It's probably more accurate to say the Heat can retain LBJ if they employ a sales strategy featuring equal parts logical entreaty, solemn promise and desperate plea.
That's because James, right now, can't be encouraged by the future prospects of his team. Not only that, but the sting of an NBA Finals defeat (and a handy one at that) is still fresh. One of the last enduring quotes we got from James before he went off the grid post-Finals was this, per Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald: "Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It's just how the league works."
James wasn't angry when he said that. And it wasn't a demand, per se.
But it was a strong hint to president Pat Riley and Miami management that things need to change for the better—and fast.
There it is—the key to everything.
Before diving into exactly how the Heat can give their megastar what he wants, we have to make a huge assumption. We have to proceed as if James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all going to exercise their early termination options, take pay cuts and return to the Heat as a cheaper core.
There's no guarantee that will happen, but Bosh has said he'd take less money to stay. And James seems likely to do the same because he makes enough cash off the court to forgo a few million bucks in salary. Plus, he understands that a legacy of winning matters more for him than collecting checks.
Wade is the wild card because he knows he can't recoup what he'd give up by opting out. He's set to make around $41 million over the balance of his current deal, and it seems highly unlikely he'll collect that much in any new or renegotiated contract.
Nothing assures those opt-out precursors will take place, but they must for the Heat to present James with their very best sales pitch.
From there, Miami should make its case in three phases.
Phase 1: Learning From Mistakes
The Heat must convince James that this latest Finals defeat taught them an important lesson: They've been riding James too hard, putting too much on his shoulders.
Between the regular season and playoffs, LeBron has played nearly 15,000 minutes since joining the Heat in 2010, per Basketball-Reference.com, more than any other player during that span. Only Kevin Durant comes close.
Even for a player with the otherworldly physical gifts James possesses, that's not a sustainable strategy. Unfortunately for Miami, it was a necessary one this past season because Wade missed 28 games, the bench generally played poorly and nobody else could hold the Heat together.
Just look at the effect James had on Miami's numbers last season:
|LeBron James' On/Off Splits|
Miami got a firsthand look at the benefits of a more conservative regular-season approach when it faced the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals. The new (old) champs looked completely fresh when it mattered most because they spent the entire regular season limiting the minutes of their key players.
Nobody on San Antonio averaged more than 30 minutes per game in 2013-14.
Emulating the Spurs is never a bad idea, but in this particular area, the Heat could do themselves a huge favor by copying their biggest rival. Miami must convince James he won't be asked to carry the load alone in the future, and it might be a tough sell with Wade likely to miss plenty of games going forward.
We just saw how Miami's productivity took a nose dive when James wasn't on the floor, so how can the Heat promise both a lighter load and future success at the same time?
Glad you asked.
Phase 2: Promise Help
San Antonio could take such a conservative approach with its stars last year because its bench was fantastic. Conversely, the Heat's reserves offered only sporadic help during the year before wilting in the postseason.
Chris Andersen aged five years in a week, Mario Chalmers couldn't hit a shot and Shane Battier actually retired sometime in November—though he didn't make it official until finishing the season.
You can toss Wade into the M.I.A. in MIA mix as well. He was useless as the Finals progressed.
This is where the Big Three's willingness to restructure their salaries comes into play. If we assume James, Wade and Bosh are willing to play for something like $10 million apiece next season, that would free up about $30 million the Heat could redirect toward supporting players.
Maybe Miami convinces Udonis Haslem to retire by offering him a cushy front-office gig. Perhaps Norris Cole departs in a trade.
Whatever it takes, the Heat need to free up cash for a run at some help. And they need to make it clear to James that they'll try.
If Miami strips down its salary commitments, it can sell James on the addition of a free-agent star. Perhaps you've heard: Carmelo Anthony is available.
Failing that, the Heat can get to work on guys like Pau Gasol, Luol Deng, Shaun Livingston or Kyle Lowry. Options abound, and with tons of money available, Miami could target a handful of veterans looking to take below-market deals to chase a ring.
We've seen the Heat have plenty of success with that approach in the past, and if the Big Three are all locked in, there's no reason to believe Miami wouldn't remain an attractive destination for ring-hungry 30-somethings.
Whether utilizing the mid-level exception, veteran's minimums or newly created cap space, the Heat absolutely must convince James he won't be flying solo out there.
Phase 3: Reality Check
The only thing last season definitively proved was that the Heat couldn't beat a historically great Spurs team.
San Antonio set records for its margin of victory and field-goal percentage in the Finals, somehow managing to play brilliantly after surviving the brutal march through one of the toughest conference schedules in memory.
It's never wise to bet on a Spurs decline, but it's probably fair to assume they won't be dominant at an all-time level again. They'll still be terrific, but maybe they won't be quite as great as they were last season.
The Heat can sell James on the idea that they would have beaten the other candidates that might have emerged from the West. And they can definitely make some headway by pointing out how comically soft the East will continue to be in the future.
Miami has made four consecutive trips to the Finals, and even if it didn't make any improvements to the roster at all, a fifth in 2014-15 seems like a foregone conclusion. The Heat have been a legitimate title contender throughout James' time in South Beach, and there's no reason to believe that will change.
The East will continue to be a pushover.
To drive the point home, Miami can point out that if James were to join a team in the West, he'd be subjecting himself to a much tougher road to the title round. And if he were to join up with another squad in the East, it's hard to imagine he'd have a better shot at a ring than he'd have with the Heat.
If LeBron wants the easiest path to a ring, Miami is still the place for him.
And that's all that really matters, isn't it?
Look, James is probably still disappointed about the way last season ended, which might make it tough to get him to step back and look at the full picture.
The Heat need to retool their roster, but they have the means to do that rather easily. With the current core intact and more help coming in free agency, Miami will remain—easily—the class of the Eastern Conference.
That's what Miami must pitch to James as he contemplates his options.
Hopefully, for the Heat's sake, he's willing to listen.