Free agency is about one man in Miami. All three members of the Heat's superstar guild opted out of their contracts and hit the open market, but what unfolds from here on isn't about them. It isn't about Bosh and Wade.
It's about James, his unparalleled talents and keeping them with the Heat.
They will go to great lengths if it means he'll stick around. Per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, they're already taking exceptional measures to ensure his foray into free agency is less an adventure than obligatory pit stop:
As they chase free agents to join with their superstars, the Miami Heat are telling free agents they expect to have as much as $12 million in salary-cap space after hopefully getting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to re-sign, sources told ESPN.com.
With James demanding a maximum contract starting around $20.7 million, this indicates that Wade and Bosh are possibly willing to take drastic pay cuts to help the Heat add talent to the roster.
Neither Bosh nor Wade will be accepting a pay cut for their own benefit, assuming they even take one. Players don't willingly diminish their market value unless it's out of necessity.
Pay cuts are often taken in righteous attempts to win. That's how it was in 2010, when the Big Three's formation was on the line. The terrific trio signed for (slightly) less so they could win, and win together.
This process is nearly identical, save for one glaring difference: James is the Heat's championship lifeline. Everything they do, everything Bosh and Wade do, is about keeping him.
Writing on the Wall
James' importance only becomes more evident with every cent Bosh and Wade forfeit.
If they're sacrificing an inconsequential amount that doesn't enhance Pat Riley's flexibility, it doesn't bode well for James' future in Miami. Not after he issued a finespun improve-now-or-I'm-bouncing edict following Miami's NBA Finals collapse.
"Because every team in the NBA continues to get better every year, and we need to get better as well," he said, via Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "We have some holes that need to be filled."
Holes that John Canzano of The Oregonian suggests Bosh and Wade are ready to help fill through unprecedented financial concessions:
Those amounts were almost instantly refuted, first by Skolnick:
Then by NBA.com's David Aldridge:
The debunking of that rumor was inevitable. There's taking a pay cut and then there's whatever this would be. Bosh and Wade would be sacrificing close to $10 million annually, maybe more. That degree of sacrifice never happens, and it won't happen here.
Some cash will be surrendered, make no mistake. According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Big Three have given Riley some financial flexibility:
The Heat's free agents – James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem – have the framework of deals in place to remain with Miami, arming Riley with his limitations within the salary cap to sign talent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
"Everybody has their [contract] number and has left a little bit of room to let [Riley] maneuver," one source briefed on the contract discussions told Yahoo Sports.
One can only assume how much Bosh and Wade are leaving on the table, but it figures to be, at the very least, a semi-significant amount. With James seeking a max contract of his own, it has to be.
That's an understated part of all this: James' max contract. He most definitely deserves one. But if he refuses to take a pay cut, it demands that Bosh and Wade embrace even bigger ones.
This isn't news to either of them. The Big Three met to discuss their future ahead of free agency, according to Windhorst. There's every reason to believe Bosh and Wade were fully aware of James' offseason intentions before anyone else.
And you know what? They're still here, in the thick of it all, consistently linked to one team and one team only. They aren't running, and neither is James. He isn't even attending free-agency meetings:
Would this be the case if James was seriously considering other options? Would Wade and Bosh have opted out if they weren't willing to sign at a discounted rate, when they know James has no desire to do the same?
There is a plan in place—one that has Bosh and Wade doing everything possible to keep their superstar comrade, their championship anchor, in Miami.
The Extent of Group Sacrifice
Although the bar of compromise has clearly been set, we, again, aren't privy to where it actually sits.
Unless Bosh and Wade hold a press conference stating their intent to make under $12 million next season, previous projects are to be met with heavy skepticism and a certain level of rejection. But there could also be some truth to the theory, though the actual number may be different.
Signing either one of those players remains a long shot. Gasol is still pushing for $10-12 million per season, according to Wojnarowski, and ESPN.com's Marc Stein says the Toronto Raptors are prepared to dangle $12 million annually over the next five years if that's what it takes to keep Lowry.
Meeting Gasol's purported demands or matching Toronto's (insanely) generous offer for Lowry would mean steep pay cuts for Wade and Bosh, similar to the ones that were reported and subsequently squashed.
That the Heat are even looking at and talking to big names implies they're armed with cap space. Whether it's $12 million, more or less we don't know. But their shopping list indicates that it's close, or that the Heat are simply doing their due diligence, checking under every rock, analyzing every grain of sand, surveying the entire free-agency landscape just in case.
Whatever their price range is, it won't allow them to sign another star. Dreams of landing Carmelo Anthony and forging a Big Four are basically dead.
Incorporating someone like Anthony into the Heat's salary-cap picture would—as yours truly and Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster previously outlined—force the Big Three to accept starting salaries right around $14 million.
Convincing Wade and Bosh to sign at that rate is difficult, if not impossible. Persuading James to take so little is actually impossible—provided his max-contract hunger isn't being exaggerated. And if he signed at the max, Wade and Bosh would have to take even less than $10-12 million annually to make room for an Anthony, Lowry or Gasol.
Significant upgrades will come at an equally high price, though. Good players must be paid accordingly. If the star-packed Heat want good players while paying their best player top dollar, the other two members of a famed troika must willingly curb their earning potential to some substantial degree.
No one quite knows what Bosh and Wade will do.
Free agency has become a fluid situation for them, and the Heat in general, as the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman reminds us:
Q: Ira, do the Big Three each have a few different contract permutations in place, dependent upon who Pat Riley is able to land? -- Jason.
A: Absolutely. And they have to, for this reason: Too much in free agency is fluid to say you need "X" amount of money to close any particular deal or deals. Plus, the league is very, very careful when it comes to collusion. And the last thing you want to advertise is that you have prearranged deals already in place.
Salaries and pay cuts will be determined by whom the Heat can get, by whom Riley can deliver. No clear picture can be painted until the significance of potential additions is completely understood.
Only then will we know how much less Bosh and Wade are taking—because they are going to take less. Bosh himself is already planning on it.
Wade must be, too. It's the one and only way for the Heat to retain and pay James and surround him with the talent he needs yet sorely lacked for the last two years.
"There is a conversation that will be had between the three of us—I think that's only right," James said in June, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. "We've earned that for each other. I don't know what Dwyane right now is thinking. I don't know what Chris is thinking right now."
He knows what they're thinking by now. So do the rest of us, to an extent.
Bosh and Wade are going to take less. How much less? That we don't know. But they're going to take less in the name of winning.
They're going to take less for more of James.
*Salary information via ShamSports.