Sets upon sets upon sets of eyes are fixated on LeBron James as he gears up for free agency, when, really, more looks should be directed toward Dwyane Wade, who will be the difference between the Miami Heat's Big Three disbanding and remaining intact.
Pressure is mounting in Miami, where a dynasty formation is no longer a formality. James' decision to explore free agency has spawned a delicate situation, one that accentuates his importance and the Heat's inability to survive without him.
Some view him testing free agency as a good thing. Opting out after demanding the Heat improve next season suggests that he's willing to make sacrifices, that he'll stay for less if Miami promises him more.
Indeed, this could be a good thing—a great thing. The start of something bigger and better than 2010.
But only if Wade plays his part.
Avoiding That Kobe Deal...
Everything begins with the dollars and cents.
The Big Three combine to make more than $61 million in 2014-15 at their current rates, precluding the Heat from making any changes or additions worth noting when chained to a $63.2 million salary cap. Yet, at the same time, this hasn't stopped Miami from dreaming big.
Bigger than 2010.
Pricey role players like Kyle Lowry and Trevor Ariza have been mentioned, but they're easily dwarfed by the Heat's ties to Carmelo Anthony, who ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst believe will be courted by team president Pat Riley.
Overly ambitious doesn't even begin to describe that vision. Not even Riley, builder of superteams and seller of sky-dwelling castles, could shirk the obvious when asked about it. He called it a "pipe dream," according to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, before adding, "But everybody thought 2010 was a pipe dream, too."
That landing a fourth superstar is even up for discussion attests to the disquiet enveloping Miami. If the Heat are even entertaining such a lucrative pursuit, they must believe James needs more than a practiced smile, firm handshake and theoretical promise to return. And if they believe that, they must in turn believe that they can do it. That Wade is willing to do it.
Making any significant additions starts with Wade and Bosh following James' lead. Skolnick implies that won't be a problem. Both stars are expected to opt out of their current deals.
Reaching free agency is the easy part, though. Substantial pay cuts need to be distributed across the board if the Heat are thinking Anthony—or even if they're thinking Lowry.
Food for your noggin: If the Heat were to sign Anthony and pay each member of the Big Four equally, starting salaries would check in at $14.1 million. The down-and-dirty math is here if you're interested, but that's the number ol' Riles and his superstars are working with if they want to make a serious splash.
Individual salaries can go up if the Heat chase lower-profile free agents, but that's the general idea: The Big Three need to take pay cuts.
Flash is the key. He has to opt out of his contract, and he has to take a pay cut. He's owed nearly $42 million over the next two years. If he doesn't walk away from that coin, the Heat enter the offseason—regardless of whether Bosh opts out—with their hands bound, mouths gagged and, more importantly, wallets clamped.
To wit: If Wade were to make the $20.2(ish) million he's slated to earn next season, it leaves $12.1 million apiece for Bosh, James and Anthony. Again, Melo isn't the standard here. This just gives you an idea of why every member of the Big Three must take less.
And we're focusing on Wade because he's the one who's most likely to avoid opting out. He's not the same player he was, so $40-plus million is a lot. Not to mention he told ESPN.com's Michael Wallace that he feels no obligation to sacrifice anything else:
Obviously, you don't have to do anything. From the standpoint of us even coming together, it wasn't anything I had to do. It's what I wanted to do. And will never feel like I have to do this. We all think I worked very hard over my career to earn what I've earned and put myself in that position. So I will never feel like I have to take less after this, or have to do this. It's not my job. It's the job of others around to figure out how to make it work. If I want to be a part of that, then I'll be a part of that. But if I don't, I won't. It's simple as that. I don't feel that pressure at all.
Hopefully, for the Heat's sake, he's starting to feel the pressure a little bit. They cannot make legitimate improvements unless he makes more concessions—signing a three- or four-year deal at a discount, for instance. And without legitimate improvements, they run the risk of losing the NBA's most indispensable player.
"D-Wade is getting that Kobe deal," James said of Wade's next contract in December, per Windhorst.
