As the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James was always going to have free-agent options.
But with the Miami heat suddenly in a position to give him everything he wants, it's looking more and more like he'll realize the best one is staying exactly where he is.
Help on the Way
"The whole league continues to get better every single year,” James said after Miami's NBA Finals defeat, per Joseph Goodwin of the Miami Herald. “Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It's just how the league works."
The Heat haven't outfitted the roster with a new supporting cast—or anyone, actually. With the Big Three opting out, Miami's list of players under contract is ridiculously short, but said triple opt-out means reconstruction can begin in earnest right away.
Point guard Shabazz Napier, a favorite of James' based on this flattering tweet, is already in place after the Heat traded up in the draft to get him. And depending on the extent to which LBJ, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are willing to reduce their salaries going forward, the Heat will be able to chase down a superstar and/or a handful of solid vets who'll want to get in on the ring-chasing action.
If Wade and James are willing to accept reductions in pay as well, the Heat potentially would be able to open a salary slot to add another player. The team is known to be interested in Toronto Raptors free agent point guard Kyle Lowry.
James could certainly seek out the help he wants by leaving the Heat, but it looks like there's going to be plenty of it coming right to him.
OK, this is where things get a little strange.
James has never been the highest-paid player on his team—not with the Cleveland Cavaliers and not with the Heat. If he'd like to rectify that, Miami can max him out this summer.
According to one report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, that's an avenue James might pursue:
While Bosh, Wade and Haslem could ultimately take less money with the early termination outs in their deals, James, the NBA's four-time MVP, is seeking a full maximum contract extension—or something close to it—to stay with Miami, sources told Yahoo Sports.
James is eligible to sign a five-year, $130 million extension with the Heat.
It's hard to see how signing a huge contract extension squares with James' plea for an improved supporting cast. Obviously, on merit, he deserves far more than the current max allowed by the league's collective bargaining agreement.
But the CBA and the salary cap it imposes mean the Heat have a finite amount of money to spend; dumping it all on James would be fair from an objective standpoint, but it wouldn't be smart from a team-building perspective.
Ultimately, James seems too intelligent and too focused on winning rings to demand max money. Getting paid like that doesn't serve his other goals.
But the money's there if he wants it, and you can bet the Heat will pay him if James forces the issue.
The Ring's the Thing
The potential to improve the roster enables Miami to impress James in a different, ultimately more important way: It can offer him a chance to continue his streak of four straight Finals appearances—at the very least.
At this point in his career, James is only interested in championships, and adding someone like Kyle Lowry, Pau Gasol, Luol Deng or even Carmelo Anthony would get him significantly closer to ring No. 3.
Miami still plays in the East, where competition remains a step below Miami's current level. Strengthening a core that has owned the conference ever since James arrived in South Beach would mean an even easier path to the NBA Finals.
Miami reached the Finals this past season with no bench and Wade on the sidelines for 28 regular-season games. Then, it fell to a historically great San Antonio Spurs team that would have beaten just about anybody. A few minor tweaks to the Heat roster will likely mean an uncontested run back to the Finals and, critically, a much better shot at finishing the drill once they get there.
James can walk away from the Heat if he wants, though it would be a pretty harsh move to make after his star teammates gave up guaranteed money to facilitate his happiness. And you can be sure that if free-agent negotiations with, say, the Houston Rockets or Bulls get past mere flirtation, those teams will also move heaven and earth to give James exactly what he wants.
But LeBron has been to four consecutive Finals with Miami, and if it follows the path it's on to completion this summer, it looks like a certainty he'll get there a fifth consecutive time in 2015.
With everything he wants—a better supporting cast, more money and the chance to chase rings—lined up and waiting for him at home, there's no real reason for James to go anyplace else.
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