Four years, four NBA Finals appearances and two championships later, you would think some kind of loyalty existed. The Heat need James far more than he needs them this time around, but the two parties are on the brink of forging a dynasty together. Some sort of synergy should subsist.
If even half the exponentially growing list of rumors are true, the alliance between player and team is infirm and slightly discordant.
Optimism initially reigned supreme when James opted out of his contract. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade followed suit because it granted Heat president Pat Riley unprecedented flexibility. It was only a matter of time before they all re-signed at a discount and their returns were accompanied by at least one other significant addition.
Plans have soured in recent days. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski brought word of a "disconnect" between James and his superstar brethren. There's even reason to believe James is done waiting around for Riley to make something out of nothing:
Partially lost in all this is the tragic irony behind the recent turn of events. James is supposedly keeping the world in limbo for the Heat's benefit, yet it's his temporizing indecision and recondite agenda that's making it damn near impossible for Riley to give him what he wants.
"Because every team in the NBA continues to get better every year, and we need to get better as well," James said on the heels of Miami's Finals collapse, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "We have some holes that need to be filled."
Somehow, in his purported attempt to foster stability, James has created the biggest void of all.
Truly Threatening Uncertainty
All of this is to say James' uncertainty is very real. Perhaps it's an elaborate smokescreen, but if it is, it's a dangerous one.
Recent reports have James entertaining a return to Cleveland. According to Wojnarowski, James' agent, Rich Paul, is urging the King to reclaim his previous throne. Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio says that's a legitimate possibility:
James is journeying into parlous territory here. This could be his agent pushing his own ulterior motives, but we can't bank on that. Not when it comes to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The four-time MVP has always been a freethinker. He risked his legacy to play for the Heat when others would have explored safer routes. He won't be swayed by the wants and desires of someone else.
After the fiasco in 2010, James is smart enough to know the damage flirting with Cleveland will inflict.
Giving the Cavs false hope only to reveal his interest as a facade aimed at increasing the urgency behind Riley's already-urgent actions would be a brainless move. If his camp says he's considering the Cavs, then he's actually considering them.
And it's this consideration that has left the Heat tottering somewhere between vulnerable and desperate.
This extensive process is creating counterproductive ripple effects all over, starting in Miami, with the Big Three themselves.
Wade isn't going anywhere. He may wind up lamenting the $42 million he left on the table by opting out, but he isn't leaving the Heat.
Bosh is a different story. In the face of James' personal irresolution, he's become a flight risk—a key piece to this puzzle who may wind up chasing dollar signs elsewhere, as CBS Sports' Ken Berger says:
Thus, with James waiting for Heat president Pat Riley to revamp the roster and with Dwyane Wade leaving $42 million on the table at age 32, Bosh is the member of the Big Three most likely to break away.
Multiple league sources say there will be a close-to-max market for Bosh if Anthony and James stay with their respective teams. One of those people, an executive with a rival team, said the growing belief around the league is that Bosh would prefer a four-year max deal with another team to a discounted longer deal with Miami.
That stance has picked up steam, courtesy of the Houston Rockets:
To wit: James' current state, whatever it is, continues to rattle the Heat at the most fundamental level.
Keeping Bosh should be easy. A source told Wojnarowski he would re-sign with them in an instant if James remained in Miami. All James has to do is inform Bosh he plans on staying and that can be that.
Clearly this hasn't happened. Bosh wouldn't be exploring other options if it had. He's been the ideal solider through and through, candidly professing his allegiance to the Heat and his superstar associates.
"I love working here," Bosh said at season's end, per Skolnick. "If you love your job, that's what is most important. And we're competing. We have a chance every year."
Why would the fiercely unswerving Bosh—who has been chillaxing with elephants when he could be plotting his escape route—start tacitly backtracking on his words and perusing other options?
Without him, there's almost no point in Bosh staying with the Heat. He and Wade won't make for a championship core. There's no benefit to prematurely re-signing. James could still leave.
That holds doubly true if Bosh decides to leave first. There's less of an incentive for James to stay if Bosh hits the pavement.
And for those who want him to operate on good faith, it's more complicated than that. Let's say James remains with the Heat. What will his contract look like?
Bosh needs to know. Salaries will matter. More importantly, he needs to know if James has negotiated a conveniently timed ripcord or something—an opt-out or early termination clause that allows him to re-enter free agency whenever he pleases.
Whatever James does, the circumstances of his return or departure will shape Bosh's decision. Rather than wait to see if his patience will be rewarded, Bosh is becoming more proactive, threatening to muddle the most basic part of Miami's tortuously complicated plan.
Waning Outside Interest
The outlook is even worse on the open market.
At least the Heat understand what they're up against with Bosh. Riley's job has become a whole lot harder outside the Big Three as he attempts to sell relevant role players on relocating to Miami on a beggar's dime.
Selling players on pay cuts is difficult work in itself. Pitching them on tapered earning potential when you cannot say with absolute certainty what they're joining makes for a challenging, oft-futile procedure.
Consider what Wojnarowski points out here:
Riley has been recruiting free agents to join Miami, but has been limited in salary cap space to make competitive offers and limited in the ability to promise players they'll get to play with James.
"LeBron is the ultimate recruiter, but he hasn't been any part of this process," a league source tied to the Heat's recruiting efforts told Yahoo Sports. "The first question they all ask is the same: 'Do I get to hear from LeBron? What's he going to do?'"
Until the Heat know what James is going to do, until they know how much money they have to offer, they're in a holding pattern. They're limited to make marginal improvements, like that of signing Josh McRoberts, as Marc Stein of ESPN.com reports:
Or the fading Danny Granger:
All those prominent targets they're hoping to seduce are unrealistic pipe dreams if they cannot deliver an unconditional mission statement.
Meeting with Luol Deng? Pointless.
Chasing down free agents like Steve Blake, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Marvin Williams, Trevor Ariza, DeJuan Blair and Channing Frye as the Sporting News' Sean Deveney says they are? Empty ventures.
Securing a sit-down with anyone and everyone who's available? Inconsequential move.
Free agents won't commit to the Heat without prior assurances of James' return, which they don't have. And James won't re-sign without the guarantee of support, which they can't offer. The Heat can't even hand out substantial contracts themselves until they know what he's doing, and right now they appear to know very little.
Less than they were ever supposed to.
The Bitterness of Indecision
For the Heat, it kills.
Some don't believe it does. Some believe they have the luxury of time. Some believe the basketball world revolves around James to the point of related patience, like CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel alleges:
Look around at the free agent market. It's stagnant. Almost nothing is happening, and why? Because teams want to sign LeBron. Players want to play with LeBron. And until LeBron makes up his mind, almost anybody with even the faintest hope of signing LeBron or playing with LeBron will sit and wait.
This is right and it's wrong.
Other free agents are signing at an alarming rate, but they're not waiting around either. Not anymore.
Most of these targets were long shots to begin with. But now they're not even options. Soon enough, Ariza and Deng and Williams and Marion and everyone else the Heat are trying to sign will follow suit.
What will they be left with then? A splintered version of the team they want and need. That's what they're already tracking toward with modest additions like Granger and McRoberts.
Maybe Bosh and James stick around; maybe they don't. Regardless, they won't head into next season armed with the depth they sought and the supporting cast they need—all because James' supposedly good-natured procrastination turned destructive.
*Salary information via ShamSports.