Only he's not.
...And Accepting Reality
Technically, Wade could sign that Kobe deal. He's spent his entire career in Miami and has helped the Heat win three championships. Riley could offer him an above-market contract as a token of appreciation.
That, admittedly, would be even worse than Wade opting in. Overpaying him for the next two years is one thing; lining his pockets with too much cash over the next four is another.
See, for Wade, his "Kobe deal" is opting in, earning money he's contractually owed and maintaining the status quo in Miami. That's not good enough for James.
If James wanted to move forward with the Heat as currently constructed, he wouldn't have opted out. He would have opted in, played through next season and evaluated his options then. He opted out now instead, delivering a wordless message, as Fox Sports' Bill Reiter argued:
There are many moving parts in this drama, but LeBron has clearly defined the most critical of them by opting out and making himself an unrestricted free agent. Wade now knows making a sacrifice would buy him four more years with LeBron. And he probably suspects – as many of us do – that not making that sacrifice could end LeBron’s time in a Heat uniform.
LeBron James did not opt out of his contract to stay with a Heat team that’s unlikely to get much better because one of its Big Three chose the money.
Parts of Wade's decline have been exaggerated, and there's no doubt that he can still ball when healthy (career-high 54.5 percent shooting last season, anyone?). Problem is, he's never healthy.
Wade is someone who is guaranteed to miss at least 20, 25, 30 games per season at this point of his career. He's someone who will forever be on a regular-season maintenance program, forced to sit so that he can remain fresh for the playoffs.
Frequently resting Wade didn't work out well enough for the Heat this year. There were points of dominance in the playoffs, but he faded at the most inopportune time, against the San Antonio Spurs with Miami's three-peat on the line.
None of this is lost on James. He repeatedly voiced his frustration over Wade's lack of availability during the regular season.
"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," he said in January, via Wallace. "We've just got to be able to do a little bit more consistently, and go in with the mindset sometimes that he's not playing instead of [he is] playing."
Another year of that isn't going to get James or the Heat anywhere. Maybe they make it out of the Eastern Conference. Maybe they even put up a better fight in the Finals. Heck, maybe they even win a title on the tired back of James.
In the long term, though, this blueprint isn't sustainable. Riley knows it, James knows it and the ever-confident Wade has to know it, too.
Adapt or die. Wade must change his game and adjust his salary if the Heat wish to survive.
It's All on Wade...For a Change
Your turn, Flash.
What Wade gave up—status, money, etc.—to help facilitate the Big Three's formation has been touted to no end. He's been deserving of all that credit, all that praise. Without him putting his ego aside, the Heat as we know them don't exist.
Nearly four years have passed since his initial chivalry, though. Times have changed. Roles have changed.
It was James who needed Wade then. He needed Miami and the escape route it offered. He needed the chance to save his legacy and vault himself into the greatest of all time conversation.
But the tables have turned once again. James no longer needs Wade. Not in the same way Wade needs him.
Staying in Miami is better for his legacy. No player of James' status wants to be remembered as a championship mercenary, as a gun for hire. It's damaging and unbecoming.
Unless it winds up being worth it.
There are teams out there that offer James enough for him to leave if he wants to win. Joining Dwight Howard and James Harden with the Houston Rockets would be worth it. Accepting less to play with Anthony and Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers is worth it.
Taking his talents somewhere, anywhere he can play alongside multiple superstars will be worth it when the alternative is perpetuating a paling dynamic. Wade has the power to ensure it doesn't get that far.
"Just don't solely put it on me," Wade told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt of James' next decision. "That's what I'm saying. Don't put the X on me."
Too late. It's there, bigger, brighter, more distinct than ever.
Wade can't force James to stay, but by opting out and conceding the obvious, he can give him every reason not to leave. If he doesn't, and if James leaves as a result, there will be hell to pay.
Sets upon sets upon sets of eyes will shift their focus, turning to Wade, glaring at Wade, blaming Wade for the departure of a lifeline the Heat could have kept.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
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