Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are facing an unfamiliar predicament as the Miami Heat wait on pins and needles for LeBron James' free-agency decision: the possibility of playing alone as a Big Two, with the burden of anchoring an extensive rebuild falling solely on them.
They have played in James' shadow for four years. His polarizing persona and abilities have been the draw, the foundation on which all-encompassing culpability falls.
He has been their safety net.
If James leaves in free agency, everything changes. The Heat must move forward without him and, assuming Bosh and Wade stick around, they must hope his sidekicks are enough to spearhead a desperate transition.
But are they?
In the (unlikely) event that James actually leaves Miami, Wade's and Bosh's futures must be settled before the Heat can even begin looking ahead.
Wade will reach free agency, per the Associated Press' Tim Reynolds:
Dwyane Wade has opted out.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) June 28, 2014
Like team president Pat Riley said, though, his future in Miami is as ironclad as they come:
Riley on Wade: "We hope he remains a part of the Heat family for life."— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) June 28, 2014
Same goes for Bosh. His situation is a bit more fluid and his status technically undetermined, but it still appears he will explore free agency himself, according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard:
Source: Chris Bosh opts out of his contract . Seeking 5-year deal worth roughly $15-16 million per year— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) June 28, 2014
Before rebuilding around Bosh and Wade, they must both commit to returning first. Bosh projects as a bigger flight risk if James leaves, as ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) explained:
Nevertheless, his 22.1 WARP over the past three seasons ranks in the 93rd percentile among all players. Bosh would easily rate as the top free-agent big man in the marketplace if he opts out. And because he's honed his deep shooting during his days in Erik Spoelstra's offense, Bosh can slot in with just about any team in the league.
Increased interest in Bosh from outside parties would be an obstacle the Heat must overcome, but the floor-spacing big man has been nothing if not loyal to their cause.
"I don't want to go anywhere," Bosh said in May, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "I like it here. It's Miami. Everybody wants to come here. Yeah."
Miami—warm weather, sandy beaches and all—wouldn't be as appealing without James. But acknowledging that Bosh and Wade need plenty of support would be the first step in any attempt to reassemble the roster around them.
Riley and the Heat cannot hand both players max contracts paying them more than $40 million combined next season and hope to contend. Bosh has been relegated to a No. 3 option for the last four years and only made the playoffs twice in seven tries as the No. 1 option with the Toronto Raptors, while Wade is a lock to miss 20-plus games every season.
This is not a max superstar dyad. Current plans cannot change in the wake of James' departure. Flexibility is still paramount. Pay cuts still need to be taken.
Another superstar still needs to be had.
Mapping Out Plan B
James isn't going to leave for a rebuilding team himself. He would abandon the Heat to forge another superteam, be it in Los Angeles, Houston or somewhere else. Rivaling that team, duplicating their own, past blueprint, would remain the standard in Miami.
Options are still at their disposal here. Once Bosh and Wade opt out, following Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen's lead, Riley will have record amounts of cash to spend:
Chris Bosh plans opt out of contract, source tells ESPN. Dwyane Wade & Udonis Haslem also out per reports. Heat have record 55M cap space— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) June 28, 2014
As valuable without James? Not at all.
The Heat won't rebuild overnight, and they won't return to contender status next season if he leaves. That's something they'll have to accept and plan around.
There aren't enough free-agent alternatives for the Heat to spend on. Carmelo Anthony instantly becomes the hottest player available with James off the market, but he's not a suitable replacement. No one is, of course, but his less-than-modest playmaking abilities complicate an offense that will have, in essence, lost its starting point guard.
Courting Kyle Lowry is certainly a viable course of action. He just doesn't move the needle in the way actual superstars would. Signing him, chasing him, is only the start.
Planning ahead to 2015 is the meat and potatoes of any rebuild.
More superstars will be available next summer—needle-pushing studs like Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol, among others, who can help vault the Heat back into contention.
Pursuing any one of them demands sustained flexibility. The Heat would be unable to offer long-term deals to anyone outside Bosh and Wade, and perhaps another player. They need to conserve the cap space that has been created.
Part of that comprises Bosh and Wade still taking pay cuts.
If Bosh is looking for a starting salary in the $15-16 million range, as Broussard reported, that's wonderful for Miami. Paying him $15 million next season means he'll be earning just over $16 million in 2015-16, when he would presumably receive a 7.5 percent raise (unless the Heat renounce his Bird rights).
The length of the contract doesn't matter as much. Four years, five years—whatever. Retaining him on a reasonable salary is the key.
Wade's situation is more complicated. He left nearly $42 million on the table over the next two years by opting out. Cyclic health concerns diminish his market value considerably, but the Heat will have to make sure he earns more money over the life of his next contract.
Those hoping his new deal can span five years to abate his annual salary must move on. The collective bargaining agreement's "Over-36" rule prohibits teams from backloading contracts past a player's 36th birthday. It basically divvies up the fifth-year salary throughout the first four, thereby increasing the team's bottom line.
At 32, Wade's contract needs to span four years to guarantee financial plasticity. Starting him at $13.8 million in 2014-15 would be best for Miami, according to ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan (subscription required). With a 7.5 percent bump in 2015-16, he wouldn't be earning more than $14.8 million.
After re-signing them to those exact deals, the Heat would have only three players under guaranteed contracts beyond next season—Bosh, Wade and Shabazz Napier—totaling $32.2 million. A rough estimation this far in advance, yes, but one that still matters.
Using those projected 2015-16 numbers, the Heat can build their roster for 2014-15 accordingly, signing stopgaps and placeholders and impact free agents whose future salaries won't compromise their superstar spending power one year from now.
Different Kind of Rebuild
All of this will take patience.
Landing James' "replacement" is paramount, but the Heat must wait. They won't nab him this summer. The free-agent pool isn't deep enough, and the Heat have no assets to trade, hence the difficulty.
Can the Heat rebuild around Bosh and Wade if LeBron leaves?
Convincing Wade and Bosh to accept drastic pay cuts when it means maintaining their current, championship-seeking, dynasty-bird-dogging lifestyle is one thing; selling them on sacrifices that won't pay dividends for one year is another.
But this is what the Heat must do if James leaves and they wish to move forward with Bosh and Wade. Role players won't be enough. Modest additions won't be enough. Not even a fringe-star like Lowry will be enough.
That, in itself, is revealing.
No matter what happens, the Heat won't be looking to build around Wade and Bosh. Not long term. Maybe Riley allows them to headline the roster for another season, but they're still not the ultimate solutions.
Just like the Heat need James now, they'll need another superstar to eventually take control of their future if he leaves. Wade and Bosh are still the sidekicks, the supporting dignitaries. Their days of quarterbacking rebuilds as No. 1 options ended in 2010. That won't change even if James leaves.
Luckily for the Heat, they needn't worry much about life after James just yet. Across-the-board opt outs can be seen as a blessing, a precursor to retooling the roster around Bosh, Wade and, more importantly, James, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes eloquently describes:
Nobody thought the Heat could pull such a complicated, risky plan together four years ago, but they did. And in executing that plan, they created a super team that visited the Finals in every season of its existence.
Now, Miami is effecting an even bolder gambit, and to the dismay of the rest of the league, it looks like it's going to work.
Nothing is etched in stone. It never is during this time of year.
James could still leave. It's unlikely, but it's possible. And on the off chance he does, Riley and the Heat will be forced to plan their future around another superstar, another building block they don't have yet.
Regardless of whether that future includes Bosh and Wade.
*Salary information via ShamSports.