By exercising the early termination option in his contract, four-time MVP and two-time NBA champion LeBron James is free to opt for a destination of his choosing once again. Re-upping with the Miami Heat—where LBJ won both of his titles with Pat Riley calling the shots—appears to be the most logical outcome.
But is it the best choice LeBron can make in terms of winning more rings?
Not surprisingly, the best player in basketball wants to sign a max deal, according to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. Few teams can offer James a max contract while simultaneously keeping the flexibility to put winning pieces around him.
Miami is an obvious suitor, since the only player on its roster right now is point guard Norris Cole. The Heat have money to spend, but they also face plenty of uncertainty by having to build a new roster from scratch.
The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, have established themselves as a legitimate dark-horse landing spot for his services.
“We are in good position,” Suns owner Robert Sarver said, per AZCentral Sports’ Bob Young. “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.”
James is sure to weigh any and all options available, but is Phoenix the best choice he can make from a basketball perspective?
After finishing dead last in the Western Conference during 2012-13, Phoenix flipped the script less than a year later.
General manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek built and managed a young, upstart roster that wound up winning 48 games—more than 2010-11 when two-time MVP Steve Nash was still running the show.
Hornacek established a winning culture that started with the play of his two point guards—Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Those All-Star-caliber talents led the way, and they’re just a part of the equation that could woo James to the desert.
“The Suns are positioned with the cap space and maneuverability to chase James and the co-star of his liking without yielding Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, James’ close friend, in the process,” AZ Central’s Paul Coro wrote. “That second star pursuit could be USA Basketball buddy [Carmelo] Anthony or fellow Miami free agent Chris Bosh in free agency.”
James and Bledsoe are both represented by the same agent, Rich Paul. LeBron has referred to the 24-year-old Kentucky product as his "lil bro," per his Instagram account.
The situation in Miami would entail re-signing the Big Three and surrounding them with a new crop of role players and veterans. Whereas Phoenix allows James to join the Bledsoe/Dragic tandem as well as choose another star teammate.
As Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal told me, “Dragic, re-signing Bledsoe, keeping Plum (center Miles Plumlee) and giving him any teammate he desires who’s a free agent? That’s unbeatable.”
Again, the Suns won 48 games despite the fact that Bledsoe missed 39 contests due to injury. Add James to the fold—as well as another star: Melo, Bosh or even a different vet like Pau Gasol—and there’s zero reason the Suns couldn’t be serious title contenders. That’d be true even while playing in the loaded Western Conference.
The Suns’ pitch to James is simple. If he lands with Planet Orange, a supporting cast will be there to help build his legacy. The Larry O’Brien Trophy would be far less elusive.
Assuming that Bledsoe, James and another co-star sign long-term, financially lucrative deals, that core will be the organization’s focus for years to come.
In the short term, that includes Dragic, Gerald Green and the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus.
Down the line, the Suns have a plethora of youngsters on rookie deals: Plumlee, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis.
At the very least, management won’t have to scramble to find worthy role players because youth and upside is already on board creating a buffer.
Of course, that fails to mention the mystique of Phoenix’s incredible training staff.
Head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson kept Nash healthy well into his 30s. A perfect storm of circumstances—a small fracture of his left leg and nerve root irritation in his back leading to hamstring issues—have since derailed his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Other guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Michael Redd experienced career resurgences in the Purple Palace, so the Santa Clara product isn't an isolated case study.
LeBron will turn 30 years old later this year (on December 30). The appeal of playing for an organization with a history of keeping veterans in playing shape is an underrated factor working in Phoenix’s favor.
Aging gracefully isn’t the norm for NBA players. Nevertheless, after years of suffering through a slew of injuries, Hill had a very successful five-year stint with the Suns. His tenure included three seasons playing at least 80 regular-season games beyond age 35.
James has always been a durable player. The Suns can all but guarantee he stays that way.
Sarver noted the depth of the Suns’ roster as a net positive. Unlike the 2013-14 Heat—a team that couldn’t even attempt to rely upon guys like Michael Beasley and Greg Oden—the Suns can go deep into their bench.
Markieff Morris established himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season.
His twin brother, Marcus, scored in double digits 42 times despite only starting one game.
Green was stellar as a starter filling in for Bledsoe and as a bench player providing an offensive spark.
Goodwin capped his rookie campaign with a career-high, 29-point outburst during Game 82; even Ish Smith raised some eyebrows for his hustle in limited minutes.
LeBron doesn’t want to end his career having won two titles. If he makes the tough decision to change locales for the second time during his illustrious career, Phoenix would offer him plenty of assistance getting back to the Association’s zenith.
A factor that is often ignored when discussing the future of free agents is family. Because these stars are in a business built to entertain the masses, humanizing them can be difficult.
Take, for instance, the decision made by former free-agent guard Darren Collison. He had a solid year with the Los Angeles Clippers—and head coach Doc Rivers wanted him back, according to the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner—but he opted for a lucrative three-year deal with the Sacramento Kings.
Collison and his wife had their 1st child last year -- right time for stability (relative, of course) for him and his family.— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) July 3, 2014
James lives in a South Beach mansion with his wife and two sons. He still owns a home in Ohio. You may recall his wife, Savannah, caused a stir with an Akron-related Instagram post not long ago.
Does Phoenix give James his best shot at a title in 2015?
The question is: Would LBJ consider moving yet again?
Regardless of whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” Phoenix still provides James the best title shot.
Joining a solid supporting cast, a close friend in Bledsoe and having the opportunity to court another piece to the puzzle is, as Fromal said, “unbeatable.”
Suns fans should still temper their expectations and consider this a long shot, but a James-Phoenix pairing makes a lot of sense.
LeBron’s legacy is tied—fairly or unfairly—to the amount of rings he acquires before calling it quits. As far as the 2014-15 season is concerned, Phoenix offers his best shot at adding trophy No. 3.