 32-year-old legs.
It's playing for a Heat team that won't contend.
Beyond that, there will be more of the same.
Anthony will still be a flight risk, though re-upping with the Knicks becomes a whole lot more appealing if James journeys West. But the dream of teaming up with him in the Big Apple also dies.
Wade will, again, stay in Miami, because: loyalty. And cash. Lots of cash.
Remaining free agents will inevitably sign where they're going to sign, perhaps above market value with one of the teams James slighted, or below market value for the club he joined.
There's no way of being too sure right now. Just know that if James leaves, all free-agency hell, in some way, will break loose.
If He Opts In....
Hope y'all enjoy the sounds and aftereffects of incessant rumors, scandalous conspiracy theories, baseless chatter, guesstimates passed off as fact and so on and so forth.
Because that's exactly what you're getting if James opts into the next year of his deal and delays his free agency at least another season.
Even with halfway availability from Dwyane Wade, Miami was able to coast into the No. 2 seed and jog through a 12-3 record on its way to the Finals. One major injury to San Antonio or a fully healthy Serge Ibaka, and we could be talking about a Miami-over-Oklahoma City result and Heat three-peat right now.
Going anywhere in the Western Conference — save for some as-yet-unreported insane superstar team-up — would make life more difficult for James, and there aren’t any obvious spots in the East with the requisite cap flexibility and talent on hand to put him in a better position to win now.
Options have always been important to James. Rolling with his current deal and exploring the free-agency landscape next season when teams will have additional cap space—the Bulls, Lakers, Knicks, etc.—and after he's given Pat Riley a year to retool the Heat makes the most sense.
Landing spots that interest him can be monitored from afar. It gives others the opportunity to position themselves to pursue him. It gives him the chance to forge a dynasty in Miami by winning a third championship in five years.
It just works.
For the most part.
Speculation will follow him into 2014-15, more than it did this year. Reports will be more frequent. Hot takes will be more scorching, complots will be more outlandish, and criticism will be more scathing.
You're opting in? That means you don't believe in the Heat. And that clearly means you're leaving in 2015.
Words and thoughts of similar ilk will be all over place, guaranteeing more uncertainty and, for our current purposes, a defunct summer 2014.
Interested teams won't be able to move on. They won't just add salary or look elsewhere if it costs them a run at James in 2015. It will be harder to pry Anthony out of New York—with the prospect of signing James next summer looming large—and impossible to lure Bosh from Miami.
Those attempting to rebuild around aging stars—the Dallas Mavericks and Lakers, for instance—will have pressing decisions to make: Do they go for the reopened title window now, or endure another year of mediocrity or transition for potential coups later?
Dormancy will become standard procedure, because the NBA revolves around superstars. And James is the best superstar there is. Staying in limbo for yet another season is worth possibly getting face time with him.
"For me, I just want to win," James said, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "and that's all that matters to me."
All that matters to the rest of the NBA, meanwhile, is what James does or doesn't do, as his action or inaction dictates what happens next.
Inside and outside Miami.
*Salary information via ShamSports.