6 Moves Miami Heat Must Make to Keep LeBron James in South Beach
LeBron James' decision to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat and into free agency doesn't necessarily indicate a desire to flee South Beach. If anything, it has put the onus back on team president and pomade enthusiast Pat Riley to grease the skids back to the NBA Finals by infusing the roster with fresh blood around the Big Three.
As Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick put it: "James has ripped off the band-aid, rather than pulling it off slowly. He's giving Riley a chance to squeeze on the necessary antibiotic, and heal what ails the Heat."
Riley, for his part, wasn't caught off guard by James' choice, which came nearly a week before the June 30 deadline. "We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise," Riley said in a statement released on Tuesday:
As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options.
The last four seasons have been historic and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra have led the Miami HEAT to one of the most unprecedented runs in the history of the NBA. We look forward to sitting down with LeBron and his representatives and talking about our future together. At the moment, we are preparing for the opportunities in the Draft and Free Agency as we continue with our goal of winning NBA Championships.
Those championships won't be won anytime soon if James takes his talents elsewhere this summer. That seems unlikely at this point, though Riley will have his work cut out for him as he seeks to secure James' signature for the foreseeable future.
Here's what the Heat can do in the coming weeks to keep the face of the NBA in Biscayne Bay.
Upgrade at Point Guard
Point guard was a weak spot for the Heat when the Big Three first started counting championships in the summer of 2010 and has only fallen into greater disrepair since.
Mario Chalmers, once a clutch contributor in Erik Spoelstra's starting lineup, disappeared during the 2014 Finals and might vanish from Miami completely this summer via free agency. Norris Cole, Chalmers' understudy for the past three seasons, wasn't much better.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Miami is in the market for a new floor general. According to ESPN's Chad Ford, James and the Heat both have eyes for UConn's Shabazz Napier in Thursday's NBA Draft. Miami is exploring every means of moving up from No. 26 to nab Napier, including packaging Cole with their own pick.
Short of that, the Heat will have options to consider in free agency. They could pursue a higher-profile point guard like, say, Toronto's Kyle Lowry, if the rest of their financials check out. Detroit's Rodney Stuckey, who's more of a combo guard, could be right in their wheelhouse, as could Dallas' Devin Harris, Brooklyn's Shaun Livingston or the Lakers' Jordan Farmar.
Heck, if you're a guard with a championship pedigree who's capable of knocking down outside shots, relieving LeBron and Wade of their ball-handling duties from time to time and making plays in big moments, you're probably on Riley's radar right now.
Fresh Legs on the Wing
As important as it is for the Heat to find a point guard who can ease the offensive burden on the team's superstars, it's just as crucial (if not more so) that said newcomer be able to impede his opponent on the defensive end.
That's why Chalmers' no-show was more troubling than even the box scores suggested. His ineffectiveness on offense during the Finals was rivaled only by his ineffectiveness in defending Tony Parker and Patty Mills.
That's also why Shane Battier's pre-retirement decline was so devastating, and why Shaun Livingston, whose subpar shooting would seem to make his fit in Miami a poor one, has been mentioned as a potential addition to this squad.
Simply put, the Heat could use a wing (or two) capable of checking the best perimeter players in the game—and, in turn, relieving James and Wade of that responsibility.
James can certainly handle such assignments in fits and spurts, but he would be hard-pressed to carry out that task to optimal effect while also serving as the focal point of Miami's potent offense. Wade's days as an All-Defensive performer are now well behind him, with only the occasional gamble-turned-steal-turned-fastbreak bucket to remind us of his former glory.
The draft could afford the Heat a shot at a "three-and-D" player to groom on their own, though there should be no shortage of more seasoned vets to that effect on the open market. A dip into the bargain bin could put Brandon Rush, Marvin Williams, C.J. Miles and former Heat draftee Caron Butler at Erik Spoelstra's disposal, albeit off the bench.
And if there's money in the budget for someone better, Riley would do well to splurge for Trevor Ariza or even try to convince Luol Deng to trade definite money for potential rings.
Add Some Scoring Punch
It certainly wouldn't hurt if that defensive-minded wing could put the ball in the basket from time to time, too.
Trevor Ariza had a near career year scoring the ball with the Washington Wizards in 2013-14, with five games of 16 points or more in the playoffs. Luol Deng is no slouch himself. The two-time All-Star has averaged 16 points per game over the course of his 10-year pro career.
Just about any team would welcome the production that Ariza and Deng bring to the table. The Heat surely would, especially after watching their Big Three devolve into a Big One over the course of the 2014 postseason. The fact that Miami struggled so mightily to score with Wade and Bosh leading the way—particularly in Game 1 of the Finals, when James was sidelined by severe leg cramps—signals a need for someone else who can pick up the slack.
Hence the recent rumors that the Heat might create cap space enough to sign Carmelo Anthony at a discount. Say what you will about the short-term feasibility or long-term wisdom of such an addition, but if Melo's explosive exploits in the last two Olympics are any indication, he'd fit just fine alongside his USA Basketball buddies.
Adding Anthony to the mix in Miami may be closer to the conclusion of a Key and Peele sketch than a probable option, but it's rooted in a stark reality: LeBron can't do everything for the Heat offensively and might consider playing elsewhere if he'd have to.
As noted by Grantland's Andrew Sharp, James has led the league in minutes played since coming to Miami, and with his 30th birthday approaching in December, he would be hard-pressed to dominate as he can for much longer without some measure of preservation.
Find a Rim Protector
Two years ago, the Heat (seemingly) made a conscious decision to stop searching for centers. They'd cast a modest lot with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier in 2010, Eddy Curry and Mickell Gladness in 2011 and Ronny Turiaf in 2012, only to see those players fall by the wayside amidst Miami's "small ball"-fueled run to the top.
Riley and company went all in on that strategy the following season. They added Chris Andersen in January of 2013, but only after offering token tryouts to the likes of Josh Harrellson and Jarvis Varnado. The result? A 66-win season, highlighted by a 27-game winning streak and punctuated by a second consecutive crown.
Riley, though, could see the writing on the wall. His Heat were pounded in the paint by the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs in back-to-back series. Their dynasty wouldn't last long if James, Bosh and Shane Battier (among others) were forced to battle with bigger, bulkier opponents on a nightly basis.
But rather than upset the applecart entirely, Riles opted for low-risk gambles on Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. That tactic backfired in a big way during the Finals. Each successive layup and dunk in a half-court set by the Spurs was another painful reminder of the Heat's lack of a reliable backline presence.
The message was simple: no longer could Miami count on its Big 3 to fly in from afar to swat away the mistakes of their teammates—not when the superstars themselves were slipping up more often than ever. Nor could the Heat afford to play their aggressive, trapping defense without someone to protect the paint.
The key, then, is to find somebody who fits that bill at a price the Heat can afford. If Miami can't acquire a good, young point guard in Thursday's draft, it could spend its pick on a big man, with Michigan's Mitch McGary, Florida's Patric Young and international prospects Clint Capela, Walter Tavares and Artem Klimenko expected to still be in play.
If Riley decides that free agency is the way to go, he should find a few options to his liking. Marcin Gortat would make sense, assuming the price is right. Spencer Hawes might be the way to go if shooting is still of pivotal importance to Miami's team-building efforts. Jordan Hill, Aaron Gray and Emeka Okafor should all be available at relatively agreeable rates, as well.
Gauge Ray Allen's Interest in Returning
The plan to appease LeBron won't be limited to external solutions. If anything, it's the internal considerations that could (and likely will) swing his foray into free agency one way or another.
Working out terms with Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen, both of whom have opt-outs in their respective contracts, will be of some import to Riley, but the bigger domino among Miami's supporting cast will be Ray Allen's future. According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the 10-time All-Star is "leaning toward returning for a 19th season."
On the court, Allen's historic three-point prowess has been a boon to Miami's offense and James' freedom to operate therein. Off the court, these two have become fast friends since Allen came to South Beach in the summer of 2012. Per Windhorst, their families vacationed together following the Heat's disappointing performance in the Finals.
Not that James' plans will hinge on Allen's. The future Hall of Famer turns 39 in July, putting him past the point of being a consistent contributor on either end of the floor.
Nor will Allen allow James' process to dictate his own. "One thing is for certain, to [make a retirement decision] on my terms is the most important thing," Allen told ESPN. "Whether that is me retiring, staying here or going somewhere else, it will be on my terms. I've made it to this point, and I felt great that I have the choice to make it for myself."
That being said, it probably won't hurt the Heat's prospects of retaining James if Allen gives it another go in Miami next season.
Convince Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to Re-Up at a Discount
Most of these aforementioned moves either won't be possible or won't matter much unless Wade and Bosh are willing to restructure their respective deals with the Heat. The former is owed close to $42 million over the next two years. The latter can take home just under $43 million over that same span if he so chooses. Both can opt out this summer and next.
To be sure, it'd be well within the rights and privileges of either (or both) to opt in. Bosh might still be able to garner a max-level contract elsewhere. Wade, though, would have a much tougher time, given his age (32) and the declining state of his game and body in tandem.
You could argue all you want about whether either "deserves" the payday remaining on his deal, whether his on-court contributions are commensurate with his salary. Wade, who missed 28 games this season and seemed to lease steam in the Finals, would point to his career-best field-goal percentage in 2013-14 (.545). Bosh, who topped the 20-point plateau just four times in the playoffs, might rightly claim that his perimeter shooting and defensive sacrifices were more integral to Miami's success than ever this past season.
But that won't change the stark reality for the Heat, both between the lines and on the cap sheet. They'll need plenty of help this summer if they're to continue to contend for championships as a group, but they'd be hard-pressed to afford it without each of their Big Three leaving more money on the table. Remember, all three signed with the Heat in 2010 at below-market rates.
Miami could make it worth Wade's and Bosh's whiles. It'd be sensible for the Heat to offer each a longer contract with reduced salaries per season but more money overall. Think something in the four-year, $60 million range.
Chances are James would be willing to agree to such a deal if it meant the Heat could "retool," as Riley put it—but only if Wade and Bosh do the same.
How else can the Heat convince LeBron to stay? Tweet me your thoughts!