Could LeBron James Actually Spurn Miami Heat in Free Agency?

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Could LeBron James Actually Spurn Miami Heat in Free Agency?
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It might not be panic time yet for the Miami Heat, but with no free agents headed to South Beach and LeBron James' apparent willingness to test the waters, it's at least a time of concern.

The four-time MVP is focused on adding to his championship jewelry collection, as any argument he has for greatest-of-all-time status might struggle to get off the ground with only a pair of titles to his name. He needs to envision a clear path to the podium, and Miami's virtually barren roster doesn't make that easy to do.

If the Heat cannot paint that picture for him, could he wind up seeking it out elsewhere? Absolutely.

As NBA.com's David Aldridge explained, the certainty with which the basketball world feels James will not be leaving Miami does not seem nearly as strong as it used to:

For weeks, the operating principle throughout the league was that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were acting in concert. Perhaps not literally, but certainly, each had an idea of what the other was planning to do. Why would Wade walk away from a guaranteed $41.5 million over the next couple of years if he didn't know James was returning to Miami? Why would Bosh indicate a willingness to take a pay cut if he wasn't certain he'd be playing with the other SuperFriends for the next few seasons?

Now, suddenly, we are told that Wade and Bosh have no idea what James is going to do, and that [James' agent Rich] Paul is lining up alternatives for his client. 

Everything seems up in the air—sort of.

According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein, James' agent has heard presentations from four different teams (Phoenix, Houston, Dallas and Cleveland) and will hear from a fifth (Lakers) on Friday:

The exact number of teams to secure face-to-face meetings with Cleveland-based agent Rich Paul was not immediately known, but sources told ESPN.com that the Phoenix SunsHouston RocketsDallas Mavericks and James' home state Cavaliers have had the opportunity to make presentations to Paul in recent days.

In addition, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was flying to Cleveland on Thursday night and was scheduled to meet with Paul on Friday, a source told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.

Not only are these suitors presenting their best pitches, they're also sending their strongest representatives out to deliver these messages. When the King is possibly in play, royal treatment is a must.

When Paul met with the Phoenix Suns, he spoke directly with owner Robert Sarver, ESPN's Chris Broussard reported:

The fact Sarver was present is hardly a surprise. He has been transparent about his team's chances in this race.

"We are in a good position," he said, via Bob Young of The Arizona Republic. "We have a lot to offer, too, with the depth of our roster compared to some of the other teams. We think we have a favorable opportunity, but obviously he'll make his decision when he wants to make it."

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Paul has surely been hearing similar words from the other heavy hitters he has met with. James is the definition of a home run signing, and these executives are treating him as such.

Granted, that's common practice in top-shelf free-agent pursuits. When the Dallas Mavericks hosted Carmelo Anthony on Wednesday, the meeting occurred at the home of owner Mark Cuban, a source told ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon and Stein.

Teams cannot afford to bring anything less than their best when they feel an elite talent is up for grabs. In that sense, there is nothing particularly special about what is transpiring in Cleveland.

There is, however, an important message to be read between the lines here.

Teams are treating this as a superstar sweepstakes. That would seem to indicate they feel there's at least a chance James could be pried out of South Florida.

Frankly, they have to act this way.

As long as clubs have a horse in this race, it does not matter what type of long-shot odds they face—they still have to run.

So, what type of odds are these wooers facing? Yes, James could leave the Heat, but would he actually do it?

Those are two entirely different questions. And the jury is still out on the latter.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports spoke with several executives on the matter, but the situation still seems as clear as mud:

Some executives believe there's an opportunity because of a disconnect between James and his teammates, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Another executive attending the meeting flatly said, "I think it's a smokescreen."

... "There's clearly a breakdown in communication between LeBron and [Wade and Bosh]," one executive who participated in the meetings over the past two days told Yahoo Sports. "[James is] giving Riley time to go get players for them but if that doesn't happen in the next few days ... LeBron seems ready to explore the market."

For those keeping score at home, James' availability is either an illusion or a reality. It all depends on whom you ask.

Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News has heard James, along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, will not be going anywhere:

Based on what ESPN's J.A. Adande has gathered, James will be back in Miami, perhaps with a short-term contract that affords him flexibility in the future:

As for James' current employers, they still feel good about their chances of keeping him around.

"The Heat fully expects James will re-sign," wrote Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald.

What needs to happen for the Heat to get James' signature on the dotted line? He wants to see some roster improvements, putting the ball in team president Pat Riley's court.

The mastermind behind the initial Big Three conglomerate, Riley could be facing an uphill climb in securing external assistance. With James' desire for a maximum contract, Riley might not have a ton of funds to throw around.

That's an issue considering how the market has generously treated lower-tier players so far, as SportsOnEarth.com's Shaun Powell pointed out:

The Heat have cast a wide net so far—targeting everyone from former All-Star big man Pau Gasol, per Wojnarowski, to three-point specialist Anthony Morrow, via Stein—but they are caught in a difficult balancing act.

James wants an upgraded supporting cast around him, but Miami could have a hard time landing impact players with the money it would have available should James, Bosh and Wade all re-sign.

Difficult and impossible are two different things, though. The Heat might be watching players like Marcin Gortat and Kyle Lowry slip away, but those might not have been the best investments to begin with.

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Miami needs depth, and the only way to acquire that is spreading money across several different players. That could take guys like Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng off the board, but it also potentially gives the Heat a chance to pull multiple players out of the bargain bin.

Does James need to see a marquee name added to the mix, or would he be happy with a handful of lesser-known support pieces? The answer to that question could go a long way toward deciding his next move.

Until he sounds off on the topic, the Heat must proceed with caution. James isn't out the door yet, but he seems to be gauging how green the grass really is in other parts of the basketball world.

 

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