After watching LeBron James learn to dominate the low block over the last few years, one thing became perfectly clear: The guy understands the importance of leverage.
He knows both how to create it and how to benefit from it.
Despite the frenzy that has surrounded his choice, his decision to opt out of his current contract, as reported by ESPN's Chris Broussard, was nothing more than a power play to gain leverage:
LeBron James' agent Rich Paul has told Heat LeBron will exercise early termination option— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) June 24, 2014
Logic dictated this decision.
Regardless of whether James sees a future with the Miami Heat, this was a move he had to make. Returning to the same roster in South Beach simply wasn't an option, but in all likelihood it would have been his reality had he stuck around on his current deal.
That would have meant another year of the Heat putting a patchwork roster around James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. While that approach hasn't prevented the team from making four straight runs to the championship round, it also couldn't help them avoid suffering the most lopsided NBA Finals loss in league history:
Standing pat was no longer a possibility. Not with such an obvious need for an improved cast of characters.
"Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position," James told reporters after the series loss.
Getting better doesn't happen without James making the call that he did. That's not, however, the only domino that needs to drop.
Wade and Bosh must follow James' lead, vacating their current contracts for longer, more team-friendly deals:
Very simple formula in Miami: Big 3 opting out gives Heat cap flexibility they need to upgrade roster. If none opted out, no cap room.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) June 24, 2014
James is the exciting name to watch, but Heat fans would be wisest to monitor the activities of Bosh and Wade. Those two could offer the clearest indications of James' future.
"The basketball world is melting down with word that James is opting out," CBS Sports' Ken Berger observed, "but it's actually Bosh and, especially, Wade, who matter more if [Pat] Riley is going to keep this group together and give them enough to win more championships."
The smart money is on James to return to Miami. It sounds like, for now at least, the four-time MVP would agree with that assessment.
Heat fans won't be sleeping easily as long as James remains on the free-agent market. All things considered, though, the Heat at least have the luxury of entering this race from pole position.
Should Bosh, Wade and James all rework their deals with Miami, the potential payoff for the four-time Finalists could be substantial.
As detailed by Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, suddenly the Heat could be in the running for some impact players on the open market:
Players like Carmelo Anthony who can handle some of the playmaking and scoring load, especially when Wade's unavailable.
Players like Kyle Lowry who can pester Tony Parker or Chris Paul to spare James from having to do so.
Players like Marcin Gortat who provide a reliable outlet down low, to turn more of James' passes into easy baskets.
Players like Shaun Livingston or Trevor Ariza who can latch onto some of the more lethal wings, and save James from that responsibility on some possessions.
Players who can help Miami get back to dealing in the only currency that matters to James: championships.
The Heat should have the means to form a convincing argument for James to stay. They'll likely need one, as the King now has the chance to hold court with other clubs and see if a better option may exist for him elsewhere:
LBJ opt out only maximizes his leverage. Still likely he returns to Heat, but it gives LA teams, Bulls, Phil a chance 2 get in front of him.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) June 24, 2014
At the very least, those are conversations worth having.
"James' goal...is to win championships, and free agency gives him a chance to see what team can offer him the best chance," USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt wrote. "James has not set up any meetings with teams but is expected to do so once teams can begin talking to free agents on July 1."
So which teams will James be speaking with? While it's tempting to say all 30—even those with Lloyd Christmas' odds should be making calls—a collection of clubs have started on their recruiting pitches to James.
According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst, the Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers have begun exploring ways to acquire both James and fellow free-agent forward Carmelo Anthony. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com said the Los Angeles Clippers plan to pursue James and Anthony, while Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote the Houston Rockets are "preparing to make an all-out push to land James."
The Chicago Bulls are expected "to get involved" in the James pursuit, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported. ESPN's Chad Ford said during an appearance on ESPN LA 710 AM Wednesday (via Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group), that the Golden State Warriors are still pursuing Kevin Love with the hope of using him and Stephen Curry to lure James to the Bay.
If James seeks out a new address, he won't have a shortage of potential landing spots. The Heat still seem most likely to retain his services, but he has a number of compelling options worth exploring.
James owes it to himself to hear those recruiting pitches.
With championships holding such a tremendous weight in his lasting legacy, he needs to find a realistic route back to the Finals. That probably still exists in South Florida, but he needs to see what else is available to him.
Which team will LeBron James play for next season?
Opting out created options not only for the Heat, but also for James himself. He said he wanted to have this type of power over his future.
"Being able to have flexibility as a professional, anyone, that's what we all would like," he told reporters. "That's in any sport, for a football player, a baseball player, a basketball player, to have flexibility and be able to control your future or your present. I have a position to be able to do that."
Again, this recruiting trail could eventually lead him to the same spot he's called home for the last four years.
If it does, that home will feature an upgraded core strengthened by the addition of one or more impact talents. If not, his next club could paint an even more favorable hardwood picture than the one he currently has.
Either way, his leverage would have been put to its best possible use